With Labor Day approaching we sense the end of summer fast approaching and the smells and colors of fall beginning to appear, announcing the end of one season and the beginning of another. As with most transition moments we often pause and think where we have been and where we may be going. The Book for Deuteronomy, the final of the Five Books of Moses, is an example of taking stock at such a moment.
Its 34 chapters consist of three long sermons delivered by Moses to the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan River, across from Jericho, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. The purpose of these three speeches was for Moses to review all that he and the Jewish people had been through the past 40 years, and for Moses to have one last opportunity to teach before he would die.
But there is a more subtle message here, which was confirmed at the recently completed 30th Olympiad in London. If we think back to the first encounter that Moses had with God at the Burning Bush, as described in the Book of Exodus, Moses tells God, "Please, my Lord, no man of words am I, not from yesterday, not from the day before, not even since you have spoken to your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I!"
Yet, 40 years later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking in lofty prose and poetry. What happened? Along the way Moses forced himself to turn his weakness into his greatest strength. We witnessed something very similar at the London Olympics.
After winning the Gold Medal in the 110 Hurdles American Aries Merritt talked about how he had changed the foot he pushes off with when he races. Some would say that would be like changing the hand we write with; and he did it in eight months. When asked how he built power on his weaker side he answered, "Diligence. It took me a long, long, time." Elaborating he explained, "I focused so much on my weaker side and it balanced things out so now I have equal power in both legs so I am able to apply equal force which at the end results is me running faster times."
Like Moses, Aries took a weakness and turned it into a strength. We often try to avoid our own weaknesses; the classes we chose not to take, a skill we don't feel we are good enough at. But sometimes we may find if we put the energy into that perceived weakness, and through that added effort, perhaps what we are really trying to avoid, we can transform that which is weaker within us into something that is strong.
The Spanish Nobel laureate Vicente Aleixandre wrote, "Like Moses on top of the mountain. Every man can be like that." We may not get to the top of the mountain, but as the Olympic Gold Medal hurdler Aries Merritt recently modeled for us, we can all be like Moses and work on our own weaknesses, the hurdles of life we try to avoid, and turn them into a strength. By so doing we work to affirm in the positive the hopes of another Olympic medalist, Vincent Matthews, who wrote in his Trackman's Prayer, "Now I lay me down the blocks, I ask the Lord for socks and jocks, if I should die before the gun, I ask the Lord my race be won."
This piece first appeared in the Burlington Free Press, Aug. 29, 2012.
Follow Rabbi Michael M. Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiMichael