Tag Archives: Pesach

Running is Jewish

The Eternal God is my strength: God makes my feet like the deer’s, and lets me stride upon the Heights. – Habakuk 3:19

This time last year, Boston Marathon runners were coming over the finish line, having pounded 26.2 miles into their legs. We all know how last year’s Boston Marathon was different from other marathons–in this city and elsewhere. This year’s Boston Marathon is different from prior ones. And still, we celebrate today all those who cross that finish line.

Coming up on this first anniversary of last year’s tragedy, coinciding with the 127th running of the Boston Marathon, we now know as a broad Boston community that we are strong and resilient, and that we are better together. These lessons do not need to have come out of the bombings, because they are what a runner learns when he or she goes out to complete a marathon. The exhaustive emotionality of a marathon is something anyone who has finished that distance knows in their bodies and in their hearts. I’ve personally been feeling an echo of that exhaustion over the last few weeks as various news outlets have been running remembrances as we approach this first anniversary.Rabbi Hirsch completing the 2007 NYC 1/2 Marathon

This year’s Marathon also coincides with the conclusion of Passover, our festival of liberation. With those two things coming together (and because I had to figure out an elaborate path to get to shul for services. Darn road closures), I’ve been wondering about what our tradition has to say about running and fitness.

Looking through the available texts on this, two stand out.

The first is a talmudic conversation between Rav Huna and Abaye. It was reported that Rav Huna noted that “One who leaves the synagogue should not take large strides because it creates the impression that he is eager to leave” (BT B’rakhot 6b). Don’t run from the synagogue, lest someone think you’re running from God. But what about running to the synagogue? “It is a mitzvah to run and one is permitted to rush and take large strides,” says Abaye, for “one who eagerly enters a synagogue displays his enthusiasm to follow the path of God” (ibid).

When we run from something, it is looks like fear. When we run toward something, it displays enthusiasm and spiritual adroitness. Running toward goals, objectives, destinations, toward that finish line at 26.2, can be a spiritual practice if it enriches of our lives, enriches our relationships with one another, and enriches our connection to the Divine.

Maimonides expressed this notion in his Shemonah Perakim, “Man needs to subordinate his soul’s powers to one goal, namely, spiritual perfection. He should direct all of his actions, both when at motion and when at rest, and all of his conversation toward this goal so that none of his actions are in any way frivolous… The purpose of his body’s health is that the soul finds its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward spiritual growth.” All that sweat we let out at the gym, all of the training miles we put into our legs, all the nutritional awareness, the scheduling to make it to that-special-yoga-class, and the like–those things are not for washboard abs and a strong body alone. We take care of our bodies (read: fitness is critical) because it is a pathway to spiritual perfection.

We are better people in the here and now when we put fitness and health as one of the top things on our personal priority list.

I have, at times, found this hard to keep in my heart. So I keep a reminder on my desk. There, sitting in a simple frame is an old advertisement from a running shoe company. The tag line is “We know that 26.2 is the short part.” Around that are a series of photos, each documenting different steps runners take to train and prepare for marathons. Those are the tough moments in marathons, not race day, itself.

For twenty-ish weeks, runners have been preparing for today. For the past year, our city has been preparing for this first anniversary. And as we celebrate the close of our festival of liberation, let’s recognize just how critical it is that we continue to care for our own health and fitness.

It’s good for the spirit.

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Passover and the Mitzvot

The following was originally delivered as a sermon at Passover Festival Morning services, March 26, 2013.

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In my understanding of it, the central text of the Haggadah is the line: “In every generation, one is obligated to see himself as if he were the one who went out from Egypt.”

The Exodus from Egypt is to be a personal and present experience for each of us. To this point, Michael Walzer reminds us in his book, Exodus & Revolution (and then adapted in our siddur, Mishkan Tfillah), that “Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

We are all in this together. We are in it with one another here and now, and with every generation that has come before us, and every generation that we bring about. In the Pesach seder and at other moments, we are invited to recognize that it is we who experience liberation from Egyptian slavery; God takes us presently from Egypt to give us the ever-Promised Land.

