This month’s column is a dvar torah instead of a reponsum.
Please allow me to wish all of you a happy and healthy New Year. Shanah Tovah!
Jerry Clower of Mississipi tells a story about his good buddy Reverend Sam McAlwee. One day he had to preach a funeral, but he got a flat tire. He opened up the trunk, got out the jack, fixed the flat, brushed himself off and rushed off to the church, but no one was outside. He ran into the church and there were two or three old folks there. He said, “Is the funeral over?” One said, “Well, they’re gone.” He said, “What direction did they go in? Where’s the graveyard?” “Well, the deceased was Aunt Hattie Simmons and she grew up in Oak Grove, so I reckon they’re taking her to the Oak Grove Cemetery.” Well, Reverend Sam jumped in his car and rushed out there. He saw a graveyard and way up on the hill past the graveyard there were two fellows throwing dirt in a hole. He jumped out of the car, ran up the hill, looked down in the hole and said, “Well, I reckon I should say something since I missed preaching at the poor old soul’s funeral.”
He said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We will remember this beautiful old lady the rest of our lives. Amen.” He ran down the hill, jumped into his car, and rushed off to his next appointment. Udell and Vernell Ledbetter were leaning on their shovel handles as they watched him drive off. Udell looked at Vernell and said, “You know that’s the first time I ever heard anybody preach a eulogy for a septic tank!” (Jerry Clower, Stories from Home, pp. 93-94)
Reverend Sam is not unique. We frequently run to do something at breakneck speed only to discover that we don’t know what to do when we get there or that we did the wrong thing.
This is illustrated by a story told about Thomas Huxley, a well-known nineteenth-century British biologist. Fearing he would be late for his own lecture, Huxley jumped on a passing horse-drawn carriage and ordered the coachman: “Top speed!” The driver lost no time, whipped the horse and stormed the horizon. It took a little while, but eventually Huxley stuck his neck out of the cabin and shouted at the horseman, “Do you know where I want to go?” to which the driver answered, “No idea sir, but I am riding as fast as I can!” (JP Magazine 5/8/2011)
One of the most tragic stories in the Bible is the story of Avshalom, David’s ambitious son, who tried to seize the throne. David was forced to leaveJerusalemand cross theJordan River. Before the decisive battle between their armies at Machanayim, David specifically instructed his troops (II Samuel 18:5): “לאט לי לנער לאבשלום” “Deal gently with my boy Avshalom, for my sake.”
After a fierce battle, David’s army emerged victorious. However, Yoav ben Tzruyah, David’s Chief of Staff, chose to ignore David’s command and when Avshalom’s long hair became entangled in a tree, Yoav slew him. The story in the Second Book of Samuel continues:
Ahimaatz son of Zadok said, “Let me run and report to the king that the Lord has vindicated him against his enemies.” But Yoav said to him, “You shall not be the one to bring tidings today. You may bring tidings some other day, but you’ll not bring any today; for the king’s son is dead!” And Yoav said to a Cushite, “Go tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed to Yoav and ran off. But Ahimaatz son of Zadok again said to Yoav, “No matter what, let me run too behind the Cushite!” Yoav asked, “Why should you run, my boy, when you have no news worth telling?” “I am going to run anyway.” “Then run,” said Yoav. Ahimaatz ran by way of the plain, and he passed the Cushite…
[When Ahimaatz arrived, he] called out and said to the king, “All is well!” He bowed low with his face to the ground and said, “Praised be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king!” The king asked, “Is my boy Avshalom safe?” and Ahimaatz answered, “I saw a large crowd when… Yoav was sending your servant off, but I don’t know what it was about.” The king said, “step aside and stand over there”; he stepped aside and waited.
Just then, the Cushite came up and the Cushite said, “Let my lord the king be informed that the Lord vindicated you today against all who rebelled against you!” The king asked the Cushite, “Is my son Avshalom safe?” And the Cushite replied. “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rose against you to harm you fare like that young man!” The king was shaken. He went up to the upper chamber of the gateway and wept, moaning these words as he went, “My son Avshalom! O my son, my son Avshalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Avshalom, my son, my son!” (II Samuel 18:19-19:1)
This dramatic story describes two runners. The first, Ahimaatz, was clearly the faster of the two, yet despite his speed, he failed in his mission. When David asked him: “השלום לנער לאבשלום” “Is my boy Avshalom safe?”, Ahimaatz didn’t know what to say, so he mumbled something incoherent about seeing a large crowd before he ran off. The Cushite, on the other hand, was not such a fast runner. He arrived second and lost the race. Yet when King David asked him: “השלום לנער לאבשלום” “Is my boy Avshalom safe?” his reply was diplomatic yet entirely clear:
“יהיו כנער אויבי אדוני המלך וכל אשר קמו עליך לרעה!” “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rose against you to harm you fare like this young man!”
