On Monday afternoon, I watched hundreds of sweaty and exhausted yet determined marathon runners trudge up Newton’s Heartbreak Hill—quite possibly the most challenging section of the Boston Marathon. I listened to the cow bells and words of encouragement showering the runners. I witnessed the supportive sounds of high fives and cheers exchanged between spectators and runners as they reached the 20-mile marker just up the road. I watched with utter respect and admiration for the extraordinary level of perseverance and personal motivation they must draw from in order to complete this athletic magna corpus. How many hours did they dedicate to training, sleeping and recovering? What is the mantra running through their heads when leg cramps and fatigue begin to take over?

Then I saw her, Rebecca White, JCDS’s talented institutional advancement associate, confidently galloped up the hill, arms raised triumphantly as our eyes locked. She was amazing! How did she pull this off? From where did the strength emerge for Becca at that particular moment? From what did she draw the necessary confidence and strength to arrive at the top of Heartbreak Hill?

Earlier in the day, I read through an appropriately timed newspaper advertisement by Matt Taylor, Tracksmith founder and CEO, called, “Where Will Running Take You? Celebrate the Journey.” I was struck by one line: “Running with ambition is truly transformative…It’s not just one foot in front of the other…it’s a process.”

Included in this eight-page advertisement was a reflection by marathoner Rabbi Ben David. He reflected on the long run, the spiritual ritual shared by all serious runners in training: “Both running and faith are fundamentally hard, if done right. A life of faith has us ask ourselves agonizing questions once and again to reach into the most vulnerable places within ourselves.”

While Rabbi Ben David wasn’t directly referring to this week’s Torah portion, his words resonate deeply with the lessons of Parashat Lech Lecha. This week, we read about a different journey, but one that is equally transformative; one that led to the establishment of three monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity,and Islam, followed collectively by over 6 billion people.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ

God tells Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Many a commentary have been written about the grammatical structure of this directive, Lech Lecha: Rashi explains, for example, that Lech Lecha means “Go to yourself.” Meaning, follow the inner voice. Do not be afraid to be different. A midrashic interpretation takes the phrase to mean “Go with yourself”—meaning, by traveling from place to place, you will spread your influence over many. And finally, according to Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College, we learn that, “With God’s opening words to Abraham, the Torah reminds us that the journey forward and the journey inward are simultaneous and inseparable. This is the deep grammar of Lech Lecha.”

Like the runners at the Boston Marathon who journey inward drawing from a deep internal strength as they journey forward toward the finish line, our students are learning to do the same. Self-propelled learning from a deep sense of curiosity and reflection—two of JCDS’s Habits of Mind and Heart, are core to our approach to education and something we aim to cultivate in all of our students.

When asked what motivated her to run up that hill, Becca shared that,
“I just keep pushing forward. I have my eyes on that finish line. You don’t see the other runners. My time isn’t what is important, it’s simply finishing. Seeing everyone along the course really helps. I don’t want to let all those people down, including myself, so I just keep going.”

Lech lechaLechi lach, have taken on a new meaning this year and continue to inspire through contemporary application.

Shira Deener is head of school at JCDS.

The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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