Thanks to his extreme state of mental preparedness, champion Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is ready to face almost any possible scenario during a race.
So, when his goggles filled with water in the final of the 200m butterfly race at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps didn’t panic. He simply counted his strokes until the wall and once again beat his own world record. Phelps sees the end goal before he even starts the race.
In the second of the two sidrot we read this week, the Torah lists every one of the Jewish people’s encampments in the desert.
The Midrash brings a parable to help illustrate the reason why this list is necessary. A king had a child who was unwell. He took him on a long and difficult journey to visit the best doctor, who was eventually able to cure him.
On their return journey, as they retraced the same route, the king pointed out each place to him and what had transpired at that location: “Here we slept, here we managed to find a place to rest, here your head hurt, and we had to deal with it…”
The point of the Midrash is that it was only at the end of the journey that the Jewish people could look back and appreciate not just how far they had come, but how each stage along the way had actually brought them closer to their goal.
By contrast, during the course of the journey itself, their sole focus had to be on reaching their destination, the Promised Land.
Looking back before reaching the end would have been incomprehensible and could have caused them to lose heart.
Like Michael Phelps’ remarkable focus when swimming, it was because they never lost sight of where they were going and what their end goal was, that they successfully managed to complete their arduous task.
Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum serves Hadley Wood Jewish Community