Thirty weeks ago tomorrow, I completed my 19th full marathon. Barely. It was going well for 18 miles celebrating my 57th birthday at a record pace, until an unseasonably hot sun in the New Orleans open sky triggered a massive cramp in my right leg.
My calf and thigh were bulging and pulsating like a car engine overheating. The location was at the end of Lakeshore Drive in view of the New Orleans airport you could almost touch only I was limping to the medical tent. A godsend appeared in the form of a random nurse’s aide offering to help. Seeing my distress and Memphis racing bib, she was both compassionate and very direct, “you have three choices,” she said. “We can drive you to the finish line, you can try to swim to the airport and fly home, or, since you still have one good leg, you can keep going for as long as you can.” I dug deep and found a way to finish on one good leg, making it the least favorite but most instructive race I’ve ever run.
During these COVID days, my mind has gone back to that moment alone on NOLA’s Lakeshore Drive. Whether when counseling grief-stricken family members who could not even attend the funerals of loved ones, or crafting joyous weddings, conversions, bar/bat mitzvahs, baby namings – yes – we have been doing on average, two lifecycle ceremonies weekly, throughout this pandemic. Limping along Lakeshore Drive comes back to me responding to the thousandth email, text or Zoom pastoral support call, encouraging yet another adult or youth to hold on, even if the “finish line” of normalcy, employment, or just being with other humans as people were meant to be, seems out of sight. Just how can we find needed strength as the New Year begins when we’re already so tired, exhausted, and weary to some degree?
Eighteen years ago, while running the Philadelphia Marathon with my buddy Rick, a runner in front of me had Isaiah 40 printed on the back of his shirt. Not a Jew, but he was advertising our Scripture!
“Those who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall soar with wings as eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not grow faint.”
Among my favorite rabbinic writers of blessed memory was one who served 25 minutes North of Philly, in Dresher, PA. Rabbi Sydney Greenberg. He asked a great question about this verse. “Doesn’t Isaiah have the progression wrong?”
Ostensibly, he notes, the movements grow weaker as it unfolds. “Isn’t the greatest achievement to fly like an eagle? If you can fly, what’s the big deal about running? And if you can run, what’s the big deal about walking?” Doesn’t the impact of Isaiah’s message diminish in going from flying to barely walking!
No, says Rav Greenberg, Isaiah has it right. Sure there are times when soaring like an eagle is the highest emotion, like when a sports team wins a championship or when people get whooped up into a temporary frenzy at a rally, but when the high ends, whether in the off season for sports or just making it thru these times, if you can simply keep moving during a pandemic, you’re fortunate, because no one can keep soaring forever. “Not even eagles.”
What happens when you can’t fly and you even have to stop running? What then? What’s needed, Isa. teaches, who by the way wasn’t speaking to an individual runner in the original text – he was speaking to Beit Ya’akov – the house of Jacob, the children of Israel, the Jewish people – with a lesson for all people. “Shimu Eilai, Beit Ya’akov, v’chol sh’ayreet beit yisrael, Ha-a-mooseem Mee-nee-veten, ha’n’su’im mee-neeRA-chem. Listen to me, O House of Jacob, Isaiah says, and you remnant of the Jewish people who’ve been carried since birth and supported since leaving the womb; Till you grow old, “V’ad Sayvah, and when you turn gray, Ani esbole It is I, the God within you who will carry you and rescue you.”
The historical context Isaiah is contrasting is illuminating. History matters. Isaiah’s God, the God of Judaism, brings comfort and compassion to bleeding children on earth. The Babylonians back then, however, created their own Gods, literally idols. So what Isaiah means says, 12th cent Rabbi Ibn Ezra, is this: “I, God, Who made you, will carry you through your burdens. But do not confuse me with the gods of Babylon; because the Babylonians make their gods, they make idols in this lifetime that don’t help or heal people.”
My dear friends, what we clearly need at this challenging time in the life of our nation and world, are not the high flyers or fast runners. What we need – what each of us can become – are the tenacious walkers who find a way, even with only one leg or in a wheelchair, to hang in there, hold on and keep on walking.
Years ago, when I preached on this verse, I learned facts about the soaring eagle mentioned in Isaiah and why the bald eagle was specifically chosen as a symbol of victory on the U.S. dollar bill. Two reasons: the bald eagle wears no crown like the King of England did. The second reason is that the bald eagle is not afraid of a storm; unlike other birds, the bald eagle is smart enough to soar above it.
But wait a minute, we are humans, not eagles, and even the fastest among us cannot fly! Neither do most of us with a healthy dose of stamina run marathons. You don’t have to, for as we’ve learned during this pandemic, the persistent among us are the simple walkers who find the inner strength to keep faith and hope alive, no matter what. The enduring among us are those who understand that hope and its initials H-O-P-E stand for “Help Other Possibilities Emerge”, especially when new possibilities seem so far away.
