March 24, 2005
Two Finish Lines
What is the touchstone that unites a 26.2-mile marathon with a Siyum Hashas celebration of completing the 7.5-year page-a-day Talmud cycle?
The concept shared by both events is human striving -- or in the language of the Lithuanian yeshiva, the commitment to shteig, to stretch one's limits. Someone who studies one page of Talmud a day, Daf Yomi, logs text pages; the marathon runner logs miles. Trappings of mortality bedeck the starting line -- the talmudist seeking better understanding of his mortality, and the marathon runner physically defying that same mortality.
This unlikely comparison of both fetes of transcendence occurred to me, based on my bicoastal participation at a Siyum and a marathon. One night, in early March, I was at New York's Madison Square Garden celebrating the completion of the Talmud cycle; the following afternoon I was flying to the Quality of Life Expo prior to the Los Angeles Marathon, the nation's fourth-largest long-distance race.
Adding my voice to thousands of my fellow Daf Yominiks at the Garden, I passionately and thankfully shouted, "May His great name be blessed for now and for eternity," and swayed to the musical beat of the chasidic songs.
At the three-day expo preceding the marathon, I manned a booth together with my editor, Peri Deavaney, promoting my book, whose theme is also one of striving. This first biography of the founder of the New York City Marathon ("Anything For a T-Shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon, the World's Greatest Footrace," Syracuse University Press) shows how an impresario convinced the plodders and shleppers of the world that they could go a marathon's seemingly fearsome distance.
The similarity between these two enterprises crossed my mind during a slow patch Thursday afternoon where. Viewing a large-screened film clip in the auditorium of past L.A. marathons, particularly the slow runners and the wheelchair athletes, my thoughts somehow turned to the simcha I reveled in only a day and a half earlier in New York. Both of these events, I thought, were triumphs over human ordinariness and complacency.
True, on the surface, there was no hashava (the Talmud's word for common denominator) between these two enterprises -- and a God-fearing Jew would be best off uttering a lehavdil (a statement of demarcation) before drawing similarities between a siyum and a marathon. After all, one undertaking is spiritual; the other, physical. The marathon represents a legacy of a hedonistic ancient Greek culture; the Talmud, a work of faith and holiness.
But is there any question about the commonality of obstacles facing the student of the daily page of Talmud and the marathon runner in training? Both often launch their daily trajectory at dawn, defy sleep, knowingly cut into family time and are undeterred by inclement weather and life's distractions. Many runners mark their miles in the company of other runners, encouraging one another. The Daf Yomi learner also tackles his talmudic page in a shiur, a group setting, rather than by himself.
While the runner's gear is his sneakers, and the Daf Yomi stalwart his Talmud, each striver calls on aids making the challenge more manageable. For instance, the runner applies breathing strips to his nose, eats protein bars (some of which hold kosher certification) and carries instruments measuring his speed. The talmudist not only cites other commentaries helping him to understand the sugya (topic) at hand, but brings in visuals and diagrams (the layout of the Temple in Jerusalem, the anatomy of a bull) to clarify an obscure text.
In my Riverdale, N.Y., Daf Yomi group I see daily examples of discipline and modesty on the part of the text's presenter, but this should not be surprising since immersion in holiness enhances character traits. But in this, my first experience in manning a booth, I also was exposed to real examples of humility.
Marathon officials had arranged to give gift copies of my book to some 300 "legacy" runners. These were finishers at the 19 earlier marathons and honorees, in a sense, at the marathon's 20th anniversary. Two of these legacy runners came to my booth carrying copies of my book asking for my autograph. Both were men probably in their 50s. I learned that one worked as an air-traffic controller and the other in the county court system. The air-traffic controller told me that he had completed a total of nearly 50 marathons. What stood out was the modesty from both these marathon runners in response to my compliments; neither of the two seemed boastful or truly regarded themselves as exceptional.
To be sure, the Talmud uses the metaphor of running in stressing the superiority of Talmud study over ephemeral, worldly pursuits.
"We run, and they run," states the Talmud in celebrating the completion of a tractate. The Jew "runs" toward eternal life, the others pursue vanity. Without minimizing the spiritual superiority of the Daf Yomi goal, the marathon runner also obeys the Torah's edict "to watch carefully one's soul," interpreted by Jewish commentators as including health and physical fitness.
In competing against themselves, both the Daf Yomi student and the marathon runner are testing their limits and proving something about their core identities. May they both be blessed with the faith and energy to cross the finish -- the Daf Yomi learner to go m'chayil l'chayi (from strength to strength), and the marathon runner to "go the distance."
Ron Rubin is a professor of political science at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.