Hitting the Wall

December 19, 2020

Author(s): Rabbi Michelle Robinson,

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December 19, 2020 — 4 Tevet 5781
Hitting the Wall
by Rabbi Michelle Robinson
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


There is an amazing new sculpture on Commonwealth Avenue. Carved out of a tree trunk, in mid-stride is a magnificent runner confidently bounding up Heartbreak Hill. I pass him every day on my way to Temple Emanuel and am always struck by how he never seems to run out of energy.

A little more than 10 years ago, I ran a marathon. Well, “run” is perhaps too generous a word. I jogged for a super-long time until I crossed the finish line in what I had hoped would be under six hours. To this day, I am still not entirely sure what possessed me to do this.

Every time I pass that tree trunk runner, I think back to my marathon. The tree trunk runner was carved to life in the middle of a global pandemic – at a time that the Boston Marathon has now been called off for a second season. The tree trunk runner is, by definition, rooted in place – stuck – on Heartbreak Hill, the hardest part of the route. Yet the sculptor filled him with eternal boundless positive momentum.

The last leg of my marathon was the opposite. In runner-speak, I “hit the wall.” Seasoned marathon runners speak of “the wall” as an experience to be studiously avoided. Scientifically, it is the point when your running body has depleted its stored glycogen, bringing out feelings of fatigue and emotional exhaustion.

So I prepared for the wall. I trained for the wall. I tried to positive-self-talk my way out of the wall. But I hit the wall – hard.

My exhaustion was matched only by Mike’s energy. Even though he had not planned to run this marathon – even though he had not trained to run this marathon – he woke up that morning and decided to go with me. At mile 24, just 2.2 miles from the end, seeing me flagging, he encouragingly looked at his watch and said, “You can do this – you can make it in under six hours.” I looked at him and said, “Yeah, no.”

I am not sure I even remembered why I was doing this, let alone why I would try to come through in any particular way or time. And so, 6 hours 1 minute and 5 seconds after I began, I crossed the finish line – changed.

I have never regretted those 65 seconds. Indeed, they were among the most important 65 seconds of my life, because they schooled me in acceptance. They sensitized me to how painful the choice to keep going is when your energy is flagging and everything feels too hard.

The reality of hitting the wall with the finish line in sight feels like an apt metaphor for where we are as a nation in this pandemic. This week the United States marked a grim milestone – more than 300,000 dead from coronavirus. And this week the United States marked a hopeful turning point – the administration of the first approved vaccine. Heartache. And hope.

On the one hand, the news could not be better – there has never been a faster vaccine whose rate of efficacy appear to be beyond any expectation.

There is hope in an economic aid package that appears to be on the verge of helping those hit hardest by this pandemic. Hope in our beloved member, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, being appointed to head the CDC, bringing her light to our nation, sharing the strong, steady, science-grounded leadership she has so lovingly given to our congregation throughout this pandemic with our country and our world.

On the other hand, hospitals across our country are nearing or at critical capacity, economic devastation is rampant, and community spread is now so significant – driven by our very human need to be close to one another, and very human exhaustion for having done this pandemic isolation for so long. This was stunningly captured in a recent Boston Globe article titled, “Makes you ask why the hell we even bother -subtitle-Infectious disease experts face disillusionment as COVID-19 pandemic worsens.” Heartache and hope.

How do we keep going – keep limiting our gatherings, limiting our dining out, limiting our travel, limiting our contact with those we love who we miss so much it hurts but cannot see, cannot hug? What do we do when we are at mile 24 of a grim marathon that we never would have signed up to run – hope is around the corner, but we have hit the wall?

Luckily, we can refuel with the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. We’ve been through tough times before. Indeed, our story today finds Joseph in jail. He had interpreted two dreams, both of which came true, and Joseph pinned his hopes on the cupbearer. But last week’s parasha ended ominously: “The chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph.” Just in case we missed the point, the verse ends: “He forgot him.”  It is easy to imagine Joseph hitting a wall.

When our parasha this week picks up, it has been two full years – until finally Joseph is summoned. It is then that Joseph gives us a key to resilience and finding a new wind when we have hit the wall.

Back at home when times were good, he shared his dreams as being all about him. Now, facing Pharaoh, this previously pampered young man has learned from his hardship.

Rashi notices something odd in the Torah’s report that the “necromancers did not interpret for Pharaoh.” He does not accept for a minute that the people paid to satisfy Pharaoh’s every whim did not offer him, or at least attempt to offer him, some explanation of his dreams.

Instead, Rashi suggests that the verse be read that they “did not interpret for PHARAOH.”  They gave him a personal read of his dream as if the dreams were about him alone, one person going through anxious times.

What Joseph did, in contrast, was to see Pharaoh as linked to his people. He offered an interpretation which enabled Pharaoh to see beyond himself as intricately bound, and responsible to, a greater whole.

That truth is what helped the famous refusenik, Natan Sharansky, to get through nine years in a Soviet prison. As he shared at the beginning of the pandemic:

“In prison, I didn’t know when I’ll be released. I didn’t know, in fact, IF I will be released at all…I always had to remind myself, I am part of a huge, global battle… Remember that you are not alone. We Jews, for thousands of years all over the world, were scattered but we always had this feeling we are part of a big people, a great people. With our mutual past and our mutual future and our mutual mission.”

We are not going through this pandemic alone. We all have a mission, no matter how small, to protect and preserve each other’s health, life, and safety. If you have hit a wall, if your energy is flagging, if all you want to do is hug your mom or your grandpa or just feel normal by having a meal with a group of friends, look left and look right. Remember that you are part of something bigger, a people who have persisted for thousands of years with concern for each other that steadied them and can steady us now through heartache with hope. There are so many who are trekking with us, so many who we may be called, right here, right now, to go beyond ourselves to be of service to in their time of need.

Heartbreak Hill, it turns out, is famous not only for being heartbreaking, but for being a place which can offer a second wind. The story is told that in the 1936 Boston Marathon, Ellison “Tarzan” Brown went out hard, and his energy was starting to flag. By mile 20, Johnny Kelley, the winner of the previous year’s marathon, caught up with him and patted him on the back. That pat reinvigorated Brown, who surged ahead to win. The hill is named for the heartbreak Johnny Kelley felt with that fateful pat.

But there is a coda to the story. The news of that day reported: “Fifth is Kelley. Worn, battered to bits…Kelley covers the last mile on his nerve alone…Badly beaten, this Johnny Kelley, but his great heart is not broken.” Kelley went on to run the Boston Marathon 61 times, including a marathon finish at the age of 84.

Kelley kept running that hill. His energy wavered in that most famous race, but his connection to the running community grounded him, inspired him to renew and keep looking forward, eventually earning him the role of Boston Marathon Grand Marshall in 1995.

It is easy for a statue to be eternally robust – easy for the tree trunk runner to always keep running. For us, it takes continued resolve. We are all on Heartbreak Hill. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Keep on going.

Shabbat Shalom.