The great marathon of destiny
One could find fewer more appropriate metaphors for the story of the Jewish people than that of a long and rigorous marathon in which the baton is passed from runner to runner as each generation concludes its distance and a new stretch begins.
The marathon of the Jewish people started 3 533 years ago, and is destined to continue onto the finish line – the coming of Moshiach. Then, great rewards and accolades will be meted out for the incredible feat of seeing through this longest and hardest marathon in all of history, and a new epoch will begin.
Scholars, historians, and philosophers are all at a loss as to how to explain the continuity that is the marathon of the Jewish people. They are baffled at how extraordinary it is that the baton hasn’t been dropped, and how the run through history continues.
Even more remarkable is how at intermittent stages in the race, other runners of supreme physique and athletic prowess joined in the marathon and, bragging of their might and muscle and domination of the track, drummed in the message that they would easily be the victors. Many of these tried forcibly to cut down the Jew and eliminate him from the marathon using all kinds of threat, menace, and brutal and savage attack. But these attempts proved futile. History shows that each of these formidable runners eventually fell out of the marathon while the Jew continued.
There were those runners who entered the race who realised that they couldn’t forcibly eliminate the irrepressible Jew out of the race, and who decided to use guile. Their method was to lure him with promises of bounty and pleasure, with showers of love and adoration, and with offers of prestige and prominence. “Just leave the marathon, drop the baton, you’ll have it so good!” But the Jew waved them off, and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
And so, the saga continued for millennia, and continues today. The baton hasn’t been dropped. The Jew’s march to the finish line is uninterrupted.
So, what’s the unique formula of the Jew that has enabled this seemingly inexplicable outcome of endurance and continuity?
We will touch on one fundamental component – Pesach. The birth of the Jewish people was unique among nations in history. They came to be a people not of their own gathering and becoming, but were gathered and became, as no other, by the Hand and doing of G-d. Their appointment as a people took place amidst great wonders and miracles. It was done in full view, out in public, open for all to see. It happened in spite of the efforts of the mightiest power of the day’s attempts to prevent it. Pharaoh and Egypt didn’t want to let this slave people go, and tried to defy its happening. But G-d’s people had been chosen, and so Pharaoh and Egypt crumbled, falling like a house of cards.
From being an oppressed, broken, and trapped bunch of slaves, this people was raised up by the Hand of the almighty Himself, taken to Him to be a people, and elevated to the highest heavens to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.
Once a year, on the very same date that this birth into nationhood took place, the Jew sits down and v’higadta l’vincha – he tells the story to his children of how they became a people. He speaks of the uniqueness of their marathon run, and the imperative that the baton is never dropped. He tells of how they were forged in the miraculous, and of their destiny being intertwined with the very purpose of creation.
The Pesach seder is the annual event that deals with the story of the birth of the Jew in particular detail. The message at the seder comes from a runner in the marathon that received the baton when he/she was young, and is now passing it on through the seder. In doing so, they are strengthened in their continued stretch of the race, re-affirming their commitment to their part in the marathon, as well as preparing the next generation to do their part.
To be clear though, the retelling of this event, which essentially summons the Jew to recognise his mission and destiny, cannot suffice with only annual gathering and telling. We are bidden to “remember the exodus from Egypt all the days of your life”. It’s mentioned in our daily prayers. We also recite it twice a day in the Shema, morning and night.
The conscientious athlete knows that in order to challenge for victory – and especially if it’s the coveted championship race – he needs to be in prime condition and must keep focus and commitment throughout. He cannot afford to drop the baton on his watch. So, too, we cannot rely only on an annual retelling of our peoples’ founding and this incredible start to the cosmic marathon. Rather, we need to “remember the exodus from Egypt all the days of your life”.
So as to the question, what’s the Jew’s unique formula that has enabled this seemingly inexplicable outcome of endurance and continuity? One vital component of it is, indeed, the Pesach seder, but perhaps an even more important component is carrying the seder and the message of this birth of our people into the year ahead so that the stretch of the marathon that’s run each day is done with fresh knowledge, renewed pride, and clear and immediate conviction. Then, we can be sure that the baton will be held firmly and passed on assuredly, reaching all the way to the finish line with the coming of Moshiach.
- Ilan Herrmann is the rabbi of Soul Workout shul, publisher of ‘Soul Sport’ magazine, and the founder of Soul Workout outreach organisation.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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