Most of us know a story about the origins of the marathon. The story relates that in the year 490 BCE, an Athenian herald named Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed near a place called Marathon in Greece. He ran 150 miles on two consecutive days. He then ran the 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory with the words, "We have won" and collapsed and died on the spot from exhaustion.
But there was no historical event that happened in this way. No such event occurred. The great historian Herodotus, writing a few decades later, has nothing about a herald running from Marathon to Athens. Instead, he reports that the whole army marched back to Athens the same day. Pheidippides may have been the one who went to Sparta but this has no connection with the Battle of Marathon itself. Hundreds of years later, someone came up with the story of the run from Marathon to Athens.
Still, “marathon” is now part of our vocabulary. There are references to it all the time. A great New Yorker cartoon shows the runner reaching Athens and with his dying breath he blurts out, “I forgot the message.”
All such references are based on a fictional tale.
Now, does it matter if the story really happened? Probably not. I think about all of the famous movies and I wonder if it matters that they got the facts wrong.
The King’s Speech won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. It turns out that the king wasn't such a stammerer. So I ask: doesn't that kill the story? And I think: No. A good man has to get it together, overcome his past and his inadequacies and he goes and does his job. The message is: Do what you have to do. That’s a good message. It doesn’t matter whether the movie exaggerated his disability.
William Wallace, better known as Braveheart, didn't wear a kilt and did not have a romance with a queen or father a king of England.
John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind, was divorced for a long time by 1994 when he won the Nobel Prize. That great speech he gave at the end of the movie to his beloved wife who had stuck by him? Not true.
T. E. Lawrence's brother saw the movie Lawrence of Arabia and couldn't recognize his brother in the film.
Maria von Trapp wasn't in love with Georg von Trapp when she married him a full 11 years before the Nazis invaded Austria. Does the music sound the same?
This is all trivia; sort of fun, sort of strange.
I’m left to wonder if the facts matter. It’s a movie, we say, and all dramatic art takes liberties with the facts in order to shape an exciting narrative. It's the message of the story that counts, right?
I see the herald running into Athens, and blurting out, “This is not really happening. Someone made this up. I’m not really here. The Persians lost, we won, but this running thing is just a legend. But I really want people to run marathons; I want them to commit themselves to this test of physical endurance because it’s good for them, and that has nothing to do with the facts. So run, everybody, run, and use me as a metaphor. The message is that you should be inspired by my famous run, even though it never happened.” In my mind, that’s what the herald says, but then he doesn’t die, because he never lived.
This is just fine for the origins of the marathon, or for the movies I’ve mentioned. But now let’s get serious and look at the Bible: Does it matter to us as Jewish people if the Bible’s true? Let’s think about the great events of Jewish history, like the Exodus from Egypt that we celebrate on Passover or the victory of the Maccabees that we celebrate on Hanukkah. Does it matter if the origins of these holidays are factual?
A lot of people assume that the Bible is a bunch of fairy tales. It undermines how they think about the foundations of Judaism. We’ll call them the skeptics.
Others think that the Bible is literally true. We’ll call them the fundamentalists.
There are sophisticated modern people who say that the Bible isn’t literally true but that it is symbolically and metaphorically true. It's true as all great fiction is true, like great movies are true. We’ll call these people the symbolists.
Today, I want to talk about what we believe and what we want to leave.
First, I want to talk about what we believe about our past and also about our present. A movie can be just a movie, but the stakes are much higher when we talk about the very bases of our religion and our holidays.
I want to talk to you about my beliefs, not in order to convince you, even though that would be just fine, but in order to get you to think seriously, not as a child but as an adult, about what you think. I want to make you think about your beliefs, about whether you’re a skeptic or a fundamentalist or a symbolist or a fourth category of what I will call a historist.
Let’s take the two big examples I mentioned, two events that everyone knows something about, the story of Passover and the story of Hanukkah. Are these stories true, are they about real, historical events, or are they just fairy tales for children?
I’ve had a great adventure in my life, working for years in Egypt, in the Sinai desert. In a way, I’ve spent part of my life trying to understand whether the Biblical account of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus can be proved to be true. The exciting thing is that our archaeological team, the North Sinai Archaeological Expedition, discovered a city in the desert that no one knew existed. My contribution was to identify the city as Migdol, a city that was mentioned in the Bible as a place near where the parting of the sea happened. Our geologists used scientific methods to draw the map as it was then, 3250 years ago, so that we could see how the Israelites might have crossed dry land and how the sea might have drowned their Egyptian pursuers. We discovered some fascinating evidence, inscriptions from the pharaoh of the Exodus, Rameses II, even a graphic depiction of Egyptians chasing Semitic slaves in the desert.
At one point a few years ago, I’m standing there in the desert, and I’ve followed the route of the Exodus, and I have the map of the topography as it was then in my hand, and I know how it all happened in a way that even the most scientific and non-believing person could accept, and I get it. The prophets received revelations about angels and chariots in the sky. I have my moment of revelation and I hate to admit it but I start paraphrasing a song written by Neil Diamond and sung by Mickey Dolenz:
Then I saw this place,
Now I’m a believer
Not a trace
of doubt in my mind.
I became a believer, a historical believer.
The skeptics say that the Bible makes up the whole thing, that the Israelites were never slaves in Egypt to begin with. This kind of skepticism is unreasonable. It goes against all common sense. In the ancient world, you might have made up a story about being kings, but not about being slaves, the worst humiliation, worse than death.
But my question today is, “Does it matter whether the Exodus and the event at the sea really happened?” A symbolist would say it makes no difference either way.
But I think it does. If you look at the Bible or the prayer book, you’ll see that of all of the events in our history, the Exodus from Egypt and the miracle of the Israelite escape are the facts used to say that G-d intervenes in history.
In the Ten Commandments, G-d introduces Himself as the One who liberated the Israelites from Egypt, from the house of bondage.
If our beliefs are based on the idea that G-d intervenes in history, then it does matter whether these historical events happened.
I wrote a book with the title: If the Egyptians Drowned in the Red Sea, Where are Pharaoh’s Chariots? Very specifically, we found a couple of horses with parts of a gold bridle, horses that would have pulled a king’s chariot. We didn’t find the chariots, but we found more: evidence of the geography that the Bible lays out and a plausible explanation for how what was interpreted as a miracle actually happened.
A miracle is in the timing. Maybe there was a tidal wave at just the right moment in the right place but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and through a series of miracles or what some would call coincidences they escaped slavery. A miracle is something wonderful that happens at just the right time and just the right place. You know G-d through His timing.
So I’m a believer, not a fundamentalist who believes everything without evidence and not a symbolist who thinks it’s just a pretty legend, but a historist, and I believe that the Passover story happened.
This is not Hollywood and it is not just a fairy tale; it happened.
When it comes to the story of Hanukkah, I can now tell you after years of study and writing that the Maccabees were real-life people who absolutely positively won a war against the Seleucid Empire against all odds. We can trace every single event and battle down to the year and the month that it happened. The part about the jar of oil lasting eight days? Not so much. But that was not a fact to begin with; the miracle of a jar of oil lasting for eight days is not mentioned in either of our primary sources, I or II Maccabees. It was based on a tradition about a kind of petroleum called naphtha that was used over the centuries to keep the fire on the Temple altar burning. It may be that the Maccabees used naphtha in re-dedicating the Temple and that the oil burned for a long time, but it doesn’t say this in our original sources. So doubting the historicity of that little part of the story takes nothing away from the magnificence of the fight for religious freedom that Hanukkah celebrates. Hanukkah was not just a fiction or a movie or a fairy tale but a real event with real people.
So when you think about our holidays like Passover and Hanukkah, I would urge you not to be so quick to be a skeptic and not to be a fundamentalist about later legends and not just to see the symbolism involved. We are in the realm of history, and history, I believe, is what a Jewish person has as a foundation.
Okay, so if history is our foundation, what is our history about? What’s the point?
I keep thinking about that New Yorker cartoon where the runner from Marathon reaches his goal only to realize that he’s forgotten the message.
I’m very afraid that we’re doing the Jewish marathon, we’re part of our people’s history and part of its perpetuation, and we forget the message, what this is all about. And maybe it’s because we think we’re just based on a legend.
But I’m here to tell you that it is not just a metaphor.
Our history is real.
We really have lived for thousands of years.
We have had a purpose all these years
Our messages are to be found in our history. Our history, in a sense, is our message.
Our history is the real marathon, thousands of years worth, but unlike the messenger in the cartoon version, we have to remember the message.
Ok, so what is the Jewish message?
Israel embodies the Jewish message. There are many who call the Jewish people’s right to Israel a fiction, who say that we stole it from the Palestinians. They forget the fact that in 1947, the United Nations created a Jewish Palestine and an Arab Palestine but that there were no Arab Palestinians who wanted their own nation, and all of the Arab countries attacked the Jewish people who had declared their independence. But over these decades, after attacking Israel again and again in wars and terrorist attacks, the Arabs have a new strategy, to de-legitimize Israel’s existence. And they use fictions and lies and myths and the world sees their version and believes it, the way that we believed all those Hollywood versions of history.
But we must not be fooled, and we must know the facts.
Israel is hated because it is a Jewish country. Jewish history is a marathon of being hated because of lies that have been told about us. All this anti-Israel hatred is the same story. Right now, today, Israel is being subjected to vile, angry criticism, including the astonishing charge that it defends itself against murderers! How dare Israel defend itself? Doesn’t Israel understand that Jewish people have no right to live? If Palestinians want a state but will not recognize Israel’s very existence and won’t negotiate for peace, that’s okay. The world approves, just like the world watched the Holocaust, because it was only millions of Jewish lives that were being destroyed.
But even in the midst of all this, we have to remember the message. Our real history is not about what the world has done to us. It is about what we have done in spite of the world.
So what is the Jewish message?
That G-d exists.
That when G-d realized that human beings would not be moral, He called on one people to bring His message to the other peoples.
We have held on to our beliefs and our morality and our values no matter what has happened.
And we believe that we are not alone, that G-d intervenes in history. And our history, as incredible as it is with miracles like the Exodus and Hanukkah and the creation of Israel in modern times, is all true.
So that’s a little about the Jewish message. Now I want to turn to each of you: What’s your message? I’ve talked about what we believe. Now I want to talk about the message we will leave. In Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of the Fathers, famous rabbis are quoted for their most famous sayings. If you were asked to deliver a one-sentence message to the future generations, what would you say? The novelist Orson Scott Card has William Blake going around early America asking people to write one sentence of truth in his book. Imagine if someone asked you to write one sentence that summarizes everything you have ever learned, all the truth you have. What would you write?
I’m with a group of very elderly people and I ask them to tell me one sentence that sums up the wisdom they’ve learned in life.
And one man says: Always buy retail.
And another says: Be kind.
And a third man says: Never eat steak without ketchup. (What he meant was that you should enjoy your life and live every moment the best you can.)
Think about it: What's your message?
What have you learned?
When you pass on, what do you want to pass on?
I want to tell you the message of Jewish history, of the historical Jewish marathon run.
I want to tell you, like the herald running into Athens, that life can be won, that life is not only about descending into death but that we can make meaning out of the human condition despite how short life is and how fragile we are and how lousy the world is and how cruel a lot of people are.
And I look out at all of these people that I know and I want to say: You did it; you are the one who ran 300 miles and then another twenty-five on top of that.
And there were lots of times, in this last year alone, that you didn’t know how you could do it but you did.
You said: I can’t do it
I can’t see one more doctor
I can’t go on one more job interview
I cannot take care of him one more night
I can’t go back to that job another day
I can’t have one more treatment
I cannot pass that test
I cannot do it any more
I can’t do it without that drug
But you did
You are the marathon runner
And like Israel today, it often felt like the whole world was against you, that you were totally alone and isolated and that you could not go on, but you did.
And the Jewish people are the marathon runners of history.
This is no legend; this is real life.
Please let your life be an inspiration, the simple, basic fact that you have endured so much but you have lived your life like the Jewish people has lived its history, with morality and meaning and purpose.
Tell your story. Your life is your message. So please pass it on.
Let me give you the Jewish message in two words that come at the end of a short personal story.
A few years ago, my son Danny was living in Boston and he asked me if I wanted to walk in the Boston Marathon. Since neither of us are runners, his idea was to walk the 26 miles on the day when everyone else was running. Every parent here will relate when I tell you that I had no interest whatsoever in doing this but when your kid asks to do something with you, you say “yes.” On the day of the marathon it was raining and cold and miserable, so I wore a ski hat and a long dress coat and shoes and a scarf and I was ready to brave the elements. We started out before all the runners because we needed a head start. And it was raining, and it was cold, and eventually all the runners passed us, but we kept walking. After thirteen miles and a few hours I was carrying my water-drenched coat and I had water in my shoes and I was a soggy mess. I had made it halfway and I thought that was pretty good. So Danny gave me permission to stop and find a cab and leave, but he decided to go the rest of the way. He kissed me and thanked me for coming and he started running, and I wasn’t there to see it, but I heard that later that day he made it to the finish line, stumbling and falling and nearly passing out, but he made it.
We may not make it to the finish line, but we pray and hope that our kids will get there, and maybe, in the end, that’s how it all works. And maybe the secret of Jewish survival, of this whole long historical marathon, filled with G-d and miracles and wars and persecution and triumph, always was parents loving their kids and kids loving their kids.
As I watched Danny run off, as cold and soggy as I was, I figured: This is a good day.
And I figured: This is a good life.
And even on that cold, cold wet day, I thanked G-d that I could leave a message.
The message is: Keep going. That’s the Jewish message. Even if I can’t get there with you, keep going.
On Rosh Hashanah, G-d’s answering machine states: “After you hear the sound of the shofar, please leave a message.” Ladies and gentlemen, on this new year, please think about the truth that you’ve learned in this life and pass it on. Please tell the next generation that the going is rough but that they can do it.
And someday, when our time on this earth is up, when we’ll hear a voice ask, “Are you satisfied with your message?” let’s be able to say, “Yes.”