Religion & Beliefs

Step Aside, Ego, There are Mitzvot To Be Done

Last night, I was talking about what a shameless dork I am when it comes to certain things (Okay, fine, when it comes to most things), specifically, cheering people on at marathons and other races. See, I run, races, long … Read More

By / August 23, 2007

Last night, I was talking about what a shameless dork I am when it comes to certain things (Okay, fine, when it comes to most things), specifically, cheering people on at marathons and other races. See, I run, races, long and short, and when I don't run races, I like to watch races. Being a runner, I know first hand that around the twenty-third mile of a marathon, it's really a struggle. Many runners have said that after the twentieth mile marker, it's an entirely different race, which I completely agree with. You're proud of yourself for just having run twenty miles, but, you know you have a long 6.2 miles to go, your body is tired, your organs are getting sore from being jostled all this way, and your brain, oh man, your brain might as well be on another planet. A lot of people know this and so, many times, runners encounter a crowd of smiling faces at the twenty mile mark. Then, you don't see anyone again until you are nearing the finish line, after about twenty-five or twenty-five and a half miles. With your body ready to revolt and your brain turning to mush and not anyone in sight but your fellow runners, the in-betweens are a bitch, I'm here to tell you.

Last fall, the morning of the Chicago marathon was chilly, and though I had no plans to run the thing that year, I got up early and dressed in layers and layers of technical fabrics to keep warm, excited to watch the race. Without giving it much thought, I headed to the twenty three mile marker. It was a ghost town. I hung out, read the paper, worked on a crossword puzzle, did my thing, clapped when the first waves of elite runners came through, went back to my crossword (I think "adar" is in the puzzle every week, right?), and waited for the next waves of runners. Although I was by myself and feeling a little self-conscious, I cheered and cheered and said everything I could to encourage the runners (Mostly, "You're almost there! Once you turn that corner, you'll see the finish line!", which are the magic words when you're in that position, believe me!) and the longer I stayed, the more I got into it, just like I always do, as the groups got slower and slower. An acquaintance walked by on the sidewalk, and we had a short conversation that was something like, "Great, how are you? Hang on, hang on– Hey, BoSox hat! You're almost there!– Anyway, yeah, what's new with you…" and I laughed when she said, "You should be so proud. You're doing a huge mitzvah!" Yeah, whatever. No, I just like watching races, and I know the end of a race sucks, so since I'm here and have no shame, eh, might as well. But, on some level, I was appreciative of what she'd just said and I was glad to see runners smiling back and saying thank you. It made me feel like it mattered that I was there. And, let's face it, we all want to count for something. I stayed until the last of the runners came through, and left thinking, you know, I did do a good thing today. I mean, I was the only one standing at that portion of the race course. Maybe I could stand to feel proud of myself for that. So, later the following week, I was talking to Rabbi Righteous and we were discussing our weekends. Our mutual acquaintance mentioned to him that she'd been walking down the street and saw me at the race. The rabbi said she'd told him, "What a mensch. She was out there in the cold cheering on the runners while the rest of us were going to brunch." I waved my hand dismissively and began to protest, but he beat me to it. "I told her that wasn't menschlikeit," he said, "but an obligation." And, so Rabbi Righteous and I had a conversation about Ki Teizei, which happens to be this week's parsha, and how it urges us to go beyond our comfort levels, forget about how we might look, and obligates us to involve ourselves in the struggles of our fellow human beings. As we talked, I felt less and less silly about making an ass out of myself on an empty city block before a bunch of running strangers. I felt humbled about it all. I felt humbled and relieved to have done something right without thinking, as if the impulse to do it just lived in my being someplace. But, I have to admit that humble feeling carried a twinge of shame. I felt ashamed, just a little tiny bit, for feeling good about being there that morning. Not really shame, not big shame, but a little fleeting sense suddenly that even talking about it seemed hollow and boastful.

This parsha emphasizes that thought it is perhaps human nature (or current socialization, or a little of both) to not want to make waves by rocking the boat, where opportunities to aid do exist, we simply cannot remain quiet or indifferent, but instead to do what we can. It's okay, and right and correct, to feel like a good person and to feel proud of doing positive things in the world. But, we can't loose sight of where we must put our focus. It's essential we must do positive things for the sake of doing positive things, to make the world better bit by bit, but not with the focus of doing them to put ourselves in a good light or to build ourselves up. Again, it's fine, and healthy, to feel proud of a good deed, but the deeds have to be ahead of our egos, in both the "look what I did" sense and the sense of justifying and rationalizing our way out of opportunities to help.