How strange is it to bend time in such a manner? Upon what basis are we enjoined to experience life as if we are the ones who go out from Egypt?

The answer can be found in our text. Exodus 13:8 is quoted four times in our Haggadah: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is on account of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.’”

On this verse, Rashi asks “On account of what?” What is the this in the biblical verse? On the accounting that each of us will be established by God’s mitzvot. The drive of liberation is that we go from Egyptian bondage into God’s direction. We are liberated in order to do mitzvot.

Last Shabbat, in our weekly Torah Study, we looked at the meaning of the word Tzav, the first significant word in last week’s parasha. God commands Moses to command Aaron and the other kohanim. “And God spoke to Moses saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying…” (Levitucus 6:1-2). God speaks to command Moses to command. It is the force of that second command within the sentence that raises questions: Is God not Metzaveh, the One who Commands? How is it that Moses also has the power to command those within the community? Rashi answers this problem by saying that tzav here is a code word. Tzav really means zaruz, to urge on.

As we studied this text, I was struck by the idea that observance of the mitzvot was never meant to be a simple task. Accepting one’s obligations takes intention and dedication. From time to time, we really do need to be urged and compelled to do them. Mitzvot are ritual, they are the regularized, routinized actions of Jews. We fill our days with rituals. We wake up, put our feet on the floor, stretch out our arms. Same as any other day. How often do we know that we’re supposed to brush our teeth, but go “eh… I can get away with skipping it today.”

We know that our daily rituals are actions that are good for us. Daily rituals keep us healthy, keep us sane, keep us balanced, and –in fact– can make us a holy people.

In every generation, we continue to serve God through mitzvot because we once had to serve another task-master. Still, our Jewish tradition is brilliant to recognize that from time to time, mitzvot may not feel like joys to fulfill, but that they can continue to feel like tasks forced upon us.

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that I find it easy to always fulfill mitzvot. As a dedicated Jew driven by the teaching of generations of reform Jewish thinkers, I am constantly in dialogue with the tradition, trying to dutifully practice actions that bring me closer to HaMetzaveh, the commanding God. Many have recognized this tension that exists for us to live in our world and be observant of God’s mitzvot. And as of late, I have found motivation from an unlikely source: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.  I have what to say about Chabad; still, one thing that I think they get right is the idea that observance leads to joy. Through the observance of mitzvot, through dedication to God’s commands, we are brought closer to God. And, joy emerges from that experience.

Rabbi Schneerson once wrote that “A hassid is he who puts his personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvot. Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit. Sometimes they are around the corner. Sometimes they are in a wilderness or at sea. But there must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps. That is the function of a true hassid” (Cited in The Rebbes Army, 21).

We do not need to go putting aside our personal affairs, and we do not need to go to the ends of the earth to inspire other Jews toward God’s commands. Yet, I agree: Jewish souls are in readiness to be lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Through acts of justice and righteousness, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Through the coming together of community in study and prayer, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot. Via selfless caring we show toward others, we are lit by the light of Torah and mitzvot.

Torah and mitzvot happen in the present. They are what we do as Jews. And it is a normal thing for anyone to ask, “Why am I supposed to do such things?”

In Passover, we are given an answer to that key question: Because the Holy One of Blessing liberated us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Because of the miracles God did for our ancestors. Because God took us out of Egypt in order that we might stand at Sinai. All of us, we stand at Sinai, to receive the commandments, to learn what it is we as Jews are called upon to do, to define us, to guide us, and ultimately to give our lives particular meaning and worth. To proclaim naaseh vnishmah, we shall do these things and we shall come to an understanding of their meaning.

In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as personally liberated from Egypt, for in every generation we are called upon to live by the mantle of mitzvot, as Jews have done for millennia.

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