The Tumah at Mile Twenty

This year, I promised myself I would be better prepared. I had trained a little harder, a little more diligently. I tried to get a little more rest in the days leading up to the Miami Marathon. I was determined to ensure that I would complete the race in better time and better spirits than last year. All things considered, this was shaping up to be a great race... and truthfully, it was. Everything was looking great, that is, with the exception of the the spontaneous heat wave that hit South Florida on Sunday morning.

As sun rose, race officials raised red warning flags, and later reported that it was their hottest race event in 22 years. Myself, and the runners around me, adjusted our pace, reset our expectations, and dug in for the challenging miles ahead.

Despite the heat, I knew there was no turning back. For me, finishing this race was not simply about crossing the finish line. I was running with a difference purpose: Fastened to my back was a sign saying KIDNAPPED, and the face of 84 year old Oded Lifshitz from Nir Oz. Our runners from BRS West, and my team from Team Lifeline were running with more than our own stories. My cap said ”עם ישראל חי”, and I was determined to cross that line in front of thousands of spectators, and announce the world that Am Yisrael is here to stay. I ran with the tefillah that Hashem should give strength to our soldiers, hope to the hostages and courage to all those families waiting for their loved ones to come home.

As the miles continued, I davened that, in some small way, I could remind the world of the horrors our people are facing – and have faced for millennia. I davened that I, my family and my community might serve as a Kiddush Hashem in that moment, and always.

With these priorities occupying my thoughts, the pain in my legs faded into the background. I imagined myself drawing from the wellsprings of generations of Jews who refused to give up on Hashem, His Torah, His People and His Land.

In general, running a marathon for me is a powerful exercise in Mussar. I come back to the hard moments of a run often, reminding myself that if I could harness the strength to persevere there, then I know that I can apply the same relentlessness and resilience to mitzvos, chessed and Talmud Torah. We may be exhausted, but Klal Yisrael is not weak. Quitting can never be an option.

It was these thoughts that echoed in my head as I ran through the final stretch. Thousands of people cheered on the runners completing the race, and I found myself screaming “Am Yisrael Chai! Am Yisrael Chai!” It’s a statement, a truth, and a tefillah. Jews on the side lines, of all persuasions, answered with the same “Am Yisrael Chai!”

Of course, a race like last Sunday, much like the rest of life, is not run on Tefillah alone. We depend on our family, friends and community to support us when we are most vulnerable. In a deep way, running also engenders the humility to realize that our success is due, in no small measure, to the kindness of countless strangers.

There were the strangers who staffed the aid stations, the strangers running beside me, and the dozens of Miami residents who stood outside their homes, with a cheer, a smile and most importantly, a sprinkler and hose pipe. There is nothing more invigorating than a cascade of cold water in the middle of a hot run.

I took full advantage of every such offer of sprinkler and hose pipe in those 26.2 miles.

All except one.

Rounding the corner, clearing through mile twenty, there was a man offering to spray the passing runners with cold water. This man, however, was dressed in full catholic priestly regalia. In one hand, he held a cross, and in the other a small sprinkler of “holy water”. Beside him, two children were handing out race nutrition, in this case, communion wafers. This was, after all, a Sunday morning.

I was shocked to see him, and I was entirely unprepared for my reaction to his offer.

I had only noticed the priest a few feet away, but as he raised his holy water to spray me, a voice rose up from somewhere deep inside of me, and I screamed in horror “No! God Forbid! I’m a Jew!” I’m have no doubt that I sounded like a crazy person.

I don’t know enough about Christian rituals to understand the significance of that water to him. But I knew it was Tameh for me. I wanted nothing to do with it; not a drop.

My scream startled him, and I didn’t hear his reply, but the holy water was quickly retracted. I didn’t mean to offend him, I didn’t mean to yell; it was an instinctive response. This well meaning, religious man, just happened to cross paths with a Jew, a Rabbi, who was three hours into a grueling race, meditating deeply on the journey and challenges of the Jewish People.

It took another mile for me to calm myself from the encounter. With the priest firmly behind me, I began to worry how many Jewish runners had been unwittingly sprinkled by that impure water.

In the days since, I’ve begun to wonder to what extent all of our thoughts, actions and lives have been sprinkled by the waters of other gods, faiths and cultures.

Chazal (כתובות קיא ב) tell us that anyone who lives is Chutz La’Aretz is living as if they are an Idol Worshiper. We are recipients of external influences; tainted by the “holy waters” of the people around us.

I’ve been thinking about this reality as we enter another contentious election cycle in the US. As tensions rise, so many of us seem to gravitate towards some or another political party or persuasion. We find like-minded allies wherever we can. Allies that understand the value of the State of Israel and the dangers of anti-semitism. Allies who also believe in morality and the rule of law. But while we are most definitely grateful for these partnerships; political, religious and social, I keep trying to remind myself that the Torah is above and beyond any secular or political orientation.

Indeed, Rashi (שמות כא א) tells us next Shabbos that even when the Halacha rules identically to secular law, we are obligated to bring our personal disputes to a Beis Din, rather than a secular court.

The Ishbitzer (מי השלוח ח”א יתרו ד”ה אנכי) explains the depth behind this Halacha.

Chazal (שבת קה א) tell us that when Hashem revealed Himself to us on Har Sinai, He gave far more than a simple set of laws. His introductory remark was אנכי – meaning far more than “I”. אנכי is an acronym for אנא נפשי כתבית יהבית – I, Hashem, have inscribed My Soul and given it to you. Even if, by chance or by design, the nations around us accept a rule or a value of the Torah, their laws are still human. The Soul of Hashem cannot be found in secular laws and values.

The Torah is lifeblood of our eternal, immortal existence. It is, quite literally and unfathomably, the will of the Infinite Creator expressed to His finite creations.

When a Jew is seeking clarity and direction in life, we are invited and obligated to seek out that meaning within our own value system. Of course, there are indeed similarities to the values of conservatism or liberalism in the Western tradition. Perhaps we do see eye to eye with some other moral code on certain issues. But that is not who we are; and it certainly does not begin to attempt an understanding of Ratzon Hashem.

As we watch the news, listen to the talking heads and follow our favorite podcast hosts, we all feeling the heat of the world around us. Sometimes (or often) the challenge of moving through this contentious world seems unbearable. So when someone offers us a splash of cool water, a friendship, a partnership, a shared mission, we are tempted to accept their generosity wholeheartedly.

And in those moments, we run the risk of forgetting that a political stance is a far cry from our relationship with the Master of All Worlds; the Giver of the Torah.

This Shabbos at Matan Torah, Hashem reminds us there is only one way to shield ourselves from the encroaching impurity of the world around us: learning and connecting to D’var Hashem. The more we learn His Torah, the more we sensitize ourselves to His Ratzon. Ultimately, the more we will be able to distinguish between cool waters of friendship and Tumah of heresy.

Am Yisrael is neither red, nor blue. Am Yisrael doesn’t trade Torah for talking points. Am Yisrael has far deeper wells than the sprinkles of “holy waters” around us.

On a very practical level, as much as possible, Hashem is inviting us to turn off the news feeds a little more. Use that time to learn more and daven more. To reach out to each other with love, kindness, patience and respect. This will deepen our connection to Hashem, His Torah, His People and His Land.

Our goal is to get to the finish line of this war; the finish line of this Galus. Running through the final stretch, we are all carrying the weight of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael on our backs. Their pain is our pain, and their victory will be our victory as well. Charging to the end, we will scream Am Yisrael Chai. Hashem should help us that the nation crossing the finish line is still His Am Yisrael.

עם ישראל חי!