Tag Archives: boston marathon

Running is Jewish

The Eternal God is my strength: God makes my feet like the deer’s, and lets me stride upon the Heights. – Habakuk 3:19

This time last year, Boston Marathon runners were coming over the finish line, having pounded 26.2 miles into their legs. We all know how last year’s Boston Marathon was different from other marathons–in this city and elsewhere. This year’s Boston Marathon is different from prior ones. And still, we celebrate today all those who cross that finish line.

Coming up on this first anniversary of last year’s tragedy, coinciding with the 127th running of the Boston Marathon, we now know as a broad Boston community that we are strong and resilient, and that we are better together. These lessons do not need to have come out of the bombings, because they are what a runner learns when he or she goes out to complete a marathon. The exhaustive emotionality of a marathon is something anyone who has finished that distance knows in their bodies and in their hearts. I’ve personally been feeling an echo of that exhaustion over the last few weeks as various news outlets have been running remembrances as we approach this first anniversary.Rabbi Hirsch completing the 2007 NYC 1/2 Marathon

This year’s Marathon also coincides with the conclusion of Passover, our festival of liberation. With those two things coming together (and because I had to figure out an elaborate path to get to shul for services. Darn road closures), I’ve been wondering about what our tradition has to say about running and fitness.

Looking through the available texts on this, two stand out.

The first is a talmudic conversation between Rav Huna and Abaye. It was reported that Rav Huna noted that “One who leaves the synagogue should not take large strides because it creates the impression that he is eager to leave” (BT B’rakhot 6b). Don’t run from the synagogue, lest someone think you’re running from God. But what about running to the synagogue? “It is a mitzvah to run and one is permitted to rush and take large strides,” says Abaye, for “one who eagerly enters a synagogue displays his enthusiasm to follow the path of God” (ibid).

When we run from something, it is looks like fear. When we run toward something, it displays enthusiasm and spiritual adroitness. Running toward goals, objectives, destinations, toward that finish line at 26.2, can be a spiritual practice if it enriches of our lives, enriches our relationships with one another, and enriches our connection to the Divine.

Maimonides expressed this notion in his Shemonah Perakim, “Man needs to subordinate his soul’s powers to one goal, namely, spiritual perfection. He should direct all of his actions, both when at motion and when at rest, and all of his conversation toward this goal so that none of his actions are in any way frivolous… The purpose of his body’s health is that the soul finds its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward spiritual growth.” All that sweat we let out at the gym, all of the training miles we put into our legs, all the nutritional awareness, the scheduling to make it to that-special-yoga-class, and the like–those things are not for washboard abs and a strong body alone. We take care of our bodies (read: fitness is critical) because it is a pathway to spiritual perfection.

We are better people in the here and now when we put fitness and health as one of the top things on our personal priority list.

I have, at times, found this hard to keep in my heart. So I keep a reminder on my desk. There, sitting in a simple frame is an old advertisement from a running shoe company. The tag line is “We know that 26.2 is the short part.” Around that are a series of photos, each documenting different steps runners take to train and prepare for marathons. Those are the tough moments in marathons, not race day, itself.

For twenty-ish weeks, runners have been preparing for today. For the past year, our city has been preparing for this first anniversary. And as we celebrate the close of our festival of liberation, let’s recognize just how critical it is that we continue to care for our own health and fitness.

It’s good for the spirit.

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Fate or Destiny? Moving Forward

As I headed out the door to last week’s Interfaith Prayer Service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, I stopped for a split second, thinking “I’m going to be sitting there for quite a while. I should take something to read.” Uncertain about bringing any kind of electronic device with me  other than my cellphone (“No bags!,” they said), I grabbed a book from my overflowing bookshelf — one of the slimmest I could find. It was a copy of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek – The Voice of My Beloved Knocks.  I had read part of the book years ago, but was interested in the fuller work. Since it was small, I grabbed it and headed to the service.

As it turned out, I spent most of the several hours I waited talking with friends, which was, in and of itself, soothing.  By the way, virtually every clergy friend in the row behind me had an iPad! Even so, in spurts, I cracked open the Rav’s book, and began from the start.  The first essay in the book is entitled “The Righteous Suffer.”  I found it quite ironic to be reading this exposition on the bad things that happen to good people in this world, while awaiting the start of an interfaith service to heal a community — and a world — deeply wounded,  physically, emotionally and spiritually, by the suffering of innocent people at the hands of actors who were at that point, as yet unknown.

In this opening essay, Rav Soloveitchik posits that we live our lives in a world in which there are two realms of existence: fate and destiny. In part, he writes: “Judaism has always distinguished between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny. What is the nature of the existence of fate? It is an existence of compulsion, an existence of the type described by the Mishnah, ‘Against your will do you live out your life.’ (Avot 4:29), a pure factual existence, one link in a mechanical chain, devoid of meaning, direction, purpose, but subject to the forces of the environment unto which the individual has been cast by providence, without prior consultation. The ‘I’ of fate has the image of an object. As an object, he appears as made and not as maker…”  (Kol Dodi Dofek, pages 2-3) Fate, holds the Rav, is that over which we have no control.  To be sure, the feeling of a lack of control was widespread and deeply felt last week.

Rav Soloveitchik then proceeds to explain his understanding of destiny, which he reads as a countervailing reality to fate as he asks,  “…What is the nature of the existence of destiny? It is an active mode of existence, one wherein man confronts the environment into which he was thrown, possessed of an understanding of his uniqueness, of his special worth of his freedom, and of his ability to struggle with his external circumstances without forfeiting either his independence or his selfhood. The motto of the ‘I’ of destiny is, “Against your will you are born and against your will you die, but you live of your own free will.” Man is born like an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence and enter into a creative, active mode of being.” (Kol Dodi Dofek, pages 5-6)  In contrast to fate, destiny is the realm in which we can choose to act in order to impact our future — and that of the world around us.  The Rav’s message was a mighty powerful one to read sitting in that place  at that time.

Individually and collectively, last week was one in which we faced ultimate questions: Why do bad things happen to innocent people?  What drives individuals to act out in such horrific ways so as to cause such havoc and to inflict such suffering on so many people?  And there are many more questions out there – as well as resident in our kishkes. With one of the suspects in custody, there is a chance that  there may yet be some answers to some of our questions.  To be sure, no answers will restore what has been taken – the limbs and lives lost, the sense of celebration compromised nor the security breached.

In the days since Thursday’s service and Friday’s surreal events, I keep coming back to the question of how to respond to last week’s events, and of how we move forward in its aftermath.  Over Shabbat I was struck by the juxtaposition of our two Torah portions — Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.   Acharei Mot opens with reference to the death of two of Aaron’s sons after they offered eysh zarah – foreign fire on the altar. (Indeed, during Torah study on Shabbat morning, one participant, Barbara caught us all with her linkage of Aaron’s two sons and their misguided offering of “foreign fire” and the two brothers who terrorized our city with their “foreign fire.”)  Kedoshim — “Holy matters” deals with some of most inspiring and enduring values of our Jewish tradition.  Citing an interpretation I had heard years ago, in my comments I noted that Acharei Mot — “after death” we must strive to find our way back to the path of Kedoshim — the pursuit of holiness.

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