Dvar Torah from "Welcome Runners Shabbat"

I hope that those of you who ran in Grandma's marathon (or in the half-marathon or 5k races that weekend) had a great time.  We put together a special Shabbat service on Friday evening June 17, the night before the big race.  Here is the dvar torah I presented on that occasion:

Thoughts on Shelakh Lekha

(Numbers 13:1 - 15:41)

It’s great seeing everyone here this evening as we welcome Shabbat together.  In particular, we welcome all of the runners, and friends and family of runners, and race volunteers who are taking part in this weekend of Grandma’s Marathon races and events.

I’ve been a runner since 11th grade of high school when I had the great fortune of having a gym teacher, Mr. Toro was his name, who was also the track coach.  I’ve never been all that interested in following major league sports.  And my poor hand-eye coordination is such that I was never any good at sports involving a ball – participating in those sorts of activities was (and really still is) stressful and not all that fun for me.  But Mr. Toro told our gym class that anyone who wanted could be on the track team, no matter how good or mediocre your abilities.  He’d reserve the discretion to put the best runners on the team in more events at particular track meets, but everyone would get to train together and to participate in at least some events at meets.

I personally didn’t stay on track team for more than that spring season of 11th grade.  And I didn’t even last out the whole season because I got injured part way through. And yet, it was a turning point in my life.  Once I started running, I realized that I really loved it.  At first I couldn’t go more than a mile, but before I knew it, after my running injury healed, I took it up again recreationally and started running 4 to 6 miles at a time alone or with friends just for fun.

And I’ve never stopped since.

I’m not running Grandma’s but I did run a marathon in Quebec City in 2002 just after turning 41.  Next month, just before I turn 50, I’ll be running my 2nd marathon in Central Vermont.  Besides that I’ve run a dozen or so half marathons and shorter races.   The spiritual bliss and personal sense of well-being that running has given me all these years is well expressed by the special readings that we’ve been hearing during this evening’s service. 

(My friend Danny who has been providing guitar playing and vocals during tonight's Shabbat service has become one of my running buddies here in Duluth and I’m so grateful for the camaraderie and support.)

A marathon is such a huge crazy challenge.  For someone who hasn’t done it, and even for folks who have, it can look like an impossible task.

The Torah tells us that our ancestors were faced with a marathon-sized challenge of their own after the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  In this week’s Torah portion, Shelakh Lekha, they send out 12 men, tribal big shots no less, to scout out the land of Canaan.  10 of them come back with a pessimistic report – The land is flowing with milk and honey, but it’s filled with powerful people in fortified towns who will decimate us if we try to go there.  Indeed ---  “eretz ochelet yosheveha hi”/ “a land that devours its settlers” (Num. 13:32).

This assessment by 10 of the scouts, described by the Torah as “dibat ha’aretz” (“calumnies" or "evil reports” about the land) (Num. 13:32) is enough to sway the population at large.  Later in the parasha, God complains to Moses – “How long shall this wicked community (Ad matay la'eydah hara’ah hazot”) keep muttering against me?” (Num. 14:27)

Jewish halacha derived from this verse that a minyan (quorum for public prayer) would consist of 10 adults -- because those 10 scouts were a large enough sample of the population to constitute a “community.” ("eydah")

Thankfully, those of us here forming our “eydah” – our minyan for prayer this Erev Shabbat -- are here to encourage each other with hope, joy and thanksgiving.  To lift up one another’s spirits – unlike the minyan of scouts in our Torah portion who bred despair and hopelessness among our ancestors.

Of course, when we read about the discouraging report of the 10 scouts, it’s clear that they weren’t trying to do evil.   We empathize with them.   They may have been notables in their respective tribes, but they were still afraid. 

How poignant their cry that in the face of the dwellers of Canaan–

; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם.

("Vanehi ve'eyneynu kachagavim, vecheyn hayinu be'eyneyhem.")

(“We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”) (Num. 13:33).

But what’s wrong with that picture – “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” --- ?!

What kind of negative thinking is this?  Not only about self-image but also the assumptions of what others will think of you….

With that sort of mindset, you’re not going to reach the promised land. 

With that sort of mindset you’re not going to reach the 26th mile of the marathon.

The ones who made it to the promised land, of course, were those that went against the grain – the ones who had hope and confidence and faith.  The ones who gave the minority report.  Those other two scouts, Joshua and Caleb  --  it is they who represent the spirit exemplified by those who are running your  own races this weekend –

It’s the spirit that leads us to say along with Caleb –

עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ--כִּי-יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ

"Aloh na'aleh veyarashnu otah -- ki yachol nuchal lah."

("Let us by all means go up, and we shall inherit it, for we shall overcome it.) (Num. 14:30)

May each of us overcome the challenges before us, whether on the race course or in life and, by all means, "Aloh na’aleh!" – Let us ascend in all the worthy aspirations of our hearts and souls.

B’hatzlachah laratzim/ Good luck runners  --  And, to all of us, Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David Steinberg

(c) 2011/ 5771


Posted on June 23, 2011 .