There was a time in my life when I was actually pretty decent at that game we call basketball. There was a period when I spent four or five hours every day playing pick-up ball in the park. Back in 1995, Naftali Fogel and I would play in the schoolyard of the local HS and win four or five straight two-on-twos before finally tiring to our fresh opponents. His never-miss shot, my rebounding, our fluid teamwork; we made a pretty formidable team. White men can’t jump, but we sure can shoot.
That was more than twenty years ago. I probably played more basketball in one month as a teenager than in all the twenty years following it. Basketball became something I watched, and even then, when it got intense I would get shortness of breath. In twenty years of athletic neglect I let any skill drain out of my body and brain, filling it instead with custard doughnuts and useless trivia. The muscle memory that once allowed me to shoot a ball with effortless fluidity had atrophied beyond repair. I was a baller no more…
That did not keep me off the courts. A few months ago, after the persistent nagging of a dear student and friend who was probably more concerned for my heart than my waistline, I started playing every Tuesday night. (“Rabbi, come on, you really need to start playing basketball!” x 200 = Fine! I’ll do it!)
My first two months of playing basketball was simply humiliating, humbling, and at times horrifying. I was so bad that they didn’t even waste a person defending against me. I could shoot the ball from two feet away and airball. On defense I was OK, all you need to do is just stay annoyingly close to the guy you’re supposed to be defending and people won’t throw them the ball. But on offense, I was a disaster. Just running down the court would leave me out of breath, wheezing and lurching like an overheated locomotive. I think I can’t, I think I can’t, I think I can’t… I couldn’t shoot, dribble, or rebound. I was as useful as a telegraph pole.
I stuck around; I enjoyed playing the game despite my total lack of skill. I appreciated the comradery, I liked the idea of getting exercise, and it soon became part of my weekly schedule. Partners on Tuesday night followed by evening services, then basketball for an hour or so. After a few months I began to get my shot back, and I was able to make it up and down the court without feeling that my lungs might collapse. I began to actually add value to my team, maybe I could be a baller again?
Last Tuesday that fantasy was definitively smashed. I was dribbling the ball up the court when I suddenly felt a searing pain in my left calf. It felt like someone had taken a hockey stick and slashed my calf with all their strength, which was quite unlikely because I wasn’t playing hockey, and none of the people I play with are sadists. I fell to the ground doubled over in pain, shouting “Who hit me?”
It turns out that I hit me, or more accurately, my gastrocnemius hit me. The gastroc is the large calf muscle that originates with a tendon at the heel and then travels up the back of the leg to the knee. For some reason my gastroc decided it didn’t want to play basketball anymore, so it just tore itself open.
The pain was intense. My friends helped me to the side, got me some ice, and helped me elevate and ice the muscle. After twenty minutes, I was helped to my car where I was able to drive home (Thank G-d it was the left foot that got hurt, which meant I could still drive!). It was about 10:30pm, so I didn’t want to call anyone, but I began texting some of the local doctors, and two of them called me immediately and helped me through understanding what happened and what I needed to do.
The next morning at eight o’clock, Dr. Maury Ellenberg came over and assessed it, brought me crutches, and showed me how to use them properly. He also got me an appointment with his son, Dr. Yechiel Ellenberg, who is an amazingly skilled sports medicine doctor. The pain was still intense, but with the help of the crutches I could hobble along, and I was able to bring myself to the doctor appointment. The good doctor saw me, and confirmed that it was indeed a tear in the gastrocnemius. He explained that while there is no specific reason that my gastroc tore, it is quite common for runners, tennis players, and basketball players to experience a tear. He instructed me how to slowly wean myself off the crutches, and taught me some exercises to start strengthening the muscle a few days later, and sent me on my merry way. (Both doctors I spoke to the night before also called to see how I was doing. I feel very blessed to live in a community with so many caring and skilled doctors!)
So for the last week and a half, I’ve been limping along, first with crutches, then without, but thank G-d the improvement has been remarkable. Last Wednesday I could barely get from my house to my car and now I’m walking normally with a slight limp. The pain is still there, and while not nearly as intense as when I first tore the gastroc, I still can’t walk anywhere without being reminded in almost every step that my calf muscles still have not made peace with me yet.
Strangely, I’m actually happy about that. The pain in my foot reminds me of what happened and what could have happened. Gastroc tears come in three forms, 1-10%, 10-90%, and 90-100%. My injury is somewhere in the middle category and I suspect on the lower end. It could have been much worse, I could have torn it in the 90-100% range in which case I would still not be walking. I could have torn my right gasroc in which case I would not have been able to drive for a while. For that matter, there are about ten million other things that could go wrong with my body that are much worse than a mid-range tear of a calf muscle. But thank G-d, I’m fine! I’m walking, I’m talking, I’m breathing, I’m at 99%!
If I didn’t have the slight pain in my gastroc, I wouldn’t even think about what a blessing it is that I’m walking! The pain may remind me that something is slightly wrong, but it also makes me remember just how much is amazingly right! I can’t say that I hope for low-level pain for the rest of my life, but for the short term it has been a daily reminder of the blessing of good health that G-d has bestowed upon me.
Every morning, a Jew has the opportunity to make a string of blessings thanking G-d for all the things we usually take for granted. Blessed are you Ha-shem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who gives sight to the blind, Who clothes the naked, Who releases the bound, Who straightens the bent, Who spreads out the earth upon the waters, etc. Often, we rush through these blessings not really comprehending what they mean. Had we been blinded for a year and then suddenly given back our vision, how deeply would we thank G-d for giving sight to the blind? If we were in a shipwreck and found ourselves floating in the ocean in a lifeboat for a month, how deeply would we thank G-d for dry land?
One of those blessings thanks G-d Who firms man’s footsteps. Most of us never think twice about the miracle of walking. We humans are true bipeds; we always walk on two feet. That is no small feat, 99% of animal species need more than two feet to stay stable. Stability is easily achieved when you have four feet, even three feet, but two feet takes enormous balance. One of the biggest challenges robot designers face is achieving true bipedal status. The most sophisticated computers, thousands of times more powerful than the computers that put man on the moon, are just now learning how to make a robot walk on two feet! Yet we do it fluidly, naturally without thinking twice. We lean, we jump, we run, walk, skip, without ever thinking about what a blessing it is.
The pain in my leg is a true blessing from G-d, it makes me realize just how lucky I am to have stable feet with firm footsteps. I hope that I don’t have to go blind for a little bit just to realize how blessed I am to see, or deaf just to realize what a blessing it is that I can hear, I hope I can be thankful for all the gifts in my life without having to lose or limit any of them. But in the meantime, as I limp around, I’m thankful more than ever for G-d, Who firms man’s footsteps, every day, all day!
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And behold Egypt was traveling after them!” (Exodus 14:10)
In this week’s parsha, the exodus story culminates with the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Jews walking through safely, and the Egyptians drowning. However, this only happened after a terrifying ordeal that the Jewish people endured. Before the sea split, the Jews found themselves running from the Egyptians who were chasing them with all their military might.
Noting that the verse above describes the Egyptians in the singular tense (“Egypt”) instead of the plural (“the Egyptians”), Rashi comments that the Egyptians were pursuing the Jews “With one heart, like one person.” This comment is interesting because Rashi makes almost the same exact comment in next week’s parsha, when the Torah describes the Jewish people camping at the foot of Mt Sinai. There too, the Torah used the singular tense to describe the Jewish people, “and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2).” On that verse Rashi describes the powerful unity the Jews felt as they were about to receive the Torah, that they were “Like one person with one heart.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner of blessed memory (1906-1980, Warsaw- NYC), the founder of one of the largest American yeshivas, Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin, asks why Rashi reverses the order in describing the two phenomena. With regard to the Egyptians, Rashi notes that they were “With one heart, like one person,” whereas with regard to the Jews at Mt. Sinai, the description is “Like one person with one heart?”
Rabbi Hutner answers that there was a fundamental difference between the unity of the Jewish people and the Egyptians. The Jewish people are intrinsically unified as one. It is as if the entire Jewish people are one big human being, in which each person is a different part of that organism. Since we are all one, it goes without saying that our desires should be one, in just the same way that my left hand wants the same things as my right hand, my kidney, or heart wants. Because of this, the primary connection is that we are “Like one person.” What happens to follow that is that we all have one heart, we all want the same thing.
