Sunday, April 21, 2013

Yesh Kedoshim Achare Mot: A Reflection on Boston, delivered Shabbat Achare Mot-Kedoshim, 4/20/2013

We may consider baseball the quintessential American pastime, especially from April through early October; but, if there is any competitive sport that captures the essence of the American spirit, it is running.  And the canonical game in the world of running is the marathon, a race that covers 26.2 carefully measured miles typically spread over the landscape of any American city or town.  Most every major city has one: NY, D.C., Chicago, Philly, San Francisco, Orlando, Houston, Baltimore… I could go on... and of course, Boston.  Many small towns too proudly host them.  No stadiums are required for the marathon; no, its playing field weaves through main street America, through the neighborhoods where we live, where we work, where we play. 

The marathon draws spectators from all walks of life.  No ticket is required to attend – there is no entrance fee to watch the race unfold – conversely, race spectators often come with gifts to share: motivational music and sideline entertainment, gummy bears or orange slices, and shouts of encouragement for all the runners.  The best racing tip anyone has ever given me?  Put my name in big letters on my shirt!  “Go Rho!” – there is nothing better than being encouraged on by hundreds (in some races, like Boston, thousands) of strangers, who want nothing more than to see and support others, particularly the regular runner as they head forward towards the finish line.  Everyone is on the same team during a running event.  We are all pointed towards the very same goal.

Taking on the marathon, especially the goal of Boston, is an extraordinarily democratic endeavor.  It requires everything we value as Americans: self-driven dedication and determination.  Anyone with two-feet can do it.  And these days, due to the advances in prosthetic devices and specially made aerodynamic wheelchairs, feet are loosely defined.  There are many who complete the marathon powered by their arms or balanced on the weight of artificial limbs.  There are even those who unable to run or walk on their own are carried over the course and across the finish line by a loved one.  The marathon is a sport that creates a tight-knit community that crosses all demographic and racial boundaries, that includes all shapes, sizes, and colors.   To watch a mass of runners in a race is to view a slice of America.

Few go to a marathon to watch the elite racers who make a profession out of the sport.  Most spectators are there to watch everyone else.  What makes the race so compelling to watch is that completing it, the ultimate ‘win’ of those who ‘race,’ is within reach of virtually anyone who tries it.   It is truly a test of endurance far more than skill.  It requires the motivation to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, despite exhaustion, despite rain, heat, or wind, despite any challenges that lie ahead.  It requires training even when motivation wanes.  It requires knowing when to rest, when to back off, when we get overly eager.  Indeed, training for, participating in, and then finishing a marathon offers an incredibly powerful metaphor for engaging in life.   Running, even racing, isn’t about being first or being most powerful; for the sheer majority of runners, it’s about finishing what we’ve started.  It is about continuing to put one foot in front of the other despite discomfort and adversity.  It is all about accomplishing a reach, a seemingly unattainable goal that is the result of sheer effort and will.   Perhaps that is why the marathon is so darn compelling.  Perhaps that is why every single person who crosses the finish line medals!

Yes, everyone who crosses that finish line, whether it takes 3 hours, 4 hours, 6 hours, or 12, whether they are walking, running, or shuffling, everyone who completes the course gets a medal.  Only a small number of entrants race to win the top prizes and spots in more competitive venues. The majority of those who run and participate in races, in these “running events,” run in the middle to the back of the pack, and most all who come to watch are there for them: for the runners who run in memory of a loved one, for the runners who run as a way to raise money for an important cause, for the runners who take up the challenge on behalf of those who can’t, for the runners who took up the sport as a way of dealing with crisis and then stuck with it because of the emotional healing running provided, for the runners who run simply because running feels good and provides an escape from the everyday demands of life.  

These are the runners that make up the bulk of any marathon even the prestigious and well-known Boston race whose spots are so coveted among runners.  And, in a marathon, it is these mid-packers (as we are called) who finish in the 4-5+ hour range.  On Monday, it was these Americans and their families who came out to support them – Americans just like me and just like you -- who bore the brunt of the carnage.  I have no doubt the timing was purposeful, an attempt to inflict maximum damage while striving to crush the tenacious spirit of those who have put forth the most effort in order to be there.  The attack on the Boston Marathon was aimed directly at the heart of the American spirit.

 This Shabbat, we conclude the reading of two Torah portions, Achare Mot and Kedoshim.   After the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons, after what must be viewed as a traumatic event, there is still the capacity for holiness. This Shabbat, let our readings remind us that yesh kedoshim achare mot, there is the capacity for holiness after trauma.  The news headlines have been, as expected, consumed with the tracing the root of the horror.  A focus on the human capacity for evil instead of goodness.  In the spirit of the marathon and what it stands for, however, we must remain cognizant of the extraordinary acts of holiness that took place even in the midst of digesting the reality of the scene:

 How many runners, despite their own exhaustion after running the 26.2 mile course, continued to run in order to help others; how many emergency responders and ordinary citizens rushed in to deliver aid; how many Bostonians opened their homes to help stranded individuals, spent runners and panicked family members, trying hard to re-connect over the din of the tragedy.   Kedoshim t’hiyu: these actions remind me that there is holiness in humanity.  The veteran who reassuringly held the hand and talked with a complete stranger while she was waiting for medical attention simply because in his words, “If there was nothing else I could do, I could talk to her” reminds me that anachnu kedoshim, we can behave in a sacred manner.    The small gesture of the finisher who took off his finisher’s medal and placed it around the neck of a runner who was a ½ mile from the finish line when a bomb exploded erases any doubts I have with regard to the potential for holiness in our world.

The marathon represents for many, to quote the former Sun writer Michael Hill, who himself ran Boston 8-times, “a place of stunning human achievement that [maintains] an innocence and joy so often absent in our sports…What we must do now is take our lesson from the marathoners. You get to around mile 20, 21, 22 and it hurts. It hurts like hell. But you reach down deep within yourself and find something and keep going.”   And, remarkably, even if we don’t see it coming, and “though it seems like it takes forever, soon enough the pain is replaced with joy.”   

Yesh kedoshim achare mot.  One of running’s life lessons is that no matter how well you train, there is a significant degree of unpredictability come race day that impacts performance.  In athlete speak, we call our body’s response to unpredictability, “bonking.”  Bonking is when our bodies fail to respond to our brain’s desire to keep pace after an extended period.    Sometimes no matter how prepared we are, how much we will ourselves, we still face a wall.  Bonking, however, doesn’t mean we must stop.  It means we have to change our plan.  We may have to slow down, walk, refuel, but we can keep moving forward; we can – and runners do, still reach the finish line.

Life is terribly unpredictable, and too often uncontrollable, unforeseen events take us off guard.  The human capacity for holiness, however, is a constant.  Our challenge is behaving in a manner consistent with kedoshim even when “bonk,” even when we are tired, spent, and believe we have we have hit our physical and emotional limit.   

Let us be inspired by the runners who take on the challenge of completing the marathon.  When we are confronted with pain, hardship, even horror,  when we come face to face with our own physical limitations, we must remained committed to the next step, and the step after that, and the step after that.   Even if we are forced to adjust our pace and our goals, we must remain committed to the mandate of our Torah, to kedoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh, ani Adonai, to modeling the divine and bringing sparks of holiness into our world.