I, like many of you, was amazed once again by the American gymnast, Simone Biles. Biles made history this past week with a dismount from the balance beam that no one had ever done before. Even in slow motion I could not believe what this amazing athlete was able to do with her body, sending it spinning and flipping in the air as she gracefully and effortlessly stuck her landing. Even prior to her dismount, the balance beam routine was breathtaking (click here to view it).
I could not help but reflect upon this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, from the book of Deuteronomy, through the lens of Simone Biles’ grace and balance. Moses recounts his interaction with God when he learns that he will not enter the Promised Land. Moses pleads with God. The usual translation of the verb that is also the name of this portion is “I [Moses] prayed.” But the Hebrew root is actually the same as the word we translate as “Grace.”
In Jewish theology the word Grace can mean the divine influence which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength, to endure trial and resist temptation; and as an individual virtue or excellence of divine origin. To say that Simone Biles is graceful can then mean that she not only moves with physical grace but also possesses the strength to endure the incredible amount of training and practice that she is able to resist the temptation to cut corners or try for shortcuts.
So perhaps Moses was also seeking grace and not just pleading with or praying to God. Moses, recognizing that change is possible, sought the divine inner strength to effect such change and to avoid the temptation to simply let things stand without complaint. Moses sought to find balance in his responsibility to the community and the responsibility to care for himself, too. Moses sought to “regenerate and sanctify,” himself and his people. Recognizing his mistake, Moses seeks repentance, he turns to God and publicly confesses his sin providing a living lesson of the middot, virtues/traits, of leadership and humility.
Change is possible. We are approaching the moment in the Jewish calendar when this message is especially relevant, the High Holy Days. This year our theme comes from a verse in Pirke Avot, The Ethics of our Ancestors: “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds than all the life in the World to Come.” Inner change is possible. We can become better as we aspire to be our highest self. Repentance is the key. We do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our soul, as we examine who we are and what we can be. We strive to turn from mistakes, learn, and grow. Change is possible in our world too. Good deeds, Tikkun Olam, brings about real change in our world for the good.
Balance is what we strive to achieve in the middot, the character traits we are born with, each of us. Balance is what we strive to achieve in the inner work we do and the work we do in the world. May we all find the Grace with which to succeed in this most important endeavor, seeking Teshuvah, repentance, and doing Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.