Faster, higher, stronger, holier

By Rabbi Batsheva Appel

The 2012 London Olympics starts this week. There is something engrossing about all of the athletes working to their highest possible level, trying to attain the Olympic ideal which is contained in the motto of citius, altius, fortius “faster, higher, stronger”.

The sense of dedication to this ideal pervades all areas of the lives of Olympic athletes. Even when support (financial and otherwise) is limited. Striving for “faster, higher, stronger” shapes: what they do each day, what they eat, what they have time for outside of their sport, where they live, the jobs that they are able to take, who their friends are, and how they are seen by their family, their communities, their countries, and the world. Each of the Olympic athletes works hard to achieve what they can, with the goal of “faster, higher, stronger”, even when four years of work culminates in a ten second race. Even when four or more years of work will only be seen by a few people who happen to be Olympic badminton fans or connoisseurs of slalom kayaking.

As Jews we have an ideal to strive for as well. Our ideal is sacrius “holier”. We see this ideal of holiness in many aspects of Judaism. During the the prayer we say each day about God’s holiness, the Kedushah, when we sing the words kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, “holy, holy, holy” there are some people who lift themselves onto their toes for each word. The rabbis speak of ma’alin bakodesh, “going up in holiness”; this small movement becomes a physical reminder of our striving for this ideal.

In Judaism, holiness is how well we live in the world, not how well we isolate ourselves from it. How well we treat all those who are powerless in our community. How well we treat each other. How well we treat the planet on which we live. How well we do what God asks of us. Just as the Olympics shapes the lives of the athletes who compete, when we make our ideal “holier”, it shapes all aspects of our lives.

I look at the Olympic athletes and I am struck by the fact that I will never do anything fast enough, high enough or strong enough to stand on a platform to receive a gold medal. The quest for “holier” is different. None of us has to wait for another Olympiad to see the results. We each have the possibility to shape our lives every day in our quest to be holier.

*I am saddened and angered that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will not permit a minute of silence in remembrance of the Israeli athletes who were murdered during the 1972 Munich Olympics. To claim that such an action will brings politics into the Games is a weak argument. If the Olympic ideals and values are worth anything, then acknowledging a tragedy that threatened those ideals is important.

Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago.