This past Sunday was the New York City Marathon, run every year since 1970 with the exception of 2015 (Hurricane Sandy) and 2020 (Covid). As I have done pretty much every year, I wished the members of our shul who were running good luck, and to encourage them a bit more, offered to skip my drasha in shul this week if their time was under a particular benchmark. Although I’m not quite sure why that would serve as incentive, it seems to have worked this year with one of our members breaking the 3 hour 25 minute benchmark I suggested. So, true to my word, I will not be delivering a drasha in shul this week.
Nevertheless, or maybe because of that, I am sharing this written drasha with you. It’s not a full fledged drasha, so I’ll call it a drash-ele, using the popular Yiddish diminutive to denote something smaller and, hopefully, endearing.
Running the marathon in 3 hours and 21 minutes, as one of our members did, is quite an impressive feat. It takes significant physical and mental training, as well as special gifts of stamina and physical ability endowed by Hashem. It’s probably not coincidental that on the Shabbat following the marathon we read in the Torah of another example of extraordinary strength and effort.
Yaakov has finally reached the well in Charan where he will begin the search for one of his mother’s relatives to marry. Some of the shepherds have gathered at the well and Yaakov engages them in conversation in an attempt to locate his family. Not only do the shepherds know Lavan, his uncle, but they inform Yaakov that Lavan’s daughter Rachel should soon be arriving to water the flocks of her father.
Yaakov then questions the shepherds who have gathered at the well as to why they are there. Since it is still early in the day and not yet time to have finished grazing the flocks, why haven’t they watered their sheep and returned to the fields. The shepherds answer that they are unable to remove the large rock covering the well to protect its water until all of the shepherds have gathered. Their collective strength would then be sufficient to remove the large rock and water their flocks.
At that moment Rachel arrives at the well with the flocks of her father. Yaakov is overcome with emotion at the sight of Rachel and the realization that she might be the very one he would marry. The Torah tells us that Yaakov approached the well and in a display of extraordinary strength, removed the rock from on top of the well. Rashi goes out of his way to tell us that Yaakov didn’t simply roll the rock off the well, but instead he lifted it off with ease, with the same effort as one removing a cap from a jar.
This is not the Yaakov we know. Up until this point Yaacov has been the passive one, sitting and studying. He allows himself to be directed by his mother into deceiving his father. He follows his mother’s instructions despite his terror of discovery. He is unaware of Eisav’s anger and plan to kill him until his mother and father send him away. How does the passive, physically unimpressive Yaakov suddenly change into Charles Atlas?
In a 2017 study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, the authors suggest a signaling theory that claims the only reason people ever do anything, is to assert their status and value to others. Perhaps this accounts for what most people consider inappropriate show-off behavior, as when people show off certain possessions as a means of attempting to gain social status. Could Yaakov be exhibiting this extraordinary strength to try and impress Rachel (and maybe even the other shepherds)?
This doesn’t seem like a particularly Jewish explanation for Yaacov’s behavior.
Rav Yosef Rimon, quoting his rebbe and teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, suggests a different approach. Indeed, something happened to Yaakov to change him from the passive personality of Be’er Sheva to the powerful personality of Charan. Between Be’er Sheva and Charan was Yaacov’s dream. This was the first time that Hashem spoke to Yaakov, promising him His protection and promising him descendants to inherit the land of Israel.
With this revelation Yaakov receives not only a vision, he receives a mission. When one has a mission and a purpose there’s very little in life he can’t achieve. It was the vigor and strength of Yaakov’s mission that transformed him from powerless to powerful, enabling him to pop the stone off of the well, and setting the stage for the rest of the challenges in his life.
We commemorated three events this past week that speak to extraordinary strength, both physical strength as well as strength of character. Tuesday night was the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass that foreshadowed the near extermination of European Jewry during World War II. The events that followed Kristallnacht tested the physical strength and strength of character of those who had the foresight to flee, as well as those who would survive the death camps of Nazi Germany.
Thursday was Veteran’s Day, a time to thank those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Originally proclaimed as Armistice Day, it marked the armistice that went into effect between the Allies and Germany on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, proclaiming the end of World War I. Veteran’s Day reminds us to be grateful to those who used their physical strength and strength of character to protect those less strong and more vulnerable. It reinforces within us the realization that strength is good when it is used in the service of good causes.
And finally, Thursday was also the 104th anniversary of the publicizing of the Balfour Declaration. It was a declaration that set the stage for the world’s recognition of the Jewish presence and belonging in Israel. From it came the mission and vision of a Jewish nation that would need all of the strength it could muster, of every kind, to survive its enemies and to build a thriving nation that is a light to the nations of the world.
Strength has its place, and if it results in getting out of shul a few minutes earlier, I guess that not such a bad thing.