Sunday, April 21, 2013

Musings on this year's Boston Marathon

That's musings. Tragically, this year's Marathon was anything but amusing.

But to be quite honest, I have never found much amusement in watching marathons. It's not that I don't respect the athletes who train for and pull off the whopping twenty-six mile achievement. While I might admire their perseverence, I don't enjoy watching someone do something I'd personally have no interest in doing. To me, the thought of subjecting your body to the sheer exertion and wear and tear of a grueling 26-mile run seems rather pointless. No offense to my fellow New Englanders who enjoy participaing in or watching the marathon, but in my couch-potato mentality, to run such an unthinkable distance just in order to cross an irrelevant finish line is hardly a worthwhile pursuit -- meaningless, if not downright eccentric.

Consequently, I did not go to watch this year's Boston Marathon, even though I live on Route 135 not far from the starting line, and work a block away from Beacon St, the last stretch of the race, less than two miles away from the finish line.

However, I too was affected by the horrific bombings in our vicinity. Our school went into lockdown mode, and was on high security alert several days thereafter. (On Friday's city-wide lockdown four days later, our school was obviously closed.) Driving home from work on Tuesday afternoon, I discovered that virtually every single Boston radio station was discussing the tragedy. No one could believe that this atrocity, the likes of which might sound commonplace for warzones like Afghanistan or Iraq, could have happened right here in our city, at the finish line of our marathon. At that point, there were no suspects, so no one could  fathom the motive behind the bloody attack. Like everyone else, I was in a daze, struggling to comprehend what had occured.

I tuned into one station. The talkshow host posed a question to her listeners. "What do you think about what happend yesterday? What do you think about the race now?" she asked. "Has your opinion of the race changed after yesterday's tragedy?"

Only half listening, half distracted in my doleful reverie, I actually thought she was talking about the human race. Sadly I mused, "My opinion of the human race has taken a sharp turn for the worse."

Indeed, I thought, what kind of defective human being seeks to mass-murder and inflict such horrific suffering on innocent and defenseless civilians, including young children and their mothers? What does that say about our race, all of us Homo sapiens, if one of our own is capable of such unspeakable evil? A new low for our race, I muttered under my breath, sitting in Boston traffic spawned by street closures due to the 16-block crime scene.

After several listners called in and expressed their views, that (sic) "next year's race will be better than ever," "Bostonians are resillient," etc., I realized that "race" was referring to the marathon race, not the human one.

That realization did not stop me from wondering about the mindboggling potential for evil that exists in our human race. In fact, it seemed like an appropriate word association. In yesterday's race, I concluded, humanity is the big loser. We have all lost the (human) race. If a fellow human can perpetrate such evil, then we are all losers, since all of us belong to this loser race.

This dismal thought crippled my imagination the entire ride home. I simply could not think of any redeeming argument with which to vindicate our deplorable humankind, a race that produces Hitlers, jihadists, mass murderes, and Boston Marathon bombers. And why stop there? What about all the other millions of defective human beings, like pedaphiles, rapists, pathological criminals, and all the other garden-variety thugs who sully our planet?

(As I now reconsider these morbid thoughts nearly a week later, I recall the recent report of Friday's dramatic capture of the surviving suspect from inside a neighbor's backyard boat, lying in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the neck during the car chase, and was located by the neighbor because of the trail of blood. Red blood, just as red as mine or yours. What does that say about the redness of our blood, and the inexorable human penchant for mercilessly shedding the blood of others?)

Later that day, I sat down at the computer and instictively clicked on the news. Images and video footage of the horrific bombing scenes met my eye. Then I saw something that was unbelievable, so much so that I had to rewind and watch it again. Immediately after the explosion, people were rushing toward the explosion to help the victims. It was incredible to me that people would be running toward the site of one then two explosions, without any regard to their own safety. I continued to read various eyewitness accounts online that all described this very phenomenon.

