in the run
Words by Rabbi Benjamin David
Photography by Emily Maye
Like so much else in 2020, faith has become a loaded term. For those of us who take faith seriously, regardless of the God we pray to or the theology we hold dear, we can agree that this year has tested our understanding of everything from benevolence to human connectivity, to the very idea of healing. With close to a million gone as a result of COVID, how does one continue to call God good? With injustice overwhelming us daily, how do we still believe in each other or the institutions we once counted on?
As a rabbi, 2020 has been a year unlike any other and a year more gruelling than any other. I've officiated at more COVID funerals than I can count; I have attempted to counsel and shepherd a congregation via Zoom and FaceTime classes and services; I have looked on with horror at untold police brutality and urged us to meet long standing systemic racism with advocacy, action, and purpose. Weddings have been postponed or, instead, moved to outdoor spaces and attended only by immediate families. Bar and Bat Mitzvah, traditionally moments of affirmation and joy, have become exercises in distancing, clinging to ritual, and working hard to convince our kids that their hard work and commitment is not for naught. What's more, at a time when we crave community, community seems to be the primary thing we've all been denied: a hand in ours, the consoling visit of a friend, the sheer solace that comes in knowing we are not alone. I have felt a particular kinship these days with my Christian and Muslim colleagues, among others who have devoted their lives to this trying work, as questions far outnumber answers.
I am not only a rabbi in the end. I am a father and husband to three young kids. I am a cancer survivor. I am a witness to the Boston Marathon bombings. Our identities are indeed not monolithic. I am all of these things and none of things alone. I am very much so a runner. Running has long been a part of my identity, after nineteen marathons and who-knows-how-many half marathons and 10Ks.
At a time when I'm not sure what to believe, or where the coming year will take us, at a time when I must reckon daily with prayer and study, I continue to have faith in the run. I would say that running has propped up my faith this year especially, when little else has. In 2020, when we agree on nothing, maybe running is something we can all believe in. Outdoors. Alone. Early in the morning. The news off. Social media stowed away. The talking heads quiet for a second. Running in the fall of 2020 is everything faith is meant to be: reliable, restorative, removed from the noise of a fast-fleeting world. To head out for a run is to remember that we're alive, you and I, and a reminder that we have it in us to do more than we likely thought. That's faith! That's what we're supposed to feel as we leave synagogue or church, refashioned and ready. Those first few miles, achy and slow, soon turn to flow and rhythm. We go somewhere we didn't anticipate. That is faith! Or, in 2020, that might be enough to restore one's faith: in themselves, in the beauty of our world, in a God above that's blessed us with ability we often can barely fathom, that we can go further than we thought, faster than we thought.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, whether you've last stepped into a place of worship a week ago or ten years ago, whether you claim to believe in nothing, you might acknowledge that running helps you to believe in you, and believe in the very idea of possibility. Such ideas are at the heart of faith, I would argue, and not just the Jewish faith, but all faiths.
Both running and faith are fundamentally hard, if done right. A life of faith has us ask ourselves agonizing questions once and again, reach into the most vulnerable places within ourselves and our society, explore our mortality and often put 'we' over 'me.' So too with running. We know that, at its core, running can be relentlessly brutal. The long run, a staple for so many of us, is a lesson in slow-burning discomfort. The tempo run is the definition of fire. The final miles of a marathon defy description. It's precisely because they're hard that they require time and patience. They urge us quietly to be good to ourselves, to be kind to ourselves. You're doing your best. My advice: keep going.