Mental Health, Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5782

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a standup routine about the Olympic Games, and speaks about the silver medal, and how he’d almost rather come in last than win silver; “It’s like, congratulations, you almost won.” He points out in that in some of the contests, such as races, the difference between gold and silver is a fraction of a second, “If I’d had a pimple on my nose I would have won.”

We’ve all been watching the Olympics long enough to know what it takes to get there; the years of training, the sacrifices physically, emotionally and financially, hoping for that moment of glory. The whole world is watching. Silver medal? Well, at least you got something.

For the tiny percentage of people in the world who become elite athletes able to even imagine going to the Olympics, it’s the culmination of a life-long dream, and medals can lead to endorsements, celebrity status and financial stability for life.

Perhaps that’s why, at the recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of several events made such an impact. Even more importantly, she had the support of her teammates, coaches, and the US Gymnastics Association, something that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Think back to 1996 gold medalist Kerry Strug, who was forced to continue to compete with an injured ankle, and teammate Dominique Monceau, who tweeted her support for Biles, saying that her decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health; “a say” I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”

After coming down with a case of what gymnasts refer to as “the twisties,” which causes them to lose their position in the air on complex jumps and can lead to devastating injury, Simone made the decision to prioritize her mental and physical health over winning gold.

Entertainment Tonight wrote, “On the biggest stage in the world, with one of the biggest targets in Olympic history on her back, it had to have been an agonizing decision. But it’s one Biles says she remains “content” with.” She also said that the decision also allowed her to see the Olympics in a different light, and to be there for her teammates, and even be able to cheer on the boys’ team.

Pressure to perform, along with the weight of representing Japan, the host country, may have factored into a less-than stellar showing by Naomi Osaka, who lost in the third round to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.

Osaka rose to prominence in the tennis world when she defeated Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018 and became the first Asian to win the Grand Slam. Earlier this year, she withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health. Her decisions have garnered both support and criticism, along with many xenophobic comments. In case you were wondering, racism and nationalism are alive and well in other countries.

In an article in the July 8 issue of Time Magazine, Osaka said that the important lesson she learned from that was, “It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does. The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is a human being and subject to feelings and emotions.”

I can’t begin to understand what it must be like to compete on the world stage like that, to train your entire life for a moment that may never happen; and if it does happen, may not go the way you were hoping. And with respect to women’s gymnastics, for decades, allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse not only went unchecked and ignored, but appear to have been tacitly approved of.

When you’re in the public eye the way athletes, politicians and other public figures are, you live in a fishbowl, and there’s little room for a misstep. That’s the stuff the supermarket tabloids live on… Cindy Crawford spotted in sweats without makeup, the president or an important senator forgetting that the camera is on and scratching somewhere inappropriate. Somehow, “Malverne Rabbi spotted at LIDL in shorts buying un-heckshered potato chips doesn’t make it into the Herald. Seriously, most of us don’t live such exciting and public lives, but we’re all human, we all have feelings and emotions. Some of us handle pressure better than others. Some of us want to do our jobs and not have to justify every move we make and have every decision scrutinized. 

Remember “The Flu Game,” the fifth game of the 1977 NBA championships? Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to victory despite having a stomach ailment. Columnist Steve Aschburner wrote, “So sick and suffering from flu-like symptoms that at times he staggered, a dehydrated and exhausted Michael Jordan wills himself to 38 points against the Utah Jazz in a pivotal Game 5, adding to the Bulls star’s legend as a clutch performer and relentless competitor.”

Certainly, his training and top-notch physical condition allowed him to stay upright and score as many points as he did, but I remember feeling very conflicted about his decision to play. On one hand, as my father said, he was an example of someone who has a job to do, and no matter what, does what he needs to. On the other hand, as the mother of a 7 and a 5 year old, was that really sending a positive message to the young people in the room? That at the possible expense of your health–possibly your life–you soldier on? If you’re a soldier in combat, yes. Otherwise, probably not.

Our bodies and brains, however, may not differentiate between getting ready for a race or floor routine and giving a presentation at work, or navigating our world today. We don’t have to be in the public eye to feel the stress and pressure of living in a world where food insecurity is rampant, where terrorism is taking over, where people are living under oppressive governments and fear for their lives, where systemic racism targets people based on their religion, gender or skin color.

Loneliness and isolation, especially among the elder population has become more prevalent due to Covid-19, and so many people have turned a vaccine, which like becoming an Olympic champion doesn’t happen overnight––into a political statement, and the death toll keeps rising because so many people still refuse to get vaccinated.

It took a lot of courage and maturity for Simone sand Naomi to make the decisions they did, and to prioritize their well-being over medals and fame. One could argue that they’re privileged in the sense that their net worth is probably more than all of us combined, especially at their age, and I wouldn’t disagree. There’s no question it’s probably easier to make a decision like this when you know it doesn’t mean store-brand macaroni and cheese for the next month.

However, just like the Talmud reminds us that even someone who is so poor that they’re being supported by the community charity fund must still give something to tzedakah, we are all required to engage in acts of self-care. Our lives and our bodies are a gift from God, we need to behave that way. It is incumbent upon us to treat ourselves with care. 

Self-care falls under the category of p’kuach nefesh, the preservation of life and health, which is the highest Jewish value. It overrides Shabbat and even Yom Kippur. I’ll never forget Rabbi Wallin, of blessed memory, teaching us that if you’re not medically able to fast on Yom Kippur, it’s not just that you have permission to eat, you are REQUIRED to eat. The idea is that by eating on this Yom Kippur, you’ll hopefully be able to fast next Yom Kippur, assuming your condition improves. I appreciated this when I was pregnant and nursing, and the year that I had a wicked cold on Yom Kippur, being able to stay hydrated allowed me to do my job as the hazzan, even as I joked that the new “al chet” I was adding was, “for the sin I committed by sounding like a frog.” The reality is that I felt supported by the congregation that had rachmones on me.

One of our greatest modern sages was Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar, or Jewish ethics movement, who was a young scholar when the world-wide cholera epidemic struck Vilna, the heart of Jewish Lithuania, in the summer of 1848. During that year’s High Holidays, Rabbi Salanter was concerned that fasting on Yom Kippur would put lives in danger and that it would desecrate Judaism if Jews died trying to observe the fast. Though he held no official role in the Vilna rabbinate, on the eve of Yom Kippur he placed proclamations in all the synagogues telling people not to fast, to shorten synagogue services, to take walks, and to help each other in all ways.

Still, he worried it wasn’t enough and that people would not follow his instruction. So on the morning of Yom Kippur, he walked to the front of the synagogue with wine and cake, made Kiddush and ate in front of everyone. What happened next depends on which account you read, but as Psalm 115 in Hallel reminds us, lo ha-maytim y’hallelu ya, v’lo kol yordei doomah, “The dead cannot praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence. Va-anachnu n’vareich Ya, may-atah v’ad olam, Halleluyah! But we will bless the LORD now and forever. Hallelujah.

How do we, the living, bless and praise God? By doing our best to care for God’s creations; our planet, our environment, our fellow human beings created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image, and ourselves.



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