The only thing that is getting me through this week’s horrible snow, as opposed to last week’s horrible snow, is a day home with the Olympics. Sitting on my tuchis, watching the most amazing people do the unthinkable. They fly through the air on skis and boards. They hold their partners over their heads while they glide on skates. And they go from heartracing swift skiing to precision shooting. It boggles my mind. And throughout the coverage I’m hearing stories of people who are “just happy to be here.” They have no hope of getting on the podium. The Olympic experience is their medal. But for some it’s only the gold medal that will do.
That only-the-gold mentality was really made clear to me. Two athletes, Laura Mancuso, skiing the Super Combined Downhill, and Erin Hamlin, sliding in the Luge, were amazingly grateful to have made it onto the podium at all. Laura Mancuso was not expected to medal, and yet she managed to get the bronze. Erin Hamlin was the first American woman to ever medal in Luge and was thrilled to take the bronze. What made their gratitude at winning the bronze medal all the more endearing was that earlier in the week, Hannah Kearney was tearful at only winning the bronze in Women’s Moguls. She won the gold at the last Olympics in Vancouver and only the gold would do for her. In her interview, she expressed her disappointment at her placement, as if the bronze medal was meaningless.
Ironically, in this week’s Torah portion, gold does not represent success for the Jewish people. As Parashat KiTissa opens, we see God in dialogue with Moses, putting the final touches on the Ten Commandments. Moses has taken a long time up on the mountain, and the people at the bottom are getting a bit frightened. So they turn to Aaron and demand that he “make us a God.” These are people who are used to idols. They need a visual representation of God. And Aaron, perhaps fearing the rumblings of the crowd or maybe trying to keep the people busy for a while, instructs them to create the Golden Calf. This Golden Calf will be just one step in their doubting God, their doubting their ultimate mission, that will change the trajectory of the Israelites’ journey. Instead of going directly to the land of milk and honey, the people were doomed to wander for forty years until the current generation had passed on. The Golden Calf represents a forced transition period for the Israelites. It gives the Israelites time to become a community. It gives them time to mature. It’s like a gap-year that lasts for forty years.
For many of the athletes, these medals may also represent a transition point. Some are retiring soon. Some are striving for their last medal. Some are just getting their feet wet and this Olympics is part of their maturing process. Regardless of what happens, I think being an Olympian is an amazing feat. And to win the bronze medal would be just fine.
If you have never seen this Golden Calf scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, it’s a must!