Friday, August 24, 2012

Blogging Elul - Cycling through Teshuvah


It was recently announced that Lance Armstrong has given up his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in its claims that Mr. Armstrong used illegal performance enhancing methods to win a record seven Tour de France titles.
Mr. Armstrong has argued that he has never failed a drug test and that the USADA is engaging in a “witch-hunt” against him.  While the USADA has argued that it has both enough evidence and eye-witness testimony to be able to convincingly prove that Mr. Armstrong cheated.  Some commentators have even argued that Mr. Armstrong gave up his fight so that the evidence will not come to light.  The end result is that he will be stripped of, among other things, his seven titles. 

Now one can argue the effectiveness or even meaningfulness of retroactive punishments.  But I see some interesting connections with this story and the month of Elul.

The majority of the American public either doesn’t seem to really care that Mr. Armstrong cheated or they argue that he did not cheat at all.  And most stand beside him because they like him for the good he has done especially with the ‘Live Strong’ anti-cancer campaign that has brought in millions and awareness to this ongoing fight.
And yet two major league baseball players were recently banned for 50 games each, and they are being damned by the majority of the American public, except maybe by those local fans who root for their teams.  It would seem to be that athletes like tennis players, golfers, and cyclists we give more of a pass to as a whole because we can all root for them.  Heck if it wasn’t for Mr. Armstrong, the majority of Americans would most likely still not have any idea that there is a preeminent race in cycling and that the race takes place in France.  But in team sports, it is easier to condemn someone because they play for the opposition.  Barry Bonds is still popular in San Francisco.  Roger Clemens is still popular in my home city of Houston.

We are more likely to forgive those we like.  It is part of our human nature.  This is why we are willing to forgive Mr. Armstrong while many more are unwilling to forgive someone like Mr. Bonds or Mr. Clemens.
But according to Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, we must ask of oneself, “’What have I done? ‘ (Jer. 8:6) What have I become?”
Simply acknowledging that one has done wrong, which neither Mr. Armstrong nor Mr. Bonds have done, does not remove the misdeeds.  But it is a step forward.  Yes Mr. Armstrong has done a lot of great things for a lot of people. 

But as we know all too well, each of us is imperfect. Each of us have done things we wish we had not done.  Be it for personal glory, success, or for a myriad of other reasons.  So to admit fault is the first step in what can be and should be an amazing journey of transformation. 

It does not erase the misdeeds of the past, but what it can do is help us begin to overcome the inclination that led us to engage in those misdeeds in the first place.  Without acknowledgment, there can be no healing. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Blogging Elul - A Marathon


My good friend and colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer sets up a challenge to blog the month of Elul.  I have taken this challenge and each month I write several before ultimately giving up well short of my goal.  This is usually a result of needing to prepare for the High Holy Days and the stress of starting a new year in the synagogue.  Not to mention the kids starting a new year of school.

Yet something has always gnawed at me whenever I set this goal and fail to achieve it.  I mention this because I am also trying to get myself back into shape.  Even though I exercise regularly, the weight has been creeping back on for the past year and a half.  And each time the scale is unhappy with me, I find myself feeling the same way as when I fail to blog each day of Elul.

Finally today it dawned on me that blogging Elul every day, losing weight, and preparing for the High Holy Days have something deeply profound in common: the need to set realistic expectations of oneself. 

Each year during the Yamim Noraiim, the High Holy Days, we are challenged to right the wrongs of the past and set a new course, a new direction for our lives.  It is more than simply making New Year’s Resolutions; it is really about reorienting our very souls.

And yet, many of us set up unrealistic expectations both of ourselves and others during this period.  How many of us expect others to finally step up and apologize for that slight, only to be bitterly disappointed when they do not?  Or how many of us are saddened when a genuine apology given is not well received?

How many of us expect to show up at services twice a year and to find deeply profound meaning, only to find ourselves lost and uninspired? 

This year, for the first time in my life, I have signed up to run a half-marathon.  I have never run more than six miles in my life, and now I have committed to running a little over thirteen.  But in order to do it, I began training this past June.  I am now up to 8 miles, with more to go.  It has not been easy and there are certainly days I do not wish to run.  My knees are sore.  My ankles are sore.  And yet, I feel empowered and emboldened each day I get out there no matter the distance I run.

The month of Elul in many ways is the warm up.  It is a chance to begin to set the stage, to get ourselves ready for a challenging time.  Whether it is running a half-marathon or going to shul for the High Holy Days.  Both require preparation, commitment, and time.  For if it is worth doing, it is worth investing of oneself in the process in order to achieve and in order to find meaning.