Running Life’s Marathon

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05 Sep 2007

Every fall, those of us who live in New York are awash in media coverage of the New York City Marathon. Literally thousands of people enroll for this most self-punishing of activities, running twenty six miles nonstop (without anybody chasing you!) through the neighborhoods of New York. While running has never been a particularly Jewish endeavor (unless it means running to Macy’s to catch the latest sale), the NYC Marathon was nevertheless the brainchild of Holocaust survivor Fred Lebow. More than 260 million people follow the race with interest to see who will win the trophy and the $500,000 cash prize.

It’s not easy to get to the point of being capable of running twenty six miles, much less qualifying for the NYC Marathon. You get there the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Obviously, at the world-class level, you better have substantial natural talent also. But there are many, many talented people in this world, and the difference between those who make it to the top and those who don’t is often purely a matter of perseverance and determination. You can’t go into an international piano competition and expect to win by winging it no matter how talented you are, and you won’t ace the bar exam if you never opened a law book, even if you’re a legal genius.

But what about being a champion in the domain of ruchniut (spiritual)? Might it be possible that people have to work to develop spiritual “muscles” in the same way a runner builds up physical strength and endurance?

Obviously, in the same way some people are more suited to becoming runners than others (think long legs, a lean frame, excellent heart-and-lung capacity), other folks are from the get-go more inclined towards, say, meditation and charity work than BMW’s and expensive jewelry. But a strapping, long-legged young man or woman will never become a marathon runner unless he or she devotes hours to getting in shape, and a spiritually-inclined person will likewise not develop into a tzaddik unless he undertakes a program of rigorous spiritual discipline, of study and prayer and good works.

Those who enter the realm of yeshivoth for baalei teshuva will know that newcomers to the religious world are strongly cautioned not to take on too much too fast. “If you try to change everything all at once, you’ll eventually crack and break down,” they are warned. “Slow and steady gains are more realistic and lasting.” The gulf between a completely nonreligious mentality and lifestyle and a frum Jewish mode of being is so vast that trying to leap it in one bound would simply end up with the leaper falling into the chasm and only possibly being able make a bruised and arduous climb back up.

You could compare it to overdoing it with physical exercise. Imagine a sedentary person like me who spends much of his time in front of a computer suddenly being asked to run a marathon. Pretty absurd, right? His body would be wholly unprepared for a workout on that level. His legs would give out after an embarrassingly short distance, leaving him with blisters, excruciating cramps, and worse, a terrible sense of failure. Feeling more than disgusted, he’d swear in the choicest language he’d never get near a marathon again.

Now imagine this person decides to take up running as a hobby and begins building up his physical capacity little by little. He starts with a quarter mile, works up to half a mile, and slowly proceeds from strength to strength until maybe one day he might actually be capable of running that marathon! More importantly, his sense of failure will be replaced by the satisfaction of continual small gains, and his disgust becomes replaced by self-esteem and even enjoyment of his pursuit.

People who train regularly to develop a skill know that there are good days and bad days, days of two steps forward and days of one step back. But only persistence ensures progress. I once overheard a conversation between a newly religious young man and his rabbi. “Rabbi,” the young man enthused, “I had such a great davening last night! I really felt a connection!

“But,” he continued thoughtfully. “I guess if I hadn’t been making the effort to daven every night I never would have had that one really good night. There wouldn’t have been the opportunity.” Only by persisting in his efforts did he acquire the ease in tefilah to be able to daven with kavanah (intention, concentration) instead of simply struggling to plow through unfamiliar Hebrew, and only by creating a daily window of opportunity was he able to access a new level of spirituality.

Too many unaffiliated Jews are more inclined to marvel at the spiritual feats of non-Western practitioners than they are to take notice of the spiritual heights being reached in our own, Jewish backyard. Many people are more than ready to devour reports of Indian gurus who develop amazing powers of concentration and control over their physical beings (e.g. walking on fire, sitting on beds of nails, contorting into bizarre yoga positions etc), and yet it often doesn’t occur to them—or to us– that we ourselves might try to put equal investment into, say, managing to read through an entire Shemonah Esrei with kavanah.

