Ten Yards at a Time

Parshat Beshallach
February 11, 2017—15 Shevat 5777

            Do you remember the moment, Sunday night, Super Bowl 51, when hopelessness, against all odds, gave way to hope?  When that pit in our stomach that the Patriots were going to lose gave way to the unlikely possibility that they might win after all?  There was the fumble. Down by 7.  The Falcon drive. Down by 14.  The interception, the pic six, down by 21.   All we could muster was 3 points.  Down 21 to 3, and then Lady Gaga and the half time show.  And then, the Falcons score again. It is 28 to 3.  It is late in the third quarter.  The clock is ticking. Nothing is working. Not our night.

            It all felt hopeless.  How did the Patriots turn it around in the face of all that adversity, and what does it mean for us?  The Super Bowl drama is over.  But  the problem of being 25 points behind late in the third quarter, the problem of running out of hope and running out of time, is our problem, too. 

            Our physical fitness is not what we want it to be. 

            Our spiritual serenity is not what we want it to be.  We don’t have peace of mind.  We have worries that keep us up at night.  Worries about problems that we cannot seem to solve.  Equanimity might never be ours.

            Our family life is not what we want it to be.  We are all so busy, running in different directions, who has time to connect with the people we love most?  We love so much. We connect so little.

            It’s 28 to 3, late in the third quarter, physically, spiritually, in terms of our family life, and we don’t have endless time.   How do we make it right with the time that we still have left?

            Bill Belichik and Tom Brady probably did not consult the Torah on the sidelines Sunday night late in the third quarter, but they could have. The Torah offers two contrasting visions for finding hope when you have run out of hope.

            The first is in our reading today, and that is the sensational miracle, the unrepeatable miracle, that suddenly and dramatically makes it all right.  The Israelites have run out of hope.  Pursued by the Egyptians, the Israelites have nowhere to turn.  Stay where they are and get massacred by the Egyptians.  Or walk into the sea and drown.  Of course when they walk into the sea they don’t drown. God performs this amazing miracle. The sea parts, a wall of water to their left, a wall of water to their right, they pass through on dry land, they get to the other side, they turn around, and now, safe and sound, they see the water drown their Egyptian tormentors.

            How do we assess this splitting of the sea moment?  Is it something we might think about when we are stuck and losing hope?

            It does have some upside.  Rashi tells us that the salvation was so powerful that an ordinary Israelite experiencing this extraordinary salvation had a sense of God that was more alive, more on fire, than the biblical prophets.

            If we have ever been blessed to experience a modern miracle—the joy of brides and grooms under their chuppah, the birth of a child, unexpected recovery from illness, seeing Israel for the first time, hiking a gorgeous mountain range on splendid summer day—we have a sense of  how powerful it is to experience God’s amazing grace.

            But the splitting of the sea moment also has some downsides.  For one thing, such moments hard to come by.  Many people can live their whole life without ever experiencing such a moment.  And even if we do experience it, we learn from these Israelites that it doesn’t last.  Yes, in the initial afterglow of the miracle, the Israelites believed in God and in his servant Moses.  But a mere three days later, they complain again about lack of water, lack of food, why did you take us out of Egypt so that we could die in the wilderness.

            The irony of this special Shabbat Shira is that the Torah itself is highly skeptical about splitting of the sea type miracles.  When you are running out of hope, you can’t count on them, and they don’t last.  We need another move.

            Which brings us back to the Patriots when they were down 28 to 3 late in the third quarter.  There are some dramatic football moves for when your team is far behind and you are running out of time. There is throwing the deep pass, the hail mary. The onside kick. The trick play.  The Patriots were desperate enough that they tried these football equivalents of a miracle.  Brady threw some long passes downfield.  They tried an onside kick. Brady threw to a receiver who threw to another receiver.  But, with the notable exception of the miraculous Julius Edelman grab in the midst of three defenders,  none of the rest of this worked.

            What did work was very simple.  Ten yards at a time.  Brady threw modest passes for modest yardage, and his receivers kept catching the ball, over and over again.  How did Brady march the team down the field 90 yards in the last few minutes to tie the game?  Ten yards at a time.  In overtime, how did Brady march the team down the field again 75 yards to win the game? Ten yards at a time.  No hail Mary’s. No tricks.  How did he finish with 466 passing yards—the most ever in a super bowl? Ten yards at a time.  Chip, chip, chip.

            Now ten yards at a time, when we do it, not on the world stage, but in our own quiet lives, is not fancy. It is not glorious. It is most often not dramatic.  But it is something we can do. It is something we can count on. And it is something that lasts.

            Which is why the Torah, after giving us the sexy but suspect splitting of the sea, gives us another model that is the opposite of sexy, but is extremely reliable.

            Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach, loh tichbeh.  A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, never to go out. Nice. A perpetual fire.  Every synagogue has an echo of this ideal with the neir tamid.  How did the Israelites do it?  Ten yards at a time.  Every morning the priest had to remove the ashes from the previous night’s fire and put in fresh logs for that day’s fire.  Every evening the priest had to remove the ashes from that day’s fire and put in fresh logs for that evening’s fire.  Every morning, clean up the ashes, put in the new wood. Repeat. Forever.  All of these daily and nightly quotidian exertions add up to something incredibly lofty and beautiful: a fire that never goes out.

            In a deep sense, the Torah is telling us that our lives are less about the unrepeatable splitting of the sea miracle, and more about our daily patterns.  Ten yards at a time until 28 to 3 becomes 28 to 9 becomes 28 to 12 becomes 28 to 20 becomes 28 to 28 becomes 28 to 34.  We win our lives in small increments.

            We want to be healthier.  How do we get there? One run at a time. One workout at a time. One healthy choice at a time.

            We want to connect more deeply with our loved ones.  A whole week can go by and we hardly see them.  How do we get there?  One Shabbat dinner at a time.

            We want to learn more. One course, one book at a time.

            We want to give more. One tzedakah, one worthy cause, at a time.

            We want to affirm life more.  And sometimes affirming life feels iffy.  When you lose somebody you love, you sometimes think you can never be happy again.  After losing his son Aaron, Rabbi Harold Kushner invoked Kahlil Gibran, who said he would turn his back on the sun, and for him the sun would be nothing more than the caster of shadows.  You can’t change that in one dramatic move.  But you can chip, chip, chip away at that one Kaddish at a time, one shacharit, mincha, maariv at a time, one life-affirming move at a time, until one day the psalmist’s words are realized, that in the evening tears dwell, but in the morning, we feel joy again.

            When our team wants to win a Super Bowl that feels lost, it’s ten yards at a time.

            When we want to keep the perpetual fire burning, it’s ten yards at a time.

            When all hope feels lost, when we wonder whether we will feel hope and joy again, it’s ten yards at a time. Which brings us back to an emotional moment of Super Bowl 51 involving Tom Brady’s mother Galynn.  As has been widely reported, his mother had most uncharacteristically had not been able to attend any of his games all year long because she has been receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  She made, the family made, a big push that she could be there in person for the Super Bowl.  At last she was able to be there.  Brady dedicated the game to his mother, and when asked who his hero was, answered his father, because of the way they have soldiered through treatments, one day, one week, at a time, until she was well enough to attend her first game of the year at the Super Bowl. If they could persevere through chemotherapy, he could persevere on the field.

            When it’s 28 to 3, and we’re running out of time, and no single miracle can set us free, how do we find hope? Ten yards at a time. Shabbat shalom.