We are all runners on the road of life. We push and shove and run hither and thither constantly striving to win the race. Yet I fear that many of us are suffering from “the Ahimaatz syndrome”: we know that we want to win the race, but we don’t know why we are running. We want to get there first, but we don’t know where we are going or what we are going to do when we get there. We frequently look and sound like the White Rabbit inAlice in Wonderland:
“Oh Dear, Oh dear, I shall be too late!…
Oh the Duchess! The Duchess! Won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!” (Philadelphia and London, 1923, pp. 20, 38)
Or, perhaps, we look and sound like the people in this poem by Michel Quoist:
I went out, Lord.
Men were coming and going,
Walking and running.
Everything was rushing: cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
Men were rushing not to waste time.
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time,
To gain time.
Good bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter – I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time…
(Sidney Greenberg, A Contemporary High Holiday Service, p. 128)
The “Ahimaatz syndrome” is one type of running disorder. There is a second type, however, which is even more prevalent and far more dangerous. Many of us do know where we are running, but our goals are questionable at best. Let us see which things modern man constantly pursues:
(1) Without a doubt, the most popular goal is money. As the song says in the musical Cabaret: “Money makes the world go round”. We toil and sweat and take a second job and work overtime in order to earn “enough” money. But our goal is unattainable. There is no such thing as “enough” money. As the author of Ecclesiastes so succinctly put it 2500 years ago (5:9):”אוהב כסף לא ישבע כסף, ומי אוהב בהמון – לא תבואה” “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income.”
A similar idea was expressed in the sixteenth century by R. Ephraim Lunshitz ofPrague. In his commentary to the Torah, K’li Yakar, he writes: (Alkalai, No. 3177):
“ללהוט אחר הממון, נראה לעולם כיסו חסר!”
“To a person crazy about money – his wallet always looks empty!”
How true it is. How many wealthy people are truly happy! The richer they are, the faster they run after more! Look at the examples of Howard Hughes or Rupert Murdoch – do they ever win the race?
(2) Another popular goal is parnassah, a livelihood. The race forparnassah begins at around age twenty and never lets up. As Yehuda ben Teima says in Pirkei Avot (5:21):
בן חמש שנים למקרא, בן עשר למשנה, בן שלש עשרה למצוות, בן חמש עשרה לתלמוד, בן שמונה עשרה לחופה, בן עשרים לרדוף…
“At five years of age one is ready for Bible, at ten for Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at fifteen for Talmud, at eighteen for marriage,at twenty for pursuit (of a livelihood)…”
So, you may reply, what’s wrong with running after a livelihood? After all, a person has to feed and clothe and shelter his family! That is true, but it’s all a question of degree. Sometimes a person becomes so married to his job that he forgets that it’s a means, not an end. His race for sustenance begins to take precedence over his friends, his family and himself. This is beautifully illustrated by a story told about R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He once saw a Jew who was constantly scurrying about, perpetually busy. R. Levi Yitzchak asked him: What are you running after, Reb Yid? The Jew replied: I am running after parnassah. R. Levi Yitzchak said: And how do you know that parnassah is in front of you? Perhaps it’s behind you and all you need to do to find it is to stand still? (Buber,Tales of the Hassidim, Early Masters, p. 226)
(3) Why else do people run? For kavod, honor and שררה, power. Everywhere you turn people are running after these things. Sarah wants to be President of X, and Rivka wants to be Chairman of Y. Reuven wants his name in the newspaper, and Shimon wants his plaque on the wall. No hurdle is too great on the road to power and success.
This is not a new phenomenon. Hazal , the rabbis of the Talmud, knew all about human nature, and they knew that running after power and honor is a waste of time. They said in Midrash Tanhuma (Vayikra, par. 3): We have learned in the book of Proverbs (29:23): “גאוות אדם תשפילנו, ושפל רוח יתמוך כבוד” “A man’s pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor.” Whoever runs after power, power runs away from him; whoever runs away from power, power runs after him. Saul ran away from office when his time came to reign, but in the end it is written: (I Samuel 10:24): “and all the people acclaimed him shouting ’Long live the king!’ “On the other hand, Avimelech in the Book of Judges (Chapter 9) thirsted after power. He killed all of his brothers, save one, in order to be crowned king of Shechem, but in the end, they had a falling out, the people of Shechem rebelled, and Avimelech was killed during a siege.
These are not isolated incidents. The Bible is replete with stories about men who thirsted after power and honor – Korach, Datan and Aviram who tried to oust Moses from office; Avshalom whose story we began with today; Yeravam ben Nevat who caused the split between the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah – the result was always tragedy. As fast as they ran towards these goals, they could not win the race.
(4) Finally, modern man runs after health, fitness and longevity with a vengeance. We jog, we work out, we do aerobics, and we diet in our relentless pursuit of the fountain of youth. But there are no guaranties in our pursuit of longevity.
