“Press HERE for Power!”

I ran my first half-marathon (13.1 miles) this past Sunday: the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon.

Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015
Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015

For me, this personal milestone was about overcoming obstacles. I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg after I broke it in a cycling accident three years ago. This impedes my ability to run and train as I would like. I was determined not to let my leg “weigh me down”. I was determined to cross that finish line, despite my leg. And I did!

All along the race route, people held up posters and signs to encourage the racers. One poster in particular caught my eye. The sign said: “Press HERE for Power!” There was an arrow pointing to a star for us to “press.” The woman holding it stood along the trail with a huge smile on her face. Each of us who passed her sign, touched her star.

This sign, and the woman holding it, made me smile. She gave me that little extra “boost” of encouragement to keep on running. And I smiled again when I saw her a second time holding her sign, cheering us on, during the last half of the marathon as well.

I’ve been thinking about this sign “Press HERE for POWER!” since this past Sunday.

Each one of us needs to find a source of strength – a source of “power” to help us through life’s struggles, life’s challenges, life’s daily strivings.

For some of us, our metaphorical “power button” is our connection to our family and friends. For others, we find strength in our connection with God. For some, that faith is strengthened even further when we establish deep and abiding relationships with a sustaining community. At times, we find “power” in the beauty of nature. We can even find strength when we reach out a hand to help others.

For me personally, my strength comes from all of the above. I am so grateful to have wonderful family, friends and community who strengthen me, nurture me and support me.

I was able to get through the half-marathon with the wonderful support of my brother Ezra, and cousin Heidi, who ran the race with me.

My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!
My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi with our medals after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!

In my every day life, my faith is an important part of who I am and informs how I interact with the world around me.

As Psalm 121 states:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Mt Kilimanjaro – Symbol of Strength, Fortitude and Resilience

Last Friday evening, I had a conversation with a congregant about overcoming personal obstacles to achieve personal goals. He shared with me that one of his goals was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Mt Kilimanjaro
Mt Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Tanzania, Africa and the highest ‘walkable’ mountain in the world. The trek to the summit is a magnificent and spectacular five-to-nine day undertaking. It ranks amongst the greatest outdoor challenges on the planet. One needs to train in a very specific way in order to reach the summit, as often people get altitude sickness and cannot make it to the top.

I thought about Mt. Kilimanjaro as a symbol this past week. A symbol of strength, fortitude and resilience.

This was a difficult week on many levels.

1. Strength of the Human Spirit: Earlier this week, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Berkinau. As we recalled all those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, we remind ourselves that we still live in a world filled with hatred, xenophobia and violence.

The Jewish people survived, despite the Nazis. We are testament to the strength, fortitude and resilience of the human spirit in the face of incredible evil. We can overcome the obstacle of long-held enmity if we work together, just as everyone needs to work together to reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. We must pledge to renew ourselves to the task of making this world safe for all who dwell upon it.

2. Fortitude: The Northeast of the United States was clobbered by a severe winter storm. In parts of Massachusetts and Long Island, as much as 24-33 inches of snow fell, high winds raged and power outages blacked out peoples’ homes. As people hunkered down to brace for the weather, they reached out to their friends and neighbors to make sure everyone was safe, warm and had enough food. People showed their fortitude and solidarity for their neighbors by helping clear driveways and walkways and cars without being asked. We cannot control “Mother Nature”, but we can deal with its effects with our patience, fortitude and helping those around us.

3. Resilience: A few days ago, I learned that a colleague and friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the senior rabbi of a major North American Reform congregation. The letter she sent out to her congregation was filled with grace, dignity and eloquence.

She wrote: “Resilience is a distinct kind of strength. It has something to do with the ability to cope when hardship comes along…Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future…”

She spoke first of the Jewish people, then of her congregation, then of her personal challenge. Her personal “summit” which she now needs to climb – is to overcome the hurdle of breast cancer. She is the very model of leadership and inspiration for her community.

As we approach the days, weeks and months ahead, we will each face our own challenges, our own Mt. Kilimanjaro’s: either by choice or by happenstance.

If we find strength, fortitude and resilience, along with faith in God’s abiding presence in our midst, we too, can reach that summit and rejoice in the beautiful view at the top.

Esa enai, el he-harim, me-ayin ya-voy ezri?

Ezri, me-yim Adonai, oseh Shamayim, va’aretz.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Eternal, maker of Heaven and Earth. (Psalm 121)


Light – and Hope – in a Time of Darkness

For the past few weeks, I have witnessed some glorious sunrises and sunsets on the Long Island Sound.

Sunrise over Long Island Sound. Photo credit: Sharon L. Sobel
Sunrise over Long Island Sound. Photo credit: Sharon L. Sobel

I always feel God’s presence during those moments, as I silently observe the sun, sky and water paint the most awe-inspiring landscapes. I am deeply grateful and appreciative of the beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis.

And yet, I know that for some, the beauty that surrounds us is obscured by the pain of physical or mental illness that weighs like an albatross around their necks. The pain creates an impenetrable fog that is too heavy and thick to break through. And therefore, at times, we are unable to see or feel or be part of the world that surrounds us. We are unable to be present for family or friends. Or it takes every last ounce of our strength to do so. And sometimes, the pain and fog and illness win. We can no longer fight. We have no more energy and no more strength.

Robin Williams’ death this past week touches close to home for many of us. For some, mental illness is part of our own lives, our loved ones’ lives or our friends’ lives. And because it is not a physically visible illness like diabetes or cancer, we are afraid to talk about it.

But if we are going to make any sense of the death of Robin Williams, or anyone else who has died in the same manner, we MUST speak about mental illness. We must learn that it is a disease that is like cancer or leukaemia or kidney disease or migraines. And like those other illnesses, sometimes, people are able to fight them and overcome them. And unfortunately, sometimes the illness wins. So we are left bereft and stunned and at a loss for words. And, we need to keep in mind, Robin Williams did not kill himself, it was his illness that killed him.

Depression and torment have been part of human nature since the beginning of time. In the Hebrew Bible, King David wrote about his anguish in the Psalms:

“My heart is convulsed within me; terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling invade me; I am clothed with horror. O that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest….” ((Psalm 55: 5-7)

Later on, David finds comfort and hope by reaching out to God:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help comes from Adonai, Maker of Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot slip, your Guardian will not sleep…” (Psalm 121:1-3)

Judaism is a religion of hope and of light. We look for light when darkness comes our way. We find hope and light in the warm, loving embrace of family and friends who do not despair when we are in the depths of our own despair, who wrap their arms tight around us, even if we push them away. We find healing and wholeness in “lifting up our eyes” and hearts to God and community.

Sometimes, we find light and hope in someone’s silent presence. But we know that they are there – not leaving us alone. All it takes is one candle, one flame to dispel the darkness.

But sometimes, the flame does go out. And then, we need to find the strength to light a match anew…to create a new spark to dispel the darkness once again.

Every evening, there is a gorgeous sunset on the water and every morning – another gorgeous sunrise. With hope in our hearts, God in our lives, friends and family by our side, we can help each other to experience the beauty and joy of living each and every day.

Shabbat Shalom.