I always wondered about the motivation of someone who runs a marathon and comes in at last place. The amiable couple in their 60s, ambling together towards the finish line—what made them do it? Each year, some 36,000 people line up to participate in the New York City Marathon, a grueling 26-mile route that snakes through all five boroughs of the city. Of those thousands, only one will come out in front. Why do people run the marathon, knowing that they have no chance of coming in one of the top 10 or even the top 1,000?

I did a little research, reading first-person accounts of marathon runners. For one thing, completing a marathon is hardly a walk in the park. All the runners, even those who finish in last place, prepare for weeks in advance with fitness training. There’s a vast difference between runner—even the one who finishes last—and the spectators on the sidelines. Neither of them has any hopes of winning the race. The participants, though, have an inner contentment and sense of satisfaction. They’re in the race. For them, just completing the marathon itself is a badge of courage and pride, and they have no need for an external trophy.

The Torah portion of Behaalotecha (Numbers 8-12) describes the encampment of the Jewish people in the desert and the manner in which they traveled. After hearing the signal sounded by special silver trumpets, the 12 tribes of Israel packed up their camp, lined up in a designated order and marched forth into the desert. The tribe of Dan always marched last.

Their job was to bring up the rear and gather up any objects left behind—missing socks, perhaps, or lost children. They picked up after everyone else.

It’s not a very glorious role. Not nearly as impressive as leading the tribes, like Judah, or carrying the holy vessels like the Levites. But it was a job that needed to get done.

Chassidic teachings explain that in addition to maintaining the baggage claim department, the Danites also ran a different type of "lost and found." There’s something that people can lose when they’re out in the front, soaking up all the glory. They can lose perspective. They can lose their sensitivity to others and the awareness of their own fallibility. The Danites were able to return this to the tribes who were out in front. They were in last place, but they were in the race, eyes on the goal. Without any fanfare, they did what needed doing and stayed focused on the needs of others. With a wonderful blend of self-effacement and self-esteem, they felt no need to get ahead. They knew they were doing exactly what G‑d needed from them.

The Danites are my inspiration, especially on those days when I’m in a slump and it seems that the world is passing me by. The days that no one returns my phone calls or reads my emails, and I feel like I’m the bottom of the heap. I’m so far behind in the social stratum that keeping up with the Joneses or the Greenbergs is not even a realistic possibility.

But maybe today there’s someone who needs a smile from me or is losing their balance, and I can help them find it. Maybe someone out there needs a friend who will return their phone calls and respond to their e-mails. There’s a little child right here who needs my full attention while he tells me about his day.

I’m chugging along in last place, the wind blowing in my face. Nothing is important; everything is important. I’m coming in last, but I’m in the race.