Tag Archives: Talmud

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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A Mile In Their Shoes

A little known secret about me is that I began college as a studio art major. I only last in that for a semester, because after a few nights in my freshman photography course, I dropped out. I could not take the criticism. Every few evenings, our professor asked us to bring in the prints that we had made for our various assignments. Each student put his or her photos up around our classroom. Then, the professor would walk around, making suggestions as to how we could improve our work.

By the third critique night, I was jazzed to show off my new prints. I had one in particular that I wanted the professor to notice. I placed it dead center on the wall, and it was the first one he commented on.

The professor was your classic artist. He wore a black turtleneck sweater and jeans, his hands were dried and cracked from years of exposure to the harsh darkroom chemicals, he had a greying goatee, and he wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses. The professor came up to the prints I had pinned to the wall, and he focused down on the one I wanted him to notice most. He placed about an inch and a half between the photograph and his nose. He lifted his glasses, resting them on his forehead, peering deeply into the shot, as though he were the photographer on the street looking through the camera’s viewfinder, composing the image. He was entering the physical space recorded in the print itself.

Then, just as intensely as he had approached, he lept back. “Mr. Hirsch, this photo fills me with a sense of existential fear,” he shouted, rolling his wrist around, his finger extended and pointing toward the photograph. He said nothing else as he continued on to other students’ works, leaving me standing there, open mouthed.

That was it. I called mercy. In hindsight, I have come to realize that the professor’s comment was a compliment. At 19 years-old, though, I heard it as criticism, and I received a flavor of existential fear. The next day I made an appointment with my advisor. I changed my major over to art history, which seemed like a safer major.


“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes,” the joke goes, “because then you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” We are naturally critical of others. It is how we hold standards of ourselves and of others. Criticisms is easily given, and often hard to receive. It can be electric between individuals. It charges us up, and it makes the hair on our arms stand on end.

To discharge my discomfort with criticism, I have taken refuge in Hillel’s teaching, “Do not judge another until you are in his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). This is a kinder, wiser version of the old joke. Judgement has utility for individuals and for a community, but it is power that can so easily be misemployed if used by someone who does not understand it. That is why Hillel enjoins judgement to those who have shared similar situations. My miscalculation in the freshman photography course was that I did not think of the professor as one who could criticize my work, nor was I able to see that judgement and criticism would help me grow to be a better photographer and a better man.

Criticism enables us to hold ourselves and others to particular standards, it pushes us to excel and to surpass self-imposed boundaries. Through constructive criticism we grow and learn. Proper judgement can help determine in a conflict who was correct and who was wrong. Explicit within Hillel’s statement is that there are individuals fit to sit in judgement of others, namely, those who have been in similar, previous situations to our own. Those who are worthy of being judge and critic are individuals who have experience in what they judge. I wish I could go back and say thank you to the professor for helping me learn how criticism works.

More often than not, we make or we receive a judgement quickly and harshly. We jump to conclusions. If I was able to have another conversation with that professor, I would urge both of us to think and react slower to one another. Hillel urges us to be slow in our judgement. Joseph Telushkin notes, “The expression ‘to jump to a conclusion’ almost always has a negative connotation. Few of us jump to positive assessments about others, but we are likely to seize upon a comment someone has made, an action someone has or has not taken, and assume a deficit in a person’s character” (Hillel, 75). Imagine how much richer of a community we would be if we all acted with deliberation instead of snap judgements.

No better place is that seen than in the debates between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel often takes the expansive, optimistic view, while Shammai is the literalist, conservative type. Shammai is quick to judgement, slapping away the person with the yardstick who wants the whole Torah taught to him while he stands on one foot. Hillel is humble and patient, teaching expansively. He responds to the man who wants the whole Torah in a sentence, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary, now go and study” (BT Shabbat 31a).

What many do not realize about this story is that it is one of three on the same page of Talmud. Three individuals go first to Shammai, and ask ridiculous questions. He slaps the person away, and then that same person goes to Hillel. In each case, Hillel uses the opportunity to guide the questioner into a new perspective on the question. At the end of the three vignettes, the three individuals meet. They conclude, “Shammai’s great impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”

Judgement is necessary, and it takes place as Hillel calculates his response to the individual with the strange question. Hillel’s lesson in judgement teach that there is much to gain when we are judged fairly and wisely by those for whom it is appropriate to judge. And, we reward ourselves and those around us when we refrain from unnecessary critique of others.

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