Exercising goodness muscles in a marathon – opinion

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The Jerusalem Post 07.02.2024


Exercising goodness muscles in a marathon – opinion


A Dead Sea marathon amid two wars, north and south – sounds crazy, no? But in our little country of Israel, we don’t let terrorism win. Life goes on.


True, some advised canceling. Fortunately, the Tamar Regional Council decided correctly. Soldiers and mourners wanted to honor comrades and murdered loved ones. Hostage families wanted to send some “crazy kind of energy” to the Gaza hellhole  – as Shaul Levy, 19-year-old Naama Levy’s grandfather, said. Wounded soldiers, evacuees, and 6,000 others simply wanted to do what Israelis do so well – celebrate life!


The head of the Dead Sea’s Tamar Regional Council, Nir Wanger, explains that “continuing with sporting and cultural events during war reflects our resilience by maintaining our routine. Running this marathon reaffirms our commitment to win this war while revealing Israeli citizens’ determination to reinforce the home front – supporting our soldiers on every battlefront.”


Ruthi Greenglick, whose singer-son Shauli fell on December 26, ran the 10-km . heat. “This race has kept me sane throughout these difficult days,” she told the organizers. “I felt I ran with my late son Shauli’s hand on my shoulder….”


Before the marathon, I heard that Rabbi Elkana Vizel’s twin brother would be running. Vizel, 35, married and the father of four, was one of 21 reservists killed in last month’s horrific explosion in Gaza.


I remembered reading Vizel’s stirring farewell letter.


“If you’re reading these words, something probably happened to me,” Vizel wrote. “If Hamas captured me, I demand that no deal be made freeing any terrorist to free me. Our overwhelming victory is more important than anything. Please press ahead with full force so our victory is as overwhelming as possible.” 


Reading such words now is agonizing. We hear much from a limited number of families of kidnapped Israelis demanding an immediate ceasefire. I wonder: what do most soldiers think? What did the fallen think? What do their parents think?


“Maybe I died in battle,” Vizel continued. “When a soldier falls, it is sad, but I ask you to be happy. Don’t be sad when you part with me. Sing a lot, hold each other’s hands, and strengthen each other. We have so much to be proud and happy about. We are shaping the most meaningful moments in our nation’s history and world history…. So please be optimistic. Don’t stop the power of life for a moment. I was wounded once [10 years ago] in Operation Protective Edge. I don’t regret returning to fight. This is the best decision I ever made.”


The last time Elkana and his twin, Itamar, spoke, they planned on running the Dead Sea Marathon together. I wanted to find Itamar – but 6,000 runners participated, including 2,000 in my 10-km. race.


We started running along the Dead Sea’s shoreline in Ein Bokek. Falling back, you see a long line of people, running dead into the sea – on the dike flanked by water. Watching from afar, many runners, religious and secular, said what I thought: it looked like the crossing of the Red Sea.


About 4 km. in, I see three young guys running in T-shirts, displaying the photo of a fallen soldier on their backs. Curious, I scamper ahead and ask whom they’re honoring . They served with Elkana – and point out his brother, Itamar, running ahead. 


A Sderot resident, Itamar is one of Israel’s 150,000 evacuees. The twins by now led separate lives but, Itamar explained, “When we did things together – or shared hobbies like running – we felt one another deeply.” 


I asked him, between huffs and puffs: “What message do you have for Israel, for the Jewish people?” 


Itamar said: “In his last letter Elkana wrote that ‘we have so much to be proud of and to delight in…. We are the generation of redemption.’” Itamar explained: “Even with today’s complicated and painful reality, we can choose to focus on the negative or the positive. The more we focus on the positive, the more good we generate.” 

“Like a muscle?” I asked.


“Absolutely,” this amazing soul replied. “It’s a muscle of goodness. The more we exercise the good, the more it grows and grows, the more it strengthens and strengthens. That was the message of my brother’s life. Goodness is a muscle, and we must work it out, develop it.” 


The Vizel brothers’ positivity updated Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s teaching that “causeless hatred destroyed the Second Temple. Perhaps the Third will be rebuilt because of causeless love.”


Reflecting with a reservist

I SHARED my marathon story with a young reservist friend, as we discussed the difficult transition so many reservists experience when coming home from this war. Even those who are physically okay carry what they saw, whom they lost, the ongoing uncertainty – compounded by the frustration of unfinished business. And, like all demobilized soldiers historically, it’s hard reacclimating to civilian life’s blessed boredom, as opposed to wartime’s adrenalin-generating insanity.


“One friend told me he lost his joy in life; everything feels so heavy,” this new father, already returning to reserve duty after a monthlong break, told me.


I thought of the Vizel brothers’ Kookian goodness spiral – and the classic exchange after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Irish-Americans were particularly shattered. “We’ll never laugh again,” the columnist Mary McGrory sighed. “Mary,” Daniel P. Moynihan replied, “we’ll laugh again – but we’ll never be young again.”


May Elkana’s memory be for a blessing. And may we all keep exercising our laughter and love and goodness muscles – when doing politics, too!


A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. 




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