The Boston marathon ended this year, with an inspiring win and thousands of participants, as it has since 1897. But this year was different. This was the first year after the bombing that took three lives, caused 264 injuries, impacted hundreds of runners near the finish and reverberated with thousands of us who run marathons, and shocked the entire nation.
Each year Boston has it’s challenges. There is a demanding qualifying time, and a course with a long downhill at mile 20 & 1/2 known as Heartbreak Hill. It takes a certain strength to run any marathon. All the more so with Boston this year.
That strength is characterized by the ability to endure over time and distance. It is a persistent strength, perhaps one that defies common sense, and one that travels despite the difficultly of the path or the number of miles left.
The same is true for a religiously committed life, one that seeks a deeper connection with the world around us, and holds us to a higher standard in our relationships with others. A religiously engaged life demands a strength that is firmly planted enough to survive diversity and flexible enough to adapt to changes in the terrain. In Jewish terms, it takes koach.
Jews use the word koach most frequently when congratulating someone on a job well done. We say Yasher Koach, as a way of affirming the good actions they just performed (often after taking an alyia to the Torah) and wishing them strength in all their endeavors. The literal translation is “May your strength be firm.” It is an image of strength that is deeply rooted, and which grows straight in a single direction. It is like the laser focus on a goal that admits no diversions or hesitation.
The key to this kind of strength is that it is only found in shared spaces at common times when engaged in activities or rituals that require real effort. You don’t say Yasher Koach to yourself, and no one says it to you for tying your shoes or reading a paragraph. But if those shoes are for a marathon, or the paragraph is from Torah; and when the actions are done in community, then the effort we expend is deserving of a Yasher Koach.
May we all find the ability to run that extra mile together.