Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, After Death There is Holiness: Lessons from the Boston Marathonby Rabbi Rachel Ackerman
For nearly fifteen years I’ve been following stories about two of my running heroes. They inspire me. I’m moved to tears when I read about them and when I see them in races. They don’t run world record times. They don’t run smoothly and with grace. In fact, one of them can’t even run on his own. I felt privileged on Monday to be in the same race as them. Me, in my second Boston Marathon. Them, in their 31st. I instantly recognized them from the back as I ran by them some time in the middle of the marathon, and as tired as I was, I knew if they could do this, then I could, too.
In 1962 Rick Hoyt was born to parents Dick and Judy. Diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, doctors advised Rick’s parents to institutionalize him, but they refused. In 1972 an interactive computer was build for Rick that would allow him to communicate by tapping his head against a head piece attached to his wheelchair. His first “spoken” words were: “Go Bruins!” In 1975, Rick was admitted to public school. In 1977, Rick told his father that he wanted to participate in a 5-mile benefit run for a Lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. Dick pushed Rick in a wheelchair for the race, coming in next to last. That night Rick told his father, “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”
Thus began a journey that has amounted to nearly 1,100 races: triathlons, marathons, 10Ks, Ironman competitions. Team Hoyt competes, Rick in a specially designed wheelchair, in a special seat on a bike, or in a raft that his father pulls as he swims through the water.
The first words of parahsat Kedoshim, one of the Torah portions we read this weekend, are kedoshim tihiyu, you shall be holy.
In trying to understand what it means to be holy, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Worka, clarified, “All that God demands is that man attain the level of holiness of which he is capable. Be holy: in whatever circumstances you find yourself, advance a little at a time in your holiness."
From that first 5-mile race, little by little, mile by mile, Dick and Rick Hoyt have reached and exceeded the holiness of which many may have once thought they were incapable. In an effort to realize that people with disabilities can be included in the world around them, they have inspired countless others to move beyond what they once perceived as limitations. In pursuing their inspirational work, they bring holiness into this little by little, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, and race-by-race.
In Hopkinton, at the start of the Boston Marathon, a bronze statue of Dick and Rick Hoyt has been erected. A testament that running is every person’s sport. That if we work to our greatest potential, if we push ourselves just a little bit further than we dreamed possible, that we can accomplish things we never imagined. That it doesn’t matter if you’re first or last. A marathon is about the journey, about the race to the finish, toward a goal and a vision; it’s about the indomitable human spirit.
The Holiness Code, the most well-known piece of our parashat Kedoshim goes on to explain how to be holy. The things we must do as we engage with those in the world around us to create a better and more sacred place to live. Some of the commands seem obvious, others more challenging. But many of them, we saw lived out on the course of the Boston Marathon this week and we continue to see as we move into Shabbat. We didn’t just see this holiness embodied at a tragic finish, but along the entire route.
We can first consider Leviticus 19:14: You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.
Along the course I saw pairs of people holding short ropes. One of the pair with a number on his or her bib and the other’s bib with the word “ GUIDE.” Emblazoned on their red shirts, it said, “Team with A Vision.” These runners, members of a team of blind, sighted, and visually impaired athletes, run marathons to show one another and the world that those who are blind or have visual impairments can live independent lives.
Advancing the holiness of the world around them little-by-little, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, race-by-race.
And Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Running is unique to nearly every other sport in that one person’s win does not imply another person’s loss. It is a sport where everyone has the potential to be a “winner” by running his or her best time. It’s a sport where supporting one another and helping the person next to you to run better and faster will also benefit you in the end. Maybe there’s a pick-up in the pace over the last few miles, or even the last few hundred meters, a sprint to the finish. But for most, except for the elite among us, even that is often only a race against the clock, not between 14,000th and 14,001st place, rather a race to see how little time can elapse between where one is and where one wishes to be. In the words of Baz Luhrmann, “The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.” (So you might as well support others along the way.)
At the starting line on Monday, people smiled at each other, talked to complete strangers, and posed for pictures together. As the race started we cheered for the woman with a shirt on that said, “Baby Girl Due in August” and runners asked one another about the person whose picture or name was on one their shirts as many people ran in honor or memory of loved ones. While there are some rivalries in running, they are often friendly. In fact, the most recent edition of Runners’ World featured top American women Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan as “frenemies.” Training together, pushing each other, so that on race day, they could each go out to run their best.