Sometimes even the ones we are with seem far away. I heard a story about a couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, not their 30th or 50th, but their 20th by going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Leaving the restaurant, they got into the car to drive home. The wife turns to the husband and said, “What’s happened to us over the years? Do you remember when we were courting, when we were first married, how we would get into the car and snuggle up close, and drive somewhere holding each other? Now look how far apart we’re sitting.” And the husband responds pointing to the steering wheel, “I haven’t moved.”
The Jewish theologian with whom I resonate strongly, Rabbi Harold Kushner, speaks of how for many of us, there was a time when we were young and felt close to God. We were taught that God loved us, was watching over us, and that made us feel safe. But that childhood faith didn’t last with life’s inevitable disappointments, including serious illnesses affecting people we care about and the reality of bad people who prosper and good people who suffer. Like the wife in that story, we find ourselves feeling distant from the God to whom we had once felt so close to as kids. But perhaps it is not God Who has moved, perhaps it’s us; perhaps we need to open our eyes and see God in a different light. After all, what kind of loving parent would inflict cancer on a child or any person? When God is seen instead as the Force Who elicits the best within us and enables us to endure the worst that befalls us, that’s a God we can believe in and worship.
As I was limping and running on one leg for the last 8 of 26.2 miles, I prayed for spiritual endurance on the inside even as my body was giving out on the outside. Today, I pray for everyone’s spiritual endurance through these COVID days and in the New Year, which thank God is finally here. While Rosh Hashanah may not be the new calendar date on your phone, it can be our annual opportunity to enlarge our vision of who we want ourselves, the Jewish people, our nation and world to become.
All that requires an act of will, unlike six months from now, when we will be closer to the end of COVID sitting around seder tables on Passover. At Seder time, we recall the freedom our people experienced as an act of grace, unlike the hard work of teshuva, making a pledge to turn ourselves around for the better between now and Yom Kippur. In the story of Passover, our ancestors didn’t do anything. God simply hears their cries and like any loving parent or friend would do, God says, “I hear you, I’m with you, and I want you free from this plague.” They didn’t even have to wear masks leaving Egypt. But we do.
No doubt, though, that our ancestors endured by accessing the power within them – within us – that Avinu, that good parent, that El Rachum v’Chanun, that Compassionate Voice Who forgives us, that Ohev Tzedek, Lover of Justice, that Oseh Shalom, Maker of Peace, that moral conscience Who wants every human created in the Divine Image to emulate God’s loving traits. Remember, friends, throughout history, the Jewish people endured by staying human amidst the inhumanity around them. And so must we. They endured by believing that being with family, having each other, and knowing that a loving Creator was with them was enough.
Seems like a decade ago, but it hasn’t even been a year when a parent in our early learning center, who is also a well-respected lawyer and devoted lifelong Reform Jew, Jami Karren Lazarov, spoke on the other side of this wall, inside the E/W Hall last Oct. 9 on Yom Kippur afternoon. She gave a great talk entitled, “When Enough is Enough,” based on Dan Harris’ podcast “Enough-ness and the Hungry Ghost.” The Hungry Ghost is an ancient Buddhist concept about a creature with a giant stomach &tiny throat. So the Hungry Ghost is constantly hungry, because it can never fill its belly with enough. Jami said, “just as I was thinking, “sounds familiar,” Harris goes on to describe this phenomenon as part of our human condition, what he calls the “background hum of constant insufficiency we all have.”
“To me,” Jami said, “the moral of the Hungry Ghost is not to be less ambitious or desirous. Ambition and desire are ok, and can even be positive traits. It is ok for me to want to have a successful career. It is ok to want to raise a healthy and happy family and have the best for my children. What is important, though, is having something in your life that balances all that out and grounds you, because just as the Hungry Ghost keeps eating and acquiring and will never be full, the same with us who strive and strive and are never really fulfilled. There has to be something else, something purposeful that creates a sense of enoughness, and for me,” says Jami, “throughout my life and now as an adult that has been my Judaism and the community that Judaism provides.”
Jami could not have anticipated a year ago how COVID has made us even more aware of our enoughness. Enoughness is the basis of this spiritual anchor in our lives named Temple Israel even virtually. It’s at the core of everything we do. Take b’nei mitzvah. Beyond all the training sessions, what we were really saying to last Saturday’s bar-mitzvah Logan Hanover and what we’ll say again when we end these HHD on Simchat Torah with the bat-mitzvah of Katie Gruber is the same idea – that no matter who you are – you are good enough to live a life of mitzvah for a lifetime. Our religious community here at Temple counsels every adult and child to find and feel her or his own power.” And by “power” I don’t mean intimidation, domination, or physical force; I mean the spiritual power to participate meaningfully in the world as a positive force for good.
The good news is you don’t have to run out to Mile 18 on Lakeshore Drive in NOLA to find spiritual endurance. You can build your spiritual endurance without even leaving your home just by joining us here from wherever you are and believing that as hard as it is to breathe when all you know is the struggle of staying above the rising water line, you can trust that the sky will finally open and the rain and wind will stop blowin’. And that some way, it will all be alright (music…)
So my friends, let’s continue to see this through together as we have here at Temple every day and night since March – socially distanced and spiritually united in enduring, persevering, and never giving up.
After all, we’re Jews. Amen