What are you running towards?

Posted on September 6, 2019

In 1981 Bill Broadhurst lined up alongside 1,200 other men and women ready to run the 10,000 meter Pepsi Challenge race. But amongst that field of competitors, Bill Broadhurst was unique, 10 years earlier he had had surgery for a brain aneurysm that had left him paralyzed on his left side.

The starting gun sounded, and all of the runners surged forward. As they ran, Broadhurst threw his stiff left leg forward, pivoting on it as his foot hit the ground. He continued in this slow and steady manner as the rest of the runners disappeared off into the distance. His face was covered in sweat, and pain pierced his ankle, but he kept on going. Some runners completed the race in 30 minutes, Broadhurst took 3 hours to reach the end. As he reached the finish line, one man stepped forward from the group of bystanders watching him run. This man was the marathon record holder Bill Rodgers, winner of Boston and New York marathons. Recognizing the significance of the moment Rodgers removed the gold medal from his own neck and draped it around Bill Broadhurst, he whispered to him: “You’re the hero of this race. You deserve the medal.”[1]

There is something awe inspiring about watching runners compete in long distance endeavors. Standing on the street in Natick as participants in the Boston marathon surged past, I was in awe of the physical training and determination it required to participate in that race. As the story of Bill Rodgers and Bill Broadhurst reminds us, apart from an elite few, when most people run and compete in races it is not about “winning” in the sense of finishing first, it is primarily about simply finishing, reaching the line at the end and completing the race. Sure, the time achieved may be important, but not in comparison to someone else, rather as a personal milestone or achievement. Broadhurst was determined to participate in the Pepsi Challenge and he was determined to finish that race; as Rodgers rightly noted, he was the winner that day.

By reputation, both at home and in the synagogue, I am known as someone who runs a lot. Not in the sense of putting on my sneakers and going for a run, but rather as a person who never walks but always runs. My wife Micol was asked the other day if I had ever simply walked up or down the stairs and her answer was no. Members of our Education team know that I am approaching their offices, because they can hear my rapid footsteps down the corridor. And there has on occasion been concern from our main office about the rapid thumping when I’ve been rushing down the main staircase.

I’ve been trying to think about why I am always running. On the one hand I think that I run because I have a lot of energy and running is a way to let it out. But I also think I run because I am often excited and eager for what lies ahead. I might run up the stairs to see my children. I run down the corridor because I have an idea to share with our education team. And I generally run because  I guess I am a person always looking forward and eager to get where I am going.

And I am wondering if it’s just me. What are the things that you run for? If you think about your regular life when are those moments that you have that bit more determination in your steps, when you’re moving that bit more quickly to get to the place you are going? You might not spend your whole life running in the way that I do, but I am sure there are things, places, or people we are all, at least metaphorically, running towards.

In our Torah portion this week, the name really tells us all about the subject: Shoftim, literally means judges and the subject matter at hand is the Israelite judicial system. After giving instructions about setting up judges, the portion contains arguably it’s most famous line when we read: tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue it.[2] The commentators have spent a significant amount of time discussing the reason for the repetition of the word tzedek-justice. It is striking that this word is repeated with no discernible grammatical or linguistic reason. And yes, the repetition of tzedek is interesting, but for me, I am struck more by the fact that we are told tirdof-to pursue it.

When thinking about our relationship with justice there are many words that could have been used in connection to our obligations towards it. Uphold justice. Defend justice. Or simply as it says elsewhere in the Bible: Do justice.[3] The choice of tirdof as the word – “pursue” is intentional and it gives a different sense to our relationship with justice. In this context we are pursuing justice as something aspirational. We don’t simply follow it, but rather we are running towards it. There is a sense of urgency in that word, a desperate desire to reach an aspirational finish line. I wonder if it gives a sense that true and complete justice is always, ever so slightly, out of reach, but nonetheless we have to run with determination to try and get there.

When Bill Broadhurst began the Pepsi Challenge I am sure that he had aspirations of finishing the race. What we can’t know is how realistic he felt that goal was. But he set himself a target and he ran towards it. And through his determination, commitment and drive he was able to reach that finish line. And on that day he was the man truly worthy of a gold medal.

With the call in this week’s Torah portion to pursue and run after justice I am wondering what are those things that we are running towards or for in our own lives. They may be other overarching principles like justice that we are aspiring towards. Or there may be milestones and achievements to which we are racing. Or it may be about actively pursuing specific hopes and dreams for our family, community or society.

We know that running, as an example of exercise, is good for our physical health. But this week’s Torah portion has got me thinking that metaphorically running for something might be good for our spiritual health. It is important to have a target to which we are aspiring. A thing or an idea that is worth rushing towards with a sense of urgency. As we prepare to enter the new Jewish year, I want to ask each of you to think about what is it that you want to run towards? What is it that you will be pursuing in the months that lie ahead? What is the finish line that you are hoping to cross over in the future?

I have no idea what it should be for anyone other than myself. But I’m starting to believe that it is good for all of us to have something to run towards, something we are pursuing, a finish line to cross over. I hope that we will all receive a winner’s medal in the year that lies ahead.

[1] Adapted from http://pastorsmessage.blogspot.com/2011/05/jesus-has-been-raised-so-we-follow.html and http://www.vpi-corp.com/news_fullstory.asp?article_id=182

[2] Deuteronomy 16:20

[3] Micah 6:8