Last Sunday, I joined with Team Yachad to participate in the Miami Half-Marathon. While I was there, I met a man who was familiar with my writing from this very web site. (Gratifying though that was, any egotism it might have caused was offset by the fact that he was 15 years my senior and assumed that we were the same age because I “look older.”) Anyway, he asked me if I was going to write about the marathon experience. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it until that point but I told him I’d think about it.
I wracked my brain for a point. It would have been easy to write about perseverance but I’m sure many others have trod that territory and besides, it’s a little too touchy-feely for me. Even after the race, nothing occurred to me. It wasn’t until the next day, when I woke up aching and barely able to walk, that I had my marathon epiphany.
You see, I’m sedentary by nature. (“Sedentary” is a euphemism for “lazy slob.”) I decided to do the half-marathon – a 13.1 mile run – as a fitness goal. I don’t even particularly like running; I much prefer boxing and weightlifting. My training was excruciating not because it was physically grueling but because I was bored. I didn’t commune with nature or get in touch with my thoughts; I listened to my iPod and looked at my watch a lot. But I set a goal and I did it.
What surprised me was Monday morning, when I woke up and hobbled across the house, completely incapable of doing the stairs. I didn’t regret it. I never once thought, “Why did I do this to myself?” If I hurt myself in the gym, I’d be full of self-recriminations but that was not the case here. What was different?
I think what’s different is that if I hurt myself in the gym, I’d be upset with myself because I had done something wrong. Post-marathon, I was aching because I had done something right. The pains weren’t a consequence of corporeal malfeasance, they were a badge of honor.
This reminded me of something I had occasion to tell teens more than once in my many years of working with NCSY. Occasionally, teens would share with me “moral dilemmas” that weren’t. The reason they weren’t was because the teens weren’t really conflicted as to what was correct. (Imagine finding the wallet full of money. You want to keep it but you know it’s right to return it. It’s no moral dilemma at all.) In these cases, the teens knew what was the proper course of action, it just wasn’t what they wanted it to be. I’ve been around for a while (15 years fewer than I look, but long enough!), so I know a reason from an excuse when I hear one. Most of us do.
What I would tell the teens in such cases was, “The right thing isn’t always the thing we want to do, but it’s the thing that makes us like the person in the mirror the next morning.” If I returned a wallet, I might regret not keeping the money for ten minutes but I’d feel good about myself for much longer. Conversely, if I kept the money, I’d probably feel bad about it long after the money was gone. Similarly, I knew the soreness of my marathon would pass but I would be left with the feeling of accomplishment.
This now makes me wonder about a sad phenomenon I see all about me. People have a preconceived conclusion they want to reach and they stack the deck to reach that conclusion. They may not necessarily lie but they conveniently ignore the facts that do not support their desired outcomes. This happens in religion, politics, business – in all walks of life. How can one be so intellectually dishonest and still look at themselves in the mirror? They justify it as what’s called a pious fraud. For example, “I know this verse doesn’t really prove my theological point but citing it will convince others of this cause that I know to be true, so I’m really serving the greater good.”
The Talmud (Eiruvin 13b) discusses the brilliance of certain scholars. They are praised because they could argue a staggering number of reasons that something impure is really pure and vice versa. But they are praised merely for having the ability to do so. Aside from one example given by the Talmud there – for the sake of edifying those of us who are curious as to what kind of arguments might be made – such Sages as Sumchus and Ravina never actually tried to legislate ritual impurity away based on clever subterfuge. There’s nothing truly “pious” about a pious fraud.
The pagan sorcerer Balaam was guilty of stacking the deck to get a desired outcome. In parshas Balak, he badgered G-d to get the desired result – permission to accompany Balak’s men on a mission against the Jews. “Fine. Do what you want,” G-d eventually told him, though Balaam knew it was not really G-d’s will.
“Aha!” I hear you say. (Not really.) “Abraham did the same thing! He nagged G-d about sparing Sodom!” But are the two cases analogous? Abraham was acting altruistically. There was nothing in it for him. He just wanted to save people. Balaam was after the fame and riches promised him by the king of Moab. Abraham was trying to do the right thing; Balaam was trying to do the thing he wanted to do. Neither one actually succeeded but Avraham had the satisfaction of knowing he tried, while Balaam met a disastrous end.
So if I pull a muscle in the gym lifting weights that are too heavy for me, I will blame myself. If I hobble around for 72 hours because I did something healthy and supported a very worthy cause, I will congratulate myself.
We usually know what’s right. When we try to outsmart ourselves, others, or even G-d Himself, nobody wins. But when we do the right thing, our aches, pains and inconveniences are minor sacrifices. The fact that we pay a little price makes doing the right thing all the more rewarding.