My kids recently introduced me to a fascinating story by Roald Dahl (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda fame) called “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” Henry Sugar is a rich, ne’er-do-well Englishman who stumbles across an account of a man from Bombay who was able to “see” without using his eyes—for example, he could read the front of a playing card when presented only with its back. This Indian wonder-worker recounts the manner in which, over the course of many years and with much effort, he developed his powers of concentration to the point where such a feat was possible. Henry, who is a gambler, instantly realizes that such a talent could win him millions at the casino, and he sets out to teach himself to do it. Lo and behold, he has a natural talent for it, and eventually manages to realize his goal. What happens when he reenters the casinos and finds out how easy it is—too easy, in fact—to win money creates the surprise ending of the story.

An Indian yogi in the story says, “You must learn to concentrate in such a way that you can visualize at will one item, one item only, and absolutely nothing else. If you work hard at this, you should be able to concentrate your mind, your conscious mind, upon any one object you select for at least three and a half minutes. But that will take about fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years!” cries the would-be student.

“It may take longer,” he cautions. “Fifteen years is the usual time.”

This idea stuck with me. Am I able to concentrate on Shema Yisrael single-mindedly for three minutes? What about the Amidah? What about the marathon davening of Yom Kippur? Am I as ready as Henry Sugar to devote myself wholeheartedly to the task, even though it probably won’t help me win at blackjack?

The Jew who immerses himself in Torah is not seeking to be able to do parlor tricks. He is less interested in levitating than elevating himself and others so that his entire existence is infused with spirituality and moral direction. It’s rather less showy than sitting on a bed of nails, but ultimately more profound.

And what about those of us who don’t have time to single-mindedly devote ourselves to spiritual pursuits, because we have to hold down jobs, take care of children, try to do a little chesed work, etc? The average Joe, or Yossi, is not a rich, single Henry Sugar who can afford to devote himself night and day to exercises in concentration or, even better, Torah study and meditation. We have other commitments, other inclinations that cause our energies to be spread rather more thinly. But just because a person is a Sunday painter instead of a full-time artiste living in a loft does not mean his artistic efforts have no value. He is still trying to develop a talent, still making progress of some sort regardless of whether or not his efforts will one day be hung in a museum.

Similarly, the average Jew has to try to develop his spiritual capacity as much as he can while still participating fully in other aspects of life. Fortunately, the beauty of Judaism is that, instead of monastically isolating study and prayer from “regular” life, it seeks to interweave spirituality with our daily actions and infuse the most banal of our activities with holiness. The myriad halachot that cause non-Jews to perceive us as “legalistic” are actually ways of insuring that every move a Jew makes connects him more closely to Hashem.

Our spirituality develops not only from study and prayer but from cultivating perfection in our dealings with other people. Honesty in business, chesed within our communities, patience and nurturing within our families—these are spiritual disciplines equally as important as our hours spent in prayer. And, like a marathon runner, the Jew who establishes a large family or devotes himself to chesed or a business does not go from Point A to Point Z in one bound; his skills and stamina build up slowly over time (which surely why Hashem generally causes babies to arrive in quantities of only one at a time!). Even the person who decides to work on a daily spiritual discipline like curbing loshon hara (slanderous speech) is best advised to concentrate on one or two hours a day at the beginning instead of trying to forswear all loshon hara cold turkey.

Self-perfection is never an easy undertaking; as it states in Pirkei Avot, the task can never be finished, but we are never exempt from trying. The ultimate level that we end up in is less important than the effort invested and amount of progress achieved. It may not be glamorous on a daily basis, but the bottom line is that only through practice, practice, practice can we aspire to reach the celestial equivalent of (l’havdil!) Carnegie Hall.

I am not much of a runner, and chances are pretty much zip that you will find me on the starting lineup of the NYC Marathon this year or any year. Actually, since I am tall and a good walker (surely the result of many long hours spent shopping with teenagers), maybe I “coulda been a contender.” But I have decided I have larger goals in mind. I am planning to run a 120-year marathon! It involves a very intensive program of Jewish self-development. And very much like the NYC Marathon, it will require all I’ve got in terms of stamina, fortitude, and a constant focus on the goal.

Barbara Bensoussan has worked as a college instructor and social worker and written for many Jewish magazines, newspapers and websites. She recently celebrated the release of her first novel, A New Song, from Targum Press and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and six children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.