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Heartbreaking news out of the sports world Monday: At the track and field World Championships in Beijing, American Molly Huddle was close to capturing the bronze medal in the 10,000 meters. As she drew close to the finish line, however, she eased up and raised her arms in victory just a few seconds too early, and her fellow American, Emily Infeld, who was running right behind her, surged forward and captured third place. Infeld took the bronze, and, as we know, there is no medal for fourth place.
This is not the first time a gaffe such as this has happened. NPR ran a story that recounted other instances of premature celebration: a cyclist who raised his hands in victory thinking he had won the race only to realize too late he had one lap to go, a soccer goalie who celebrated after saving a penalty kick without realizing the ball had backspin and rolled back into the goal, and a University of Utah receiver who caught a long pass and ran for a touchdown, only to drop the ball too early as he entered the end zone. The opposing team picked it up and ran it back down the field for a touchdown themselves.
There can be multiple explanations for Huddle’s mistake. She may not have realized exactly when she crossed the finish line. She may not have realized how close Infeld was, how quickly she was gaining on her. In any event, Huddle was crushed at missing her first chance for an international medal. As she was quoted in Runners World, “I blew it in the last steps. I don’t know when that chance will come again … I’m old, so I’m probably not going to get another one of those. It’s frustrating. This will take a lot of time to get over.”
While I doubt the International Association of Athletics Federations, the sports’ governing body, considered the Jewish calendar in scheduling the World Championships, it is the month of Elul, and that fact perhaps makes Huddle’s mistake all the more poignant. Because this is the season of mistakes — since Elul is the month leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a time to begin the work of self-reflection, of recognizing the times that we erred in the past year, and of seeking to make up for past wrongs by reaching out to those we have hurt. This is the work of teshuvah, repentance, that we are called upon to do during this sacred season.
Huddle’s race can serve as a parable about the work of teshuvah. Like the race, the work of teshuvah can be long and arduous. Confronting the ways we have fallen short is difficult work, as is having to reach out to those people we have hurt to seek forgiveness. It requires commitment and determination. And if we don’t see it through all the way, we run the risk of undoing everything we had worked towards up until that point. It is a warning: make sure you have clearly crossed the finish line before you start to celebrate.
But that is not the whole story here. For to tell this solely as Huddle’s loss is to miss another key part of this story: Infeld’s win. (Not to mention the gold and silver medalists as well, who beat them both by about two seconds.) Infeld wasn’t necessarily expected to medal; she had lost a lot of training time due to an injury. But after thinking her running career was over six months ago, she was able to train, return and, now, win the bronze at the World Championships. Infeld may not have crossed the finish line in third place if not for Huddle slowing up at the last moment, but that error wouldn’t have meant anything if Infeld hadn’t been as successful in the race as she was.
To look at Infeld’s win as solely the result of Huddle’s loss is to only tell half the story. And yet, how often do we do that during Elul: we are open and vulnerable to our missteps and willing to admit when we did wrong, but we don’t take time to celebrate our successes and victories. While we ask ourselves where we missed the mark and what aspects of ourselves do we need to improve, we must also ask ourselves, What did we accomplish this past year? When were our successes? When did our spiritual work of self-improvement pay off?
Like Huddle, we have made our share of mistakes, some of which are hard to get over. At the same time, like Infeld, we have been able to achieve great things we may not have thought ourselves capable of achieving. We are both of these women. And we remember that, as we move through Elul towards the finish line of Yom Kippur a month away.
Pronounced: eh-LULE, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month usually coinciding with August-September.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.