Love your running friends as yourself.
And love the spectators, too. Half a million spectators lined the streets on Monday giving high fives, holding up signs, offering orange slices, banana pieces, and ice, while cheering for complete strangers. Some did this in addition to cheering for someone they knew, but most just to show love and support and to be part of what for many hours was an exciting and celebratory day.
At one point, somewhere in the middle of the marathon, as I was feeling a little woozy, a teenager stood on the side handing some people pieces of bananas. As he held out a piece to me and indicated I should take it, I put out my hand…and missed. So, he yelled, “Don’t worry! I gotcha!” and began running until he caught up with me and handed me a piece. It was the best banana I had ever tasted.
These neighbors, these supporters and spectators, the ones out there putting up with all of us running 26.2 miles, those are the folks who unknowingly put their lives in danger on Monday afternoon.
We love those neighbors as ourselves.
Neighbors who show support and strive to make the world a holier place little-by-little, orange slice-by-orange slice, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, race-by-race.
And let us not forget, Leviticus 19:32: You shall rise before the aged and respect the elderly.
One of the most recognizable runners of this year’s Boston Marathon was not among the winners. It is 78-year-old Bill Iffrig. The man in the orange tank top who got knocked down by the blast moments before crossing the finish line. Immediately, a race official pulled the man up.
Respect the elderly.
And perhaps most remarkable, perhaps out of shock, perhaps not realizing exactly what had just happened, Iffrig continued and walked across the finish line to complete his third Boston Marathon. In a society where we often forget to honor the experiences of the elderly, let’s remember that there are Bill Iffrigs out there completing marathons, literal and figurative, marathons and journeys, the marathon of a long-life. With their age they have collected vast wisdom, knowledge, and experiences that we would be blessed if we even learned bits and pieces of. They inspire us daily, if only we look to them. Through their journeys they can inspire us, filling the world with holiness, little-by-little, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, and race-by-race.
Let us honor them.
And then of course there are the verses from this week’s parshah that remind us about how to cope with tragedy. How to deal when something scary happens.
Because, even with all the good in the world, despite the great human spirit that shines through during the marathon, sometimes our world is a scary, scary place. Bad things sometimes happen.
The important thing is that we know what to do when they happen. How to be a healer or a helper, or how to get help and how to stay safe.
One of the things I think this Torah portion is telling us to do when something bad happens is…call your family, friends, and anyone close to you who can stay calm in a tense situation!
And we learn this from Leviticus 19:3: You shall revere your mother and your father.
After I finished the marathon (in a 5 minute and 3 second personal record!), received my medal, drank some Gatorade, and changed out of my sweaty clothes, I began to make my way back to the finish line, to join the spectators. I mundanely spoke with a friend on the phone as I zig-zagged my way toward Boylston Street. All of a sudden, two loud bangs pierced the air. As I saw people running from the finish toward the street I was on, it became clear something was wrong.
I told my friend I had to go, hung up the phone, and then realized, I actually DID want to be on the phone with someone. I frantically fumbled with the buttons on my phone and instinctively called my parents. My mother and father answered and as I cried into the phone that I heard explosions and didn’t know what was going on and that I needed my dad to go online and tell me what was happening.
“What are you doing now?”
I don’t know. Away from the buildings.
“Okay. Things are not good. But you need to calm down and you need to find a place somewhere to sit. You need to stop walking. The last thing you need is to walk into a bad neighborhood. That isn’t going to help you either.”
As panicked as I was, there was someone on the other line who was (at least acting) calm.
Call someone you revere. Someone who can stay calm even when you can’t. Someone who can serve as a parent, even if you are a grown-up. Even if you ARE a parent. We all need to find these people we revere. To keep us calm. To help us not to panic. This verse in Leviticus is not about honoring our parents (as it is in the 10 commandments). It’s about being in awe of them—leaning on them, perhaps even when it seems we are too old to do so.
The Ketav Sofer, a 19th century rabbi, said that you are to revere are parents, “Not only when you are supported by your parents, where they feed and clothe you, but even when you are a “man”—after you are independent…”
Find people you revere. Know who they are. Call them when something is wrong. Tell them when something scary happens.
They can help you as you navigate the crowds, acting holy even when you can’t see the holiness in your surroundings, little-by-little, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, they may be able to help you navigate the journey.
