Locating Ourselves Again, After the Spiritual “Twisties”

Last week, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew ahead of the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics. She described that she had a case of “the twisties,” a condition that sometimes makes it impossible for gymnasts to know where they are in space. When this happens, in her words, she “literally cannot tell up from down.” In the days since, many have lauded Biles’ decision to put both her own physical safety and mental health first (see, for example, Hannah Pressman’s great analysis on Kveller), and I concur. In addition, Biles’ description of this feeling of disorientation and her decision to take time to recover also function as a powerful metaphor for where we are as we begin the key spiritual work of the season.

Last week, gymnast Simone Biles withdrew ahead of the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics. She described that she had a case of “the twisties,” a condition that sometimes makes it impossible for gymnasts to know where they are in space. When this happens, in her words, she “literally cannot tell up from down.” In the days since, many have lauded Biles’ decision to put both her own physical safety and mental health first (see, for example, Hannah Pressman’s great analysis on Kveller), and I concur. In addition, Biles’ description of this feeling of disorientation and her decision to take time to recover also function as a powerful metaphor for where we are as we begin the key spiritual work of the season.

Coming off of Tisha B’Av, we find ourselves disoriented: we, the Jewish people, have been collectively defeated and spun around and exiled from home; we have lost our sense of place. Individually, as well, many of us have experienced the past year as a disorienting one, with its pandemic ups and downs, a loss of our regular rhythms… of workplaces, relationships, and travel. Over the past month, the Delta variant has only added to our sense of confusion. Now, we seek to locate ourselves anew; we crave solid ground on which to land.

This coming Sunday/Monday, we will arrive at Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month leading up to the New Year of 5782. Right now, we may feel lost and dizzy; however, by a month from now, we need to have regained our footing and our orientation. Our job in this season – as we move through the time window between Tisha B’Av and the High Holidays, into and through Elul – is precisely this: to locate ourselves in time and space, to figure out where we are, to know which way is up and which way is down. By the time we reach Rosh Hashanah, an accurate assessment of our present location is a necessary prerequisite to determining where we want to go next and how we might get there. Fortunately, the Jewish calendar gives us the gift of time to “withdraw” from competition (as it were) and engage in this work of discovery and realignment.

Many Jewish texts support us in this work of trying to locate ourselves anew. This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, begins with God saying to the Israelites, “See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse,” and exhorting them not to “turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day” (click here to read more of this week’s parasha). Being on “the path” (“ha-derech”) – that is, traveling in one’s desired direction – requires a high degree of spatial awareness, otherwise we may find ourselves inadvertently straying or, in the gymnast’s framework, experiencing a case of spiritual twisties.

Other Jewish texts associated with the season also speak to this need to find ourselves in order to know how and where we will land. One rabbinic midrash teaches that the 40 days between the start of Elul and Yom Kippur correspond to the 40 days that Moses remained on Mount Sinai after the Golden Calf incident (see Rashi’s comment on Exodus 33:11). You may recall that when Moses descended the first time with a first set of tablets, he threw them to the ground in anger and frustration. Now, as the cloud of God descends anew, a Divine voice utters the 13 descriptive attributes of God (the shlosh-esrei middot), precisely the tool Moses needs to recover and realign himself (with God’s qualities of compassion, forgiveness, etc.) in order to resume his leadership of the people on their journey. This work of realignment – born out of a desire to repair what has been broken – takes Moses quite some time; the same is true for us in this season of reflection.

Rosh Hashanah itself is also associated with the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings. The very first question God asks the pair in the Garden of Eden is “Ayeka,” “where are you?” – the same question we each ask ourselves at this time of year.

Yesterday, Simone Biles returned to the Olympic Games to compete in the Women’s Balance Beam final. Although she had to adapt her routine slightly to avoid a twisting dismount, her performance was steady, strong and beautiful, and she received a standing ovation from the crowd. Speaking after winning the bronze medal, she said: “I didn’t expect a medal today… I was proud of myself just to go out there after what I’ve been through.”

So to may it be for us, spiritually, as we move towards this High Holiday season. In the wake of a disruptive and disorienting time, may each of us succeed in locating ourselves, and figuring out anew which way is up and down. May each of experience a similar sense of pride in ourselves.

Wishing us all a chodesh tov – a good (and meaningful and productive!) month of Elul,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum