Olympic athletes are captivating world audiences with their competition to see who can run the fastest and jump the highest. So while the Republic of China and the Commonwealth of Australia are racking up medals, I wonder about the "Kingdom of Animals." Consider:

Usain Bolt is the fastest human alive, holding the world record in the 100 meters at 9.58 seconds. That's a peak speed of 26 mph (42 kph).

If only he was as well-equipped as the cheetah! High-traction paws and claws, large nostrils and lungs, and powerful, springy bones all help the cheetah to cruise along at an amazing 72 mph (114 kph).

Even an ostrich can run faster than Bolt.

Or how about acclaimed swimmer Michael Phelps? In a race of 200 meters, a sailfish would blast through the water at 68 mph (108 kph) – finishing ahead of Phelps in about one-tenth the time.

A flea's jump requires acceleration 50 times greater than the space shuttle after liftoff.

Then there's the high jump, where Javier Sotomayor holds the world record at 2.45m (8 feet), slightly higher than Sotomayor's own height. Yet relative to body size, fleas jump 150 times their height – the equivalent of a human jumping about 1,000 feet. A flea's jump requires acceleration 50 times greater than the space shuttle after liftoff. (And for good measure, fleas can pull 160,000 times their own weight, the equivalent of a human pulling 24 million pounds.)

So all this has me thinking: The grit and determination of Olympic athletes – the years of training and dedication – is surely to be admired. But perhaps there is some other pursuit where humans are more uniquely qualified to excel where no other species can.

Hungry Wolf

First let's identify the point of distinction between humans and animals.

From a pure physiological perspective, they are quite similar. Baboon hearts have been transplanted into humans, and the grafting of pig skin is common treatment for human burn victims. Indeed, the Torah account of creation suggests a correlative process from simpler organisms to fish, birds, animals and, ultimately, man.

The singular distinction is described in Genesis 2:7, where God gives the first human being a soul, a spark of the Divine.

In short, animals are body; people are body and soul.

Thus a hungry wolf tears at its prey, without regard for other wolves that may be hungry, too. The needs of an animal's body operate unfettered.

A human, by contrast, is defined by the ability to choose a spiritual goal – charity, prayer, caring for the sick and elderly – often at cost to one's own financial and even bodily welfare.

In Jewish consciousness, the true test of human heroics is when the body is pulling us in a negative direction, and we conquer that urge through the force of our spiritual will. As the Talmud says: "Who is the strong person? The one who conquers his desires" (Avot 4:2).

Human Dignity

When life presents us with difficulties, will we rise or falter? When resources are scarce, do we slip into a jungle mentality, or do we become wiser and more compassionate?

A story from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp illustrates the unique tension between body and soul. At the conclusion of the nightly meal – a scrap of stale bread, filthy watery soup and a small pat of margarine – the Nazi commander would toss the empty margarine tub into the center of the room, inviting the starving prisoners to fight for the remaining drops. The sight provided nightly entertainment for the sadistic commander and his guards.

Elijah was steadfast in preserving his human dignity.

One prisoner named Elijah, however, refused to take part in the commander's show. Though his body was withered and frail, he was steadfast in preserving his human dignity, and the others drew strength from his refusal to join the frenzy.

Then, one cold wintry night, Elijah cracked. He suddenly threw himself toward the greasy vat and furiously rolled around like a crazed beast. The satanic commander howled with delight. The last of the Jews had been broken.

Later, after the guards had left, Elijah began to pluck threads out of his jacket. He then sat down on the floor to carve a hole in his one, precious potato.

The others looked on in silence. Elijah had gone mad.

Then they watched as Elijah carefully placed the margarine into the potato, and inserted the threads which he had nimbly twisted into a wick.

At that moment Elijah looked at the others calmly and said, "Now it is time to light the Chanukah candles."

Spiritual Olympics

A key to success in the spiritual Olympics is the recognition that God sends us challenges, tailor-made for our specific set of circumstances and station in life. When the coach raises the high-jump bar, is he trying to make life difficult – or is he drawing out the athlete's potential? Of course the coach wants the athlete to succeed! And if he's a good coach, he knows the right time and amount to raise the bar. Granted, the athlete might fail to clear that height. But the coach knows that with enough concentration and effort, the athlete will succeed.

This concept underlies all of Jewish practice and thought. The very idea of mitzvot is they are actions which work against our physical nature, in order to build our spiritual muscles. There is no commandment to "breathe," because we're going to do it anyway. But since we may have a tendency to horde money, the Torah asks us to re-dispense 10 percent of our income to charity. If everyone gladly gave away money voluntarily, the Torah wouldn't need to tell us to do so. All the mitzvot direct our spiritual growth, building our weakness into strength.

As challenges arise, we strive to grow higher, and welcome these opportunities for even grander achievements of the soul.

So while we all enjoy seeing humans stretch the limits of achievement by running, jumping and swimming the farthest and fastest, let's try some spiritual exercise. Next time a challenge comes your way, stop and think: How can I use this to grow into a better human being? What would the Almighty want from me?

Olympic viewers got a taste of this in 2004 when Michael Phelps stepped aside and gave up his spot in the finals of the medley relay, to a teammate who had been disappointed in his own previous performances. Phelps gave up prime-time glory and a share in what turned out to be a new world record – in exchange for an act of kindness.

Flexing one's spiritual muscles – that's an Olympic champion. For after all, isn't that what we humans truly do best?

Originally published 2004; updated 2012