Dr. Stuart Berger, developer of the Southampton Diet and Dr. Berger’s Immune Power Diet wrote in his book Forever Young that he knew how to live past age 100. Yet he died in his sleep at age 40 weighing 365 pounds. Magazine publisher J.I. Rodale, famous as an advocate of health foods and organic farming, actuallydidclaim he would live to be 100, “unless I’m run down by a taxi driver.” The very week those words appeared in the New York Times, he was taping a TV show with Dick Cavett and boasted on the air that after eating bone meal for thirty years he had fallen down a flight of stairs “and my bones were so strong I enjoyed it”. Moments later, his head slumped to his chest and he was dead of a heart attack at age 72. In The Complete Book of Running, Jim Fixx was careful to claim only that running “probably would keep you alive longer”, but, like most runners, he seemed to believe that death could never catch someone who ran seven-minute miles. In the summer of 1984, when he was 52, he shrugged off signs of incipient heart trouble and died while running down a country road in Vermont… (Newsweek, March 21, 1994, p. 46)
Our obsession with trying to outwit the Angel of Death brings to mind the story found in the Talmud (Sukkah 53a) about two of Solomon’s servants. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. “Why,” he said to him, “are you sad?” “Because,” he replied, “they have demanded from me the two servants who sit here.” Solomon thereupon sent them to the faraway district of Luz. But when they reached the district of Luz, they died. On the following day, Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was in good spirits. “Why,” said Solomon, “are you so cheerful?” Replied the Angel: “To the place where they expected them from me, that’s where you sent them!”
Does this mean that I am opposed to exercise and diets? Not at all. Jewish lawcommands us to take care of our bodies and preserve our health. But ultimately, Judaism cares much more about what we do with our lives than about whether we live to be 100. This is epitomized by the teaching found in the tractate of Shabbat (31a): “Said Rava: when a person is brought in for judgment after he dies, they say to him: were your business dealings honest, did you set aside time for Torah study, did you have children…”.
Thus far I have rejected four of the goals that people run after. But does this mean that we should stop running? Does this mean there are no goals in life worth pursuing? Of course not. But we must emulate the Cushite runner and set for ourselves a clearly defined task. What’s more, we have to make certain that we are running after the right things. But which things in life are worth running after? Isn’t that totally subjective? There are no hard and fast answers, but almost four thousand years of Jewish tradition have furnished us with three major goals worth pursuing:
(1) First and foremost, we must run after God and His commandments. As the prophet Hoshea said 2700 years ago (6:3): “ונדעה נרדפה לדעת את ה’…” ” Let uspursue obedience to the Lord, and we shall become obedient.” How does onepursue obedience to God? Byrunning after the commandments. As Ben Azzai said in Pirkei Avot (4:2): “הוי רץ למצוה קלה כבחמורה” “Run after a trivial mitzvah as yourun after a major one.” Or, in the words of Yehuda ben Teima (5:20):
“הוי רץ כצבי לעשות רצון אביך שבשמים” “Run like a deer to perform the will of your Father in Heaven.”
Hoshea is saying: It’s worth running to observe Shabbat and holidays. Ben Azzai is saying: It’s worth sprinting to observe kashrut. Yehuda ben Teima is saying: It’s worth dashing to give your kids a Jewish education.The mitzvot are worth pursuingbecause they give purpose, structure, and coherence to our lives. They strengthen our commitment to God and ensure the survival of the Jewish people.
(2) In Jewish tradition, there is a second goal worth running after: tzedek, which means righteousness or social justice. The book of Devarim states in no uncertain terms (16:20): “צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר ה’ אלהיך נותן לך” “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” This ideal is reiterated by the book of Proverbs (15:9): “תועבת ה’ דרך רשע, ומרדף צדקה יאהב” “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but He loves him who actively pursues righteousness.”
Our mission is clear. We must clothe the naked and feed the hungry, fight discrimination and preach tolerance, and help Jews in distress throughout the world. It is not enough to sit back and wait for these things to happen. We must be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice.
(3) Lastly, there is a third goal which we must actively pursue: Shalom, peace. In the words of the Psalmist which we recite every Shabbat morning (Psalms 34:13-15):
“מי האיש החפץ חיים, אוהב ימים לראות טוב… סור מרע ועשה טוב, בקש שלוםורדפהו” “Who is the man who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune… Shun evil and do good,seek peace andpursue it.” This command was repeated by Hillel the Elder one thousand years later (Avot 1:12): “הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן: אוהב שלום ורודף שלום” “Be of the disciples of Aaron – a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.”
As you know, nothing is more elusive than Shalom. It doesn’t just happen by itself. We must be rodfei shalom –pursuers of peace. We must pursue it at home and run after it at the office. We must strive for Shalom in Canada, in Israel and throughout the world.
On Rosh Hashanah we make many resolutions for the coming year. This year, let us cure ourselves of the “Ahimaatz syndrome” and emulate the Cushite runner. We should set clear goals in life and pursue them. We should stop running after money, parnassah, honor, power and longevity. We should, rather, run after mitzvot, strive for tzedek, and seek peace and pursue it. If we do so, we shall all be winners in the race of life.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.