Thursday, December 15, 2011

Matisyahu, Kierkergaard and Me

“I am going out for a run. If you live in St. Louis and you see a tall guy who looks like Jesus running in the street, it’s probably me”. As I read Matiyahu’s post on Facebook several months back, I was happy to discover that he was a runner. Having grown rather fond of his music, and appreciating his public identity as a proudly observant Jew, I thought of him as a great role model. I started thinking about how we could try and get him involved with Team Lifeline.

This week, I find myself again thinking about Matisyahu. With what has to be the most famous shave in history, he stopped looking like Jesus. Did anything else change?

One of my biggest challenges as a rabbi who teaches, is the need to be a role model. By now I know myself far too well to think that my students should be looking at me as a paragon of religiosity and virtue. There was a time when I was able to delude myself into believing that I was that person. I thought of myself as the catcher in the rye, protecting my flock from the dangerous cliffs. I sympathized with the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as he described the frustration of trying to save his audience from the raging fire that threatened to consume them. I am no longer able to do that. I am too busy saving myself to try and “save” others. All I can be is the very imperfect me and be somewhat open about my struggles.

I was shocked by the reaction of my co-religionists (is there a word “co-denominationalists”) who incorrectly assumed that, with the shaving of his beard, Matisyahu was no longer observant. The not so subtle message seemed to be that we love only if you live up to what we need you to be. The minute that you struggle or fall, we abandon you. To be sure, there were exceptions, but, and I say this with sadness, they were the exception and not the rule.

As for me, I find myself identifying with him more now than I did before. Not because he runs, or because he, like me, is clean shaven. I am moved by his struggle.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I can’t believe how much fun I had NOT running at a race this weekend.

When I was invited to go to Vegas this past weekend to help out Team Lifeline, I had mixed feelings. Sure, Team Lifeline is incredibly important to me. Still, most of the attraction of Las Vegas is lost on me. Besides, I wondered what it would be like to be at a race on the sidelines. In the end, loyalty won out, and I agreed to go.

I spent the entire race with one of the other volunteers, Moshe. Moshe, who was also my roommate, is who I wanted to be when I was younger; he’s cool, laid back, self-confident and funny. Best of all, at least from my standpoint, I feel like I can be myself around him. I don’t know if I am allowed to admit this, but sometimes being a rabbi can be a drag. I feel the pressure to live up to some version of what people (read I) expect rabbis to be. Around Moshe, I am able to be my imperfect self.

We were asked to be out on the course manning a special Team Lifeline drink station. This was necessary as the sports-drink being served at the Vegas Marathon/Half Marathon is not kosher, a no-no for the many Orthodox runners who are part of the team. Throughout the race we traveled from spot to spot providing Powerade for our team (as well as to a few other thirsty runners).

What stands out about the night, and what makes it worthy of writing about (assuming you’ve stuck with me this far) was our unofficial role. Both Moshe and I have run in many races and we know how much we value crowd support. For much of the race, the crowds (if I can even use that word) were thinner than my hairline. Those who were there, were mostly of the golf crowd mentality, with polite applause and little more. We realized that we would have to be the crowd for EVERYONE.

We spent the night cheering in a manner, that, had my own children been there, they would have filed for divorce. We sang, rang a cow bell, shouted people’s names, made up team names, lost our voices and got people to smile. We were in so many places and acted so crazy, that runners recognized us from earlier in the race. We cheered for our team and every other team as well. We cheered for the runners and the walkers, for the fast people and the slow ones. We gave high-fives and told people they looked great, even when we were stretching the truth. We stuck around until the last walker passed. Then, almost as tired as if we had run ourselves, we went back for the post race party.

Our stories won’t involve blisters, PRs, or bloody unmentionable body parts. Still, we had a blast and, perhaps more importantly, added to the runner’s race experience. If perhaps we exaggerated slightly in calling ourselves the best show in Vegas, for what we were charging, we were not far off.

As for me, I am hoping that tonight I can get back to running, but for at least one night, I was happy to be on the side.