Even if we can’t call our parents—if they are absent through death or through any other reason—then we can follow a piece of advice from Mr. Rogers who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
The helpers in our lives play the role of parents to us, even if our parents themselves are not available.
The helpers. These are the folks we saw over and over again on Monday.
They embodied and enacted Leviticus 19:16’s statement of holiness, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
We saw this immediately when the blasts sounded. We saw medics who were at the finish line to treat blisters and dehydration seamlessly transitioning into first responders to far more serious injuries. We heard stories of runners, after running 26.2 miles, continuing another several miles to nearby hospitals to donate blood. We saw people running toward the sites of the explosion to help victims, not knowing if there were more to come.
I found helpers, or rather, they found me. It was helpers who kept me walking further away from the finish, holding me by the arm. I found helpers in a restaurant who gave me access to a computer so I could charge my phone, who gave me tea, and repeatedly checked in on me until a friend was able to drive into the city to get me.
We heard stories of helpers who came out of their homes to come to the aid the more than 5,000 runners who had yet to finish the marathon—offering food, warm clothes, phones, a place to sit, rides to their hotels, places to stay as their belongings—keys, phones, IDs, and money, clothes—were all at the finish line. Dick and Rick Hoyt were less than a mile from the finish line when race was ended. They were picked up by caring passers-by who transported them to their hotel.
People came out and increased the holiness in a scary place, little-by-little, ride-by-ride, teacup-by-teacup, sweatshirt-by-sweatshirt, mile-by-mile.
This week we actually have a double Torah portion, the first Acharei Mot; translates to “After Death”, the second, Kedoshim, to “Holiness.”
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, After Death There is Holiness.
It is difficult to process this uncertain time, with several deaths on Monday, people with severe injuries fighting for their lives, and a fallen MIT police officer. Yet, we need to keep in mind the message of hope within the titles of these Torah portions, after death, there will be holiness.
Today I am glued to the live-streaming of the news as I work, watching a search for the second suspect of the marathon bombings. Boston and its surrounding towns are on lockdown. People advised to remain indoors, synagogues cancelled services, thousands of police, FBI, marshals, and other emergency professionals are on the scene. They are working hard doing holy work—work to protect the citizens of Boston and its suburbs. They are doing holy work—with the understanding that there is a serious chance they may endanger their very lives.
By working to ensure safety, they are acting with holiness, step-by-step, house-by-house, block-by-block, mile-by-mile, town-by-town.
And they do it so we can go outside, walk again, play in the park, and run on the roads. Freely and safely. So that we can run another race and push the limits of the human spirit.
Sir Roger Bannister, the English runner known for being the first person to break the four minute mile in 1954 (a feat which scientists and doctors for many years believed impossible), once said:
“We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves…the more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom. No one can say,'You must not run faster than this, or jump higher than that.' The human spirit is indomitable.”
Scary things will happen. And we will look for the helpers.
We will find the neighbors who show love, and the ones who don’t stand idly by.
We will turn to our parents and helpers in times of need.
We will look up to our elders, turn to them for inspiration in our time of need.
And we will do the same for all of them.
With profound sadness and anger, from time to time, we will watch others suffer and leave this world.
But we will also watch people overcome unimaginable obstacles.
We will find an outlet to express our freedom.
We will not be restricted.
We will take on the roads again.
I will not hesitate in lacing up my shoes.
And getting to the start line.
Because I need to be alongside the holiness of people overcoming insurmountable obstacles and stumbling blocks.
I need to be inspired by the ordinary people who do extraordinary things. We all need that.
Tonight I wear a t-shirt to Shabbat services with the marathon course printed across the front. Not typical Shabbat wear.
But tonight is not a typical Shabbat.
Tonight, my heart is in Boston.
But next year, I hope my feet will be there, too.
On the start line.
Because the Boston Marathon, like any marathon, is about running to the finish, not running in fear from it.
And once again, thousands will line up in Hopkinton, people of all sizes, shapes, ethnicities, ages, races, and religions, gathered in holiness, each one striving to complete something a little greater than they ever thought possible.
And the spectators and the runners, the volunteers and the officials, the medics and the security will flood Boston with holiness, person-by-person, step-by-step, mile-by-mile, until everyone has the opportunity to cross that finish line.
In the meantime, we pray for a Shabbat of peace, for us, for Boston, and for our world.
Video interview of Rabbi Ackerman following the Boston Marathon (Comcast SportsNet)