This was not the case with regard to the Egyptians. They were intrinsically a collection of individual people, who were not truly unified. It so happened that when they wanted to get their Jewish slaves back, they were able to unite, but it was not representative of who they were. For that reason Rashi described them as “With one heart, like one person.” In this particular scenario, they had one heart; they all wanted to force the Jewish people back. As a result, they were able to act as one person. The moment they would have finished subjugating the Jews, they would no longer be like one person.
This difference is something we see playing itself out in world politics today. The nations of the world are not unified. There is plenty of squabbling, fighting, and anger between them. Yet somehow, when it comes to criticizing the Jews and our tiny Jewish country, they all unite. Cries come forth from every major capital, the UN passes almost unanimous resolutions against Israel, and even America issues statements condemning our “excessive force.” When they are with one heart, it almost seems like they have the unity of “one person.” However, as soon as the focus is lifted from Israel, the world reverts to its regular disunity. The Shi’ites kill the Sunnis, Russia freezes half of Europe by cutting off their natural gas, North Korea makes aggressive moves on South Korea, and genocide continues unfettered in Africa.
As Jews, we truly remain “Like one person with one heart.” Not only in times of crisis or shared interest do we unite, but we remain united at all times. There is a constant flow of support from the Diaspora to Israel. There are countless organizations looking to help any Jew in need, no matter their affiliation, race, country of origin, or economic strata. There are dozens of Federations giving much of the money they raise to support our brothers in Israel, the Former Soviet Union, and anywhere else Jews find themselves in need. There are free loan societies, camps for children with cancer, food banks, and health care providers for Jews of every type and stripe. May we always continue to follow the praise of Rashi, and see ourselves as a nation, “Like one person with one heart!”
This week’s portion begins with the Jews turning back to Egypt after having been driven away just a few days earlier. Their goal was to fool the Egyptians into thinking that they were trapped by the desert, and prompting the Egyptians to come pursue them, which they did. Pharaoh led his men, in full battle formation, in chasing down the Jews, and they caught them right by the See of Reeds.
The Jews were trapped between a sea and a hard nation, but Moshe told them that they could be confident as G-d would fight for them. Then Moshe told the people to keep on traveling as if there was no sea before them, but most of the people were too scared. Nachshon the son of Aminadav was the first to plunge into the waters and, just as they were about to drown him, the sea split and the entire Jewish people was able to cross through the sea onto dry land. The Egyptians followed, but for them, the sea didn’t remain standing. Upon the bidding of G-d, Moshe picked up his staff, and the waters came crashing back down on the Egyptians.
The Jews, upon seeing G-d’s greatness and miracles, broke out in song, together as one. They sang Az Yashir, a most poetic and beautiful song that is still said daily as part of the morning prayers. The Jews were able to collect enormous amounts of gold that the Egyptians brought with them to war, and eventually had to be pulled away from the sea.
They then came to a place called Marah, where they found the water to be bitter, but G-d told Moshe to throw a tree into the water and they were sweetened. There the Jews learnt some Halachot including the laws of Shabbos. Soon afterward the Jews complained about the lack of food, and G-d gave them the manna. After that they complained about the lack of water and G-d told Moshe to hit a rock and water came out (it’s later in Deuteronomy is when G-d tells him to speak to the rock).
After that, the Jews had their first battle with their archenemy Amalek. The Amalekim knew it would be suicidal to attack the Jews after all the miracles G-d had done to protect them, but did so anyway, just to show the world that it was possible to still attack the Jews. Moshe ascended a mountain overlooking the battle. When he raised his hands, the Jewish people would look up and remember G-d, and they would be victorious, but when he would lower his hands the Jews would lose. Evidently Moshe kept them up more than down, as the Jews won! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Judgment comes from experience, great judgment comes from bad experiences. ~ Robert Packwood
Random Fact of the Week: Penguins have an organ on their foreheads that desalinizes water.
Funny Line of the Week: Cheese… milk’s leap toward immortality.
Have a Sprightly Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham