Thursday, October 2, 2014

Roger Bannister and Team Naive (Derashah before Neilah 5775)

The Internet can be inspiring, even when the tales it tells aren't exactly true.

Listen to the following story, reported on the website by Dr. Jill Ammon-Wexler; a key part of it is false, but I still find it inspirational. Quoting Dr. Ammon-Wexler:[1]
For many years it was universally believed to be impossible for mankind to run a mile in four minutes. The athletes of the time held this belief, and the scientific world totally agreed.
But then on May 6, 1954 -- something remarkable happened. It seems there was one man who did NOT believe it impossible to run a “four minute mile.” In fact this man firmly believed this barrier could be broken ... and that he would be the one to do so. The name of this remarkable rebel was Roger Bannister -- and on that fateful day he did indeed run the first historically-recorded “four minute mile.”
Bannister’s amazing victory illustrates the power of one man’s belief in his own capabilities. But it is even more interesting that just six weeks later, Australian runner John Landy cut one second off Bannister’s record. And in the following ten years almost two hundred people also broke this so-called “impossible” barrier. Why did this happen? Because Bannister shattered the belief that the four minute mile was impossible. And when that belief fell … the 4-minute mile suddenly became possible.

Most of the story Dr. Ammon-Wexler tells is true:
  • Many authorities did believe that the four minute mile was physiologically impossible. For example: In 1943, an American newspaper's sports editor, Elliott Metcalf, used record quarter-mile times to demonstrate that a four-minute mile could not be achieved.[2]
  • Roger Bannister did firmly believe that this barrier could be broken – and on May 6, 1954, he became the first human being in recorded history to run a mile in four minutes.
  • And just weeks later, on June 21, John Landy did cut a second off of Bannister's record. And since the time Bannister showed the world it could be done, thousands more "four-minute miles" have been run; New Zealand's John Walker has done it 135 times, and American Steve Scott has run even more. High schoolers have done it, and Eamonn Coghlan did it after turning 40.

I find this story inspirational because of Roger Bannister's remarkable ability to envision success, shut out the cynics, and drive himself to achieve his goal. He knew that many others thought him naïve, and he overrode their doubts with his resolve.

In a world which finds our Torah's expectations alien and unreasonable, we need to take pride in our purported naivete as we pursue those expectations:
  • We need to take pride in our goal of Shmiras haLashon, of speaking only positively about each other.
  • Of giving 10% of our after-tax income to tzedakah.
  • Of rising early in the morning for shacharit, and spending serious time in Torah study during our day.
  • Of dressing in a way which honours our privacy.
  • Of observing Shabbos  - We now have the absurd authors of the Shabbos-App telling us that we must alter Shabbos and accept phone use, because it's just not possible to expect our kids to observe Shabbos without it.
  • And of completing our teshuvah, setting out this year to conquer the obstacles that conquered us last year.
We need Roger Bannister's ability to imagine a goal, and pursue it, even when the world thinks it impossible.

But an important part of that Bannister story was not true: Bannister was not alone; many athletes of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's absolutely believed that the four-minute mile was achievable. A French runner set the mile record at 4:09 in 1931. Jack Lovelock of New Zealand moved it down to 4:07.6 in 1933. American Glenn Cunningham took it to 4:06.8 in 1934, and three years later British Sydney Wooderson dropped the record to 4:06. Then two Swedes took turns breaking the record multiple times, dropping it to 4:01.4 in 1945.  And there was John Landy, who headed for Finland in May 1954 for an attempt at the four-minute mark, only to arrive and hear that Bannister had already done it in England.[3]

Roger Bannister had confidence in his vision, but he also had something else: the company of other athletes. Bannister was not on his own; he was part of a team of people who were naïve rebels, insisting that it could be done, that they could do it.
That team is crucial; left to ourselves, it's all too easy to pull up short and say, "What, am I out of my mind?" Being the brooding hero who bucks the entire world is attractive when you're a teenager or when you spin webs and have Spidersense, but as we go through our adult, real-world existences, we get hit hard by life, and coping and hitting back requires the confidence of a team on our side. When we are surrounded by others who share our dreams and our goals and our confidence, then even our most questionable visions appear closer to reality.

Look at Avraham and Sarah, who were told to leave their land, their birthplace, the home of their fathers. They didn't go alone – they brought הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, which a midrash explains refers to like-minded people they had attracted. They brought Lot, even though he was part of that family they were supposedly leaving behind.[4] They brought Eliezer. They brought a network.

Or move forward millenia, to the end of the second Beis haMikdash. When the Romans were crushing the backbone of the Jewish nation by banning the study of Torah on penalty of brutal death, a sage named Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma was invited to come live in a town where they would pay him handsomely. As Pirkei Avos[5] tells the story, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma declined the invitation, saying, "No matter what you pay me, I will never live anywhere other than a place of Torah." Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma's reply is hard to understand, though, since passages of gemara elsewhere[6] show that he lived in Rome! Was Rome, heart of the barbaric empire, a place of Torah?!

Interesting approaches to the problem are offered,[7] but one answer is simple: The same gemara that places Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma in Rome also places Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, and his students, in Rome of that time. What Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma needed was not a city full of kollelim and batei medrash, but a team, a few like-minded people who shared his vision, who shared his naivete, who would inspire him and who would be inspired by him.[8]

Roger Bannister's dual message – ignoring the world's doubts and drawing on the strength of similarly confident people – is particularly important for us at Neilah.

In just a few minutes, we are going to say the most audacious words in the entire siddur. We've said them already today, but here they come one more time:
 “אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי.” “My Gd, before I was created, I was not worthy.”
ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי.” “And now that I have been created, I am as though I had never been created.”
עפר אני בחיי, קל וחומר במיתתי.” “I am dust in my lifetime, how much moreso in my death.”
הרי אני לפניך ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה.” “I am before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.”
And yet, “יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי שלא אחטא עוד!”
“But nevertheless, HaShem,
despite my degradation,
despite the fact that I know I have not lived up to my potential,
despite the fact that I know you want me to be so much greater than I am,
despite the fact that I violated pretty much every law this year that I apologized for last year, and the year before that,
despite all of those facts - May it be Your will, HaShem, MY Gd, Gd of MY ancestors, that I never sin again!”

It's remarkably, audaciously naïve – and that's just fine, because all of us will say it, all of us will commit to it, a team of runners who believe, running in parallel to break the four-minute mark that is teshuvah.

Bannister's story has one more part: As I said before, six weeks after Bannister broke the 4-minute mark, John Landy knocked a second off of the new record. And then, just a few weeks after that, the two ran head-to-head in a race in Vancouver. In what would become known as "The Miracle Mile", both men broke the four-minute mark; Bannister won with a time of 3:58.8 and Landy came in at 3:59.6.[9]

That Miracle Mile is the power of a team with a vision, and that is our power here, when we commit ourselves to the unreasonable goal of שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. Let us, as a minyan, be that team with a bold vision, sharing our strength with each other and driving each other forward, to break that four-minute mile of teshuvah together, and earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

[4] See Chezi Cohen, אברהם ולוט – מפרדה לפירוד, Megadim 54 (Nisan 5773)
[5] Perek 6
[6] Sanhedrin 98a, Avodah Zarah 18a
[7] See, for example,
[8] Note the conversation between R' Chanina ben Tradyon and R' Yosi ben Kisma on Avodah Zarah 18a.

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