Last night, I tuned in to watch the opening events of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. I was excited about the figure skating team event that was kicking everything off. A few minutes in to the Men’s Short Programs, I called Laura, my wife, over to watch with me. “Come watch the next three skaters.” The next three came from countries that I have close relationships with: Canada, Israel and the United States. We watched the Canadian skater and then NBC showed a pre-recorded story of an American skater and his journey from Salt Lake City to the Olympics. After the story, NBC showed Israel’s official section cheering on their fellow countryman and athlete after having put up the highest score thus far of all the men. Why then were Laura and I immediately confused and upset? It was because NBC did not air the Israeli man, Alexei Bychenko, as he skated a “perfect program” according to commentators. On opening night, the only athlete not shown was the Israeli.
This week we read Parshat Mishpatim. In the middle of the Parsha, God proclaims, “You shall be people consecrated to me; therefore you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs/וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ, לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ.” The Sfas Emes teaches on this verse.
In the name of the holy rabbi of Kotskon the verse: “You shall be people of holiness unto me.” The guarding of holiness has to be within the realm of human deeds and activities. God has no lack of sublime angels, seraphim, or holy beings. But God longs for the holiness of people; it was for that reason that He caused sparks of holiness to enter the world, in measured and reduced form. Therefore, “[you shall not eat any meat that is mangled by beasts in the field]”; from this the rabbis derived the principle that anything taken out of its proper place is forbidden. This means that the flow of holiness is in all things, but in a measured way. We have to guard the corporeal, that it not transgress the border of holiness.
But “you shall be” can also be read as a promise [rather than as a commandment]. In the end Israel are to be “holy unto the Lord.” That is why we have to guard ourselves now, so that we are ready to be placed upon the King’s head. The Midrash says in a parable, [referring to one making a crown], “as many precious stones and pearls as you can put onto it, do so, for it is going to be placed upon the King’s own head.
According to the Kotzker Rebbe, we need to exemplify holiness in our human actions and make sure that the mundane does not encroach upon the holy. Our humanity and physical nature is what makes us desirable to God. When we use our earthliness properly, we become holy. However, the Sfas Emes points out that our holiness is not necessarily about our physical nature. It is because Israel, God’s precious pearl, will be placed on the Holy One’s crown.
The Olympics should be a glorious time to celebrate the wonder and holiness of the body that God created. And last night, while I tuned in to see that holiness displayed under the banner of the State of Israel, I was denied that pleasure. That was wrong. Humanity’s diversity gives honor to our Creator while the diversity of the Olympics affords us the joy in seeing ourselves in our national heroes. That was a shame. While we did not get to see our own holiness on display in the human sense, as the Kotzker teaches, it afforded us an opportunity to focus on the teaching of the Sfas Emes. Any medals we would win, and fashion with our hands, we should remember, they do not belong around our necks, they will ultimately get placed in the crown. May we have a blessed week of human holiness realized while preparing many precious medals to give glory to the One who unites.
 Ex. 22:30
 Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Hebrew יהודה אריה ליב אלתר, 15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim
 Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) was a Hasidic rabbi and leader. He is considered to be the spiritual founder upon which the Ger dynasty in Poland is based, through the teachings of its founder Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter. One of his major students was Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica.
 Sfas Emes 2:111, Translation by Rabbi Art Green (Language of Truth, pg. 114)
 Granted, in recent times we have become aware of terrible crimes committed during the construction of the various games and by trusted officials who were allowed to be close to vulnerable athletes. While this taints the Olympics in a certain way, it does not detract, in my eyes, from the idea of the Olympics.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.