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The Comfort of the Olympics

The Olympics may have come to a close, but I can’t help but think back on the past few weeks and try to figure out why I was so obsessed with watching the Rio Games. I’m not sure what it is about the Olympics that causes us to stop and watch. Maybe it’s because it is on primetime and there is nothing else on television. Maybe it is because it’s a much needed respite from the hateful rhetoric, name-calling, and 24-hour non-breaking news “breaking news” of the election cycle.

Whatever it is, there is something about the Olympics. I am a big sports fan. But when it comes to the Olympics, I find myself cheering for and watching sports I never watch. I DVR Beach volleyball, sprinting, fencing, gymnastics. I stop everything I do anytime Michael Phelps gets in the pool to make sure I can watch him win his millionth gold medal live. I watch these sports, but not because I love these sports. There is no other time that I insist on watching competitive swimming or fencing. It is not so much about the actual sports, as much as it is about friendly competition.

Rio2016.pngThe Olympics are a reminder of all of us coming together – all of humanity. Yes, we want to beat the opponent, but to compete against each other is an acknowledge that the other is our equal. It is a reminder that we are all one. No matter who odd the artful performance is at the opening ceremonies, the sight of athletes from each country – and even those who are refugees and have had to flee their home countries – celebrates each individual as made in the image of God. We come together, because we find comfort in each other.

We find comfort in knowing that the entire world is watching these games. We find comfort in knowing that the Olympics celebrate individuals, all of humanity, being together. On this Shabbat, referred to as  Shabbat Nachamu, we sought comfort. The Hebrew word Nachamu is the command form of comfort. Taken from the first word of the haftarah reading, from the book of Isaiah, this is a statement of comfort following the mournful day of Tisha B’Av, which was celebrated the week prior. We find comfort following mourning, following senseless hatred. But it is how we find comfort that is quite remarkable.

The haftarah begins: Nachamu, Nachamu, Ami. Comfort, oh Comfort, my people.

The doubling of the word helps us to understand it’s importance. Like when in angel called out to Abraham twice to prevent him from sacrificing his son (Gen. 22:11) or the command of “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20), the repetition of Nachamu reminds us, the readers, of the importance of this act. It is essential that we not just seek comfort, but that we act to comfort one another.

Throughout the books of the Prophets, we read of the prophets speaking on behalf of God. While the words may come out of the prophets’ mouths, they are God’s words to the people of Israel. We are then left asking, who is God talking to? If this is Isaiah speaking to the Israelites, then is God telling the Israelites – God’s people  — to comfort His people? That doesn’t seem to make sense.

The 16th century rabbi, the Radbaz, explains in Metzudat David that God is telling the prophets to comfort the Israelites. The doubling, he adds, represents the urgency of this. On Shabbat Nachamu we learned that it is not God who comforts us; it is each other who comforts us. We are meant to comfort each other. If we celebrate all of humanity made in God’s image, then we, in the divine image, walk in God’s ways and act on God’s behalf. We serve as God’s messengers. Nachamu Nachamu Ami. We comfort each other. And in doing so, God comforts us.

So what is it about the Olympics? Seeing athletes of all races and ethnicities coming together in friendly competition, treating each other as equals. This is a much needed break from the hate that too often consumes us and this world. This is a much needed comfort from the senseless hatred that we acknowledged just days earlier on Tisha B’Av. So we comfort each other. If only such acts of coming together didn’t only happen every four years. Nachamu, Nachamu Ami. May we all find comfort in each other.

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