Fitness in the Passover Story

File:Figures The Israelites Eat the Passover.jpg

The Israelites Eat the Passover,
illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733)

Passover and fitness in the same sentence! Is that even possible? Most of us who observe the Passover holiday think of it as two nights of Thanksgiving Dinner-sized meals followed by carbs, carbs and more carbs. It is possible to eat healthy during Passover, but that’s not my focus here.

The Passover holiday commemorates the departure of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery as told in the Book of Exodus. The events described would have taken place thousands of years ago. The Haggadah–the book that contains the service for the Passover Feast (called a Seder) held on the first two nights–tells us that each of us should see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt. This is a tall order; many, if not most, of us have never experienced discrimination or oppression–let alone slavery. It is a challenge to try to put ourselves in the story.

The holiday is not just about the historical exodus from Egypt, though; the underlying theme is about redemption–the idea that where we are now is not where we need to be forever. The Hebrews’ situation seemed hopeless and yet, with God’s power, they were able to make their way to freedom; not only that, Egypt–the most powerful empire on the planet–was brought to its knees in the process. This sets a paradigm for us in the world and in our personal lives. The world we live in, with all of its problems, need not remain as it is; we can make it better–redeem it as it were. On a personal level, who we are today does not define who we will be tomorrow; we are always capable of becoming more and better than we are now.

Which brings me to Fitness and Passover…

Many folks look at their own personal fitness and say, “well, this is how I am.” “I’ll always be fat.” “I can never get in shape.” This outlook becomes even more rigid as we age. All the research on fitness, however, points in the opposite direction. Embarking on an exercise and/or diet program at any age is beneficial; we are always capable of improving our health. The prevailing notion was always that as we age there are certain functions that we must inevitably lose; study after study shows that we can maintain and even improve our muscle mass, cardiovascular health, endurance and reaction time–or at the very least slow the progression of their weakening. We all know individuals who were sick and frail who, after a period of rehab, were back to “normal” or even stronger than before their illness or injury. We know that we can transcend the situation in which we find ourselves; we can get better. The lessons of Passover echo this idea; they teach us that we are always capable of redemption. Although there are chronic diseases and conditions like cancer that we may not be able to overcome, we still have greater control over our fitness destiny than we may have thought in the past.

Another connection has to do with the idea of freedom which underpins the Passover story. The Hebrews were not liberated from Egypt simply so they could run around in the wilderness without a care in the world; the exodus had a purpose. The Israelites were forced to serve Pharaoh, which meant that they could not serve God. How could they focus on their connection to the divine when every day was a struggle to stay alive? The purpose of the Hebrews’ liberation was to allow them to serve God and follow the Lord’s commandments that they would receive soon afterwards at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were made free in order to serve; it sounds oxymoronic, but it is a profound idea.

Likewise, watching what we eat, exercising, and taking care of ourselves is for most of us not an end unto itself. We take care of ourselves so that we are able to do the things we want to do longer, more efficiently and more easily. We build strength and endurance in order to carry out the tasks of our lives. What are those tasks? Certainly much of our lives are taken up with grocery shopping, paying the bills, working, studying, folding fitted sheets (!), etc., and we need to be healthy enough to do that–but most of us look for a deeper purpose to our existence. If, in fact, one of our duties as human beings is to partner with God and our fellow humans in making the world a better place (redeeming it), we cannot do so if we are frail, weak, tired and out of shape. Ideally, we maintain and strengthen our bodies–which are vessels given to us by God–to be able to carry out our mission in the world (however you define that for yourself).

The work of redemption is not easy. It is slow, laborious and often frustrating–kind of like some of our workouts. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is not our obligation to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to excuse ourselves from the work of redemption. One of the ways that we can ensure that we are up to the task is to prepare ourselves spiritually AND physically. We are capable of changing the world for the better…but not if we don’t first change ourselves for the better–in spirit and in body.

Chag Sameach! Best wishes for a happy and fit Passover holiday!

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