RUNNING MAN – FROM SELF- INDULGENCE TO TZEDAKAH*
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Hillel
Sometimes things were just meant to be. Or as my mother always says “B’shert” - the Yiddish word for something that is predestined, something that is G-d’s will.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (z”l) wrote in Halakhic Man (1983) that some past events, seemingly insignificant in time, are, at the very moment they occur, already fused inextricably to present action and future consequences:
... past, present, future merge and blend together, and this new three-fold time structure arises before us adorned with a splendid unity. The past is joined to the future, and both are reflected in the present.
Until Friday October 5, 2012, I did not know of Mack Ballard Jr., a quietly heroic boy with leukemia who lost his life after a bone marrow transplant this past summer. Now I think of him every day. How then did Mack come into my life? It was perhaps, well, B’shert.
For months, I had been thinking of running the upcoming Philadelphia Marathon on November 18th. After running all three full marathons in Israel earlier this year, I was looking for a big marathon in November to cap off 2012. I’d done New York before. Seattle, for a Vancouverite like me, was too close to home to get excited about. But Philadelphia.... Now that’s a marathon to do. Historic city. Scenic marathon route. Close friends to stay with at their beautiful house just steps away from the starting line. Child care lined up for our kids back in Vancouver. Our downstairs neighbours from Jerusalem (where we lived last year) – who are spending the year in Philadelphia - to host us for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. It all seemed perfect.
But, as with much in my life, I procrastinated and procrastinated until all 27,000 spots in the marathon filled up on September 28th. So when I finally went on-line to register on Wednesday, October 3rd, I was greeted with the words “MARATHON – SOLD OUT.” Boom. I felt like I’d been slapped in the face. I was despondent. My great Philadelphia get-away week-end with my wife Aimee had evaporated before my eyes.
The next day, seeing my despondency, Aimee recalled reading something about extra marathon entries being available for those who run for charity, and suggested I check that out. I went back to the marathon website and, sure enough, there were several charities offering spots in the marathon for those who committed to raising money for their organization. Some had already assigned all their spots, and the remaining spots seemed to be going fast to those, no doubt like me, who had left things to the last minute.
I quickly read through the descriptions of the official marathon charity partners, but kept coming back to “Race to Register” – an organization dedicated to raising awareness of, and participation in, bone marrow registries. I’d never thought about bone marrow registries before, but the more I learned, the more I realized that this was a cause worth supporting.
To cover all bases, I wrote to several marathon charity partners. But as fate would have it – B’shert, in other words - Race to Register got back to me first, and they had one charity entry left. While filling out the registration forms I came to a section which reads: “I am participating on behalf of ....” followed by a blank to be filled in with the name of a person in whose memory or honour I would be running.
To find the right person, I emailed my sister-in-law Leslie for a suggestion. It is ... perchance B’shert, that Leslie is a paediatric oncologist specializing in bone marrow transplant. Here’s what Leslie wrote back:
... it is an honor to be asked to name someone. Thanks for the opportunity.
If I could choose one patient (sadly, there are many wonderful children that I can think of) I'd choose a young man named Mack Ballard. Mack was diagnosed with leukemia when he was ~3 years old and I took care of him when I was a Hematology/Oncology fellow. Mack's disease unfortunately relapsed and he came to transplant this year, and I took care of him again, as a part of the large BMT [Bone Marrow Transplant] team. Unfortunately, the bone marrow registry could not provide a close match for Mack. This is too often the case, which is why organizations like Race2Register are trying to raise awareness and get more people to sign up as possible donors. Because Mack did not have a match in the registry, he had what is called an “alternative donor transplant”. Tragically, Mack died, about three months after his BMT, when he was one week shy of his 12th birthday. He was one of those quiet kids, loved to draw and was incredibly brave and kind despite the obvious pain he endured. He would be a wonderful person to run for.
In my work, we learn to put up some walls, or else it can be too painful. But, there are always those kids that break through the walls, and Mack was one of them for me.
I won’t even try to add to Leslie’s words about Mack, other than to say that Mack’s story says it all about the importance of greater participation in bone marrow registries.
And ... suddenly, with the opportunity and honour to run on behalf of Mack, what had started out as a plan for a rather self-indulgent week-end in Philadelphia had turned into something more. A chance to take something I love, running marathons, and channel it for something greater.
In Deuteronomy (4:15), the Book of “Devarim” in the Hebrew Torah, Moses speaks in the words of G-d, saying “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” – “and you shall watch over (take care of) yourselves very well.” But why? Why take care of ourselves? The other great Moses of Jewish history, philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1135-1204) of Cordoba, Spain, explains:
It is the way of G-d that one should have a healthy body, because one cannot properly serve G-d if one is ill, therefore one must distance oneself from things that harm the body and accustom oneself to ways that make the body healthy.
And G-d’s will for us, say the Jewish sages, is to live a life of good deeds. In other words, to take something that is good for us, like living healthy lives (doing things such as, for example, running), and elevate it into something that is good for others.
I can’t help but think that it was B’shert that I procrastinated until it was too late to register, B’shert that my wife Aimee recalled the option of running for charity, B’shert that Race to Register got back to me so quickly with one last entry, and B’shert that my sister-in-law Leslie is a paediatric oncologist who introduced me to Mack.
I will close with an old Hassidic tale called “Running Man.” ... Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev once saw a man running through the town market place. “Why do you hurry so?” asked the Hassidic master. “I am pursuing my fortune,” replied the man. “How do you know that your fortune lies in front of you?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. “And that you are running towards it? Perhaps it lies behind you, and you are running away from it?”
Looking back behind me now, as a running man myself, I can only conclude that it was my great good fortune that I missed the marathon registration cut-off. But now, I must also take that good fortune and use it to fulfil the words of the Book of Devarim and the insights of Maimonides, the Torah sages, and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev. And it would be great if you could all join me on the ride, and help out in any way you can.
Special thanks for Torah-Marathon insights- Rabbi Ross Singer of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa (Israel), Rabbi Don Pacht, Director, Vancouver Hebrew Academy, Rabbi Yosef Benarroch of Midreshet Eshel Seminary (Jerusalem), and Rabbi Yossi Goldberg of Ohel Ya’acov Community Kollel (Vancouver)
* Tzedaka is a word in Hebrew meaning charity and good works