What I Discovered On The Other Side of the Wall

By mile nine I knew that the Miami Marathon was not going well for me. It was my fourth marathon, and by all standards it was my most painful and disappointing race to date.

Sure, the weather in Miami was brutal; it was hot, humid as well as windy. That certainly accounted for some of it. But I felt undertrained and overtired. All of those little details compounded together to a feeling of sluggishness that I had never felt in a race.

In the Miami Marathon, there is a point around mile 12 where those running the half marathon turn left, and those running the full marathon turn right. I have never felt such a strong desire to quit half way as I did at that moment. Simply turn left go home. Of course, running a half marathon is nothing to be ashamed of, but that was not my goal for the day.

Somehow, I mustered the courage to turn right, knowing that the pain I was already experiencing would only increase. At that point, I had no idea just how painful things would get. By mile 17, my legs were cramping, my muscles burning, and I wanted nothing more than to escape the torture to which I had willingly subjected myself. This was all before hitting “the wall” around mile 20.

Marathon runners are all familiar with “the wall”; it's the point in the race that you run out of juice – physiologically as well as psychologically. In many ways, the marathon distance is perfectly designed to ensure that almost everyone hits the wall. It's the moment that every fibre of your being is screaming for you to stop. The entire purpose of the marathon is to keep going at that point. Keep on running, and not to quit.

It might sound insane (and perhaps it is), but the main reason that I kept on running was to get another glimpse at the other side of that wall. It provides a rare vantage point into ourselves that is only earned through the immense desire to keep going, and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough strength or courage to run another marathon this year if I didn’t finish this one. Perhaps more importantly, the practice of running, for me, has always been more about learning than speed. And I knew that I was on track to learn a lot about myself if I continued.

Beyond “the wall” there’s a mental place where the pain, cramps and exhaustion don’t matter. It's all still there, but something else takes over. It's a small taste of how the the Navi (זכריה ט:ט) describes Moshiach: As an עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל־חֲמוֹר – a poor man riding on a donkey. The Maharal (גבורות ה׳ כ״ט) explains this vision as a person who is in total control of their physical self – רוכב על החמרית – riding above the material. I wanted to feel that feeling if only for a few moments, to learn from that experience. Perhaps I might find something of value to share.

With Hashem's help, there were a lot of things that I found behind the wall this past Sunday. Some of them, I am still processing. Some are far too personal to share. But there is one line of of thinking that reverberated almost ceaselessly, and contending with it provided an education with far reaching implications for life, and Avodas Hashem in general.

The thought began softly and carefully. At first I thought it was my Yetzer Tov, looking out for my well being. But with every passing step, it became clear that this was the voice of my Yetzer Hara. It screamed out “you should quit.” More specifically, it said: “You're unprepared and exhausted. This is no way to run a marathon, you should be ashamed of yourself. This will be a your worst finishing time ever. Get yourself together, and quit already. You can try again when you're better trained.”

The problem with this voice in my head was that it was, of course, entirely factually correct.

But running is not the only time that I have heard this voice. Most likely, you've heard it it too. It's the voice that says that you should quit learning Daf Yomi because you're too far behind. Or forget about coming to minyan because you're running too late, or that, since you've missed minyan half a dozen times this week already, there's no point in coming today at all.

It's the voice that says there's no way you're going get through everything you need to cover for the final, so there's little point trying to study.

It's the voice that says you might as well get an extra dessert, and start the diet tomorrow; or after Shabbos, or maybe after vacation.

It's the defeatism that tells us that it was our poor parenting which produced this mix of challenges in our children. And also, that we are now incapable of doing anything to make it better. It tells us that our marriage is in a rut, and will stay that way because we've messed it all up already.

It's the voice that now demands perfection where only imperfection is available. The voice that says it's not worth attempting at all if it's not going to be your best. It's the voice of self-doubt, worthlessness and destructive criticism.

This voice is the sound that plays in our ears when we hit “the wall” in marathons, and in life. It was also the sound of the very first wall that Klal Yisrael encountered after coming our of Mitzrayim.

The Torah tells us that at the splitting of Yam Suf: וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם – the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Chazal (מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל י״ד:כ״ט) note that the word חֹמָה (wall) in the pasuk is spelled without a “vav”, allowing for the word to also be read as חֵמָה – anger:

...והיו מלאכי השרת תמהים לומר בני אדם עובדי עבודה זרה מהלכין ביבשה בתוך הים ומנין שאף הים נתמלא עליהם חמה שנ' והמים להם חומה אל תקרי חומה אלא חמה

The Angels were astounded, saying, “how could Hashem allow these idol worshipers to cross through the sea on dry land?!” The sea was likewise angry, filled with rage.

The Angels demanded an explanation as to why the Jewish idolators should be spared, while the Egyptian idolators should be destroyed. How does Hashem answer these accusations of the inadequacy of Jewish people? How does Hashem get us over the wall?

The Meshech Chochma (שמות י״ד:כ״ט), paraphrasing the Medrash (ילקוט שמעוני) explains that Hashem answers the sea:

On the surface they may appear to carry the same idol worship as their Egyptian tormentors, but in truth, they have already abandoned the ways of Egypt. They slaughtered the Egyptian gods, and gave a Bris Milah to their sons. They have followed Me into the desert. And all of this they did when they were no longer enslaved! (Since the plagues ended their servitude six months before they left Egypt.) All of their failures were a result of the pain of exile and slavery, but the moment they had a little freedom they chose Me.

Hashem is telling us: The secret to getting over the wall is knowing that we've already come so far. We're already out of Mitzrayim, learning Torah, making it to minyan, controlling our tempers and temptations. We have achieved more than we ever thought possible, and we've got a lot to be proud of.

For me, it took a little humility to recall that four years ago I was almost a hundred pounds heavier, and could barely run a mile. With the incredible support of my family and community, and more than my fair share of Siyata D'Shmaya, that's not me any longer. I have more than enough to be grateful for. To quit because “it wasn’t going as planned” smacks of an arrogance that I hope to avoid. 

Of course, none of our success and self confidence absolves us of our responsibility to actually rid ourselves of the Egyptian Avoda Zara in our pockets. We still need to catch up the Daf, work on our relationships with our parents and children, and eat less cake. Much like running faster necessitates getting fitter, and training harder. Everything still needs work. But allowing ourselves the latitude to focus on what we've achieved opens a pathway to see beyond the wall.

With Tu B'shvat around the corner, the Beis Yaakov of Izbihtz would remark that he could taste the difference between a fruit that held on throughout the cold and windy days, and the fruit which gave up and was ready to fall. Nothing can compare to the sweetness of a Jew of that holds on despite their challenges and failures.

That's my Tefillah for myself and for you. That Hashem grants us the sweetness of being able to hold on, and the strength never to let go. That when we face our next walls, we will be able to overcome them, and perhaps when we've conquered them, we'll find a new closeness to Hashem, עומד אחר כתלנו משגיח מן החלנות מציץ מן החרכים – the One Who stands behind our wall, watching from the windows, peering in through the cracks.