Then I read the most extraordinary account of a woman who had just completed the marathon herself. As soon as she realized what was going on, she turned back toward the finish line and raced toward the bloody scene to help the victims. Having a medical background (I can't remember now whether she was a med-student or a young physician), her immediate instinct was to assist the wounded in any way she could. Fearing more attacks in the pandemonium that ensued, the police tried to prevent her from entering, but she was able to run around their blockade and reach the victims. The reporter later asked her: "How could you have the strength to run there? Hadn't you just run twenty-six miles?"

She responded: "Yes, I was exhausted. But as soon as I realized there were people in dire need, I sprinted. I simply didn't feel my throbbing legs. It wasn't about me."

I was dumbstruck. In today's post-9/11 world, when a bomb explodes, one's instict is to run and seek cover. To rush toward the site of multiple explosions, amidst fears of yet more undetonated bombs, seems counterintuitive and self-endangering. I was awed by the selfless sense of responsibility displayed by the hundreds of first responders.*

It was at that moment that I realized that this race indeed has winners.I'm not talking about Mr. Benti or Ms. Jeptoo, or all the other athletes who completed the Boston Marathon prior to the bombings. They won another type of race, one that is far less consequential to the future of our human race.

I am referring to these selfless indiviuals who put their lives on the line and rushed to the finish line-bomb scene from all directions to assist and to save. They are truly the winners of the race.

In fact, the very fact that such selfless courage exists and was proudly displayed last week in Boston means that we are all winners. Our race may produce losers capable of unimaginable evil, but it also produces true winners capable of inimaginable and unprecedented good.

But who will ultimately prevail? The losers or the winners? Will the losers make us all lose, or will the winners make us all win?

It is my steadfast belief that the power of good will win.

The Torah teaches that ultimately good always prevails over evil. That's why G-d said that He remembers the evil deeds of an evil-doer until the fourth generation, while the virtues of a good doer is remembered for two thousand generations! (Rashi on Exodus 34:7) Do the math. That means that the power of good is five-hundred times greater than the power of evil.

So the winners will win, and the losers will lose. That's just the way it goes in races. Let's cast our lot with the winners.

A selfless act, a kind word to a neighbor, assistance to a fellow human being in need, a mitzvah, a blessing with heartfelt sincerity, daily tzedakah, an unsolicited act of goodness and kindess. That's all it takes.

It'll get us to that long-awaited finish line, the times of Moshiach, when true peace, harmony and mutual respect will reign supreme. Bloodshed and violence will be but fleeting memories of the distant past, while jealosy and hatred will finally disappear behind the cobwebs of posterity.

In the ultimate victory of the human race, we will learn to love each other. False ideologies and artifical divisions between people will vanish, and we'll finally be able to appreciate the inherent G-dly unity of all peoples. Together we will make this world a home for G-d it was intended to be. Humankind's primary pursuit will be to know G-d according to the highest human potential (see Maimonides, Laws of Kings, chapter 12). "G-d will wipe away the tears from every eye" and heal our broken hearts.

May it be speedily in our days. Amen.

* This is underscored in this past Shabbat's Torah portion, Parshat Kedoshim. The Torah states: "Lo taamod al dam reyecha." Literally that means: "Don't stand over your fellow's blood," i.e. don't stand by inactively "when you see your fellow in life-threatening danger, and you are able to save him" (Rashi). The Rebbe asked: why does the Torah state this commandment in the negative, "Don't stand..."? Why not a positive commandment,"Save your fellow's life!", or something similar? Explained the Rebbe: the Biblical obligation to save one's fellow from danger is implicit and does not need to be stated. The Torah is replete with commandments to help your fellow man in distress, load his donkey, sustain him in his time of need, etc. Here the Torah is alluding to a situation in which one might indeed deem it necessary to "stand by" and refrain from saving one's fellow, for example, if there is possible danger to the rescuer. Should one expose himself to possible harm in attempt to rescue his fellow from certain harm? Here the Torah enjoins us: "Don't stand by when your fellow's life is at stake!" If you are indeed "able to save him," go do it, even if it entails personal risk.