Missing that Touch

Free Hugs

This morning I had the opportunity to watch a webcast sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic for clergy. There was a panel of religious leaders who reflected on what COVID-19 has meant for the work they do and for their congregants/members/parishioner. A big focus was on what it means for those of us who provide for the spiritual needs of others.

One of the pastors talked about how difficult it has been since he is a “hugger.” I will admit that I am somewhat of a hugger as well, but it’s not an essential part of my rabbinate. Another pastor talked about how challenging it is to comfort those in pain or in mourning when we cannot be physically close; how do you embrace those who are ill or in mourning when that very act is hazardous and possibly fatal?

The term we all use these days is “social distancing.” I’ve stopped using that term and instead starting using the term “physical distancing.” We human beings are social animals. We are not meant to live alone and on our own. Like bees and ants (and many other animals), we can only survive and thrive in community. That is part of why this experience is so difficult for us. It’s in our make-up as humans to connect with others. We may be physically distant, but we can never really be socially distant. Luckily, we have technology today that can help us to some degree.

As hard as this is for me as a rabbi, there is an added level being in the fitness industry as well. The experience of going to the gym is an inherently social one…especially if we work out with a personal trainer. Think about it: we could all work out at home–and there are many who do so successfully; it is a solitary experience. Most who join gyms or JCCs or YMCAs want the personal connection as well. The chatting, hanging out in the schvitz (sauna or steam room), and seeing friends are an integral part of the visit to the gym. As a personal trainer, I know that one of the most important aspects of my training is building a personal relationship with my clients; when I was client, it wasn’t just about the exercises, but also about my trust in my trainer and my sense that s/he really cared about me. COVID-19 has put a huge kink in that dynamic. I can see my clients via Zoom or Facebook Live, but the personal “touch” is missing. The real or proverbial hug is now dangerous.

None of us knows how long this pandemic will be around, how much longer is will disrupt our lives. In the meantime, we need to continue to reach out to others so that they know that we are there…even if we are not physically present. We know that feeling, that sense that someone is with us even when they are far away (or perhaps even no longer living). How do we capture that? How do we recreate that? How do we recover that touch we miss? Then, how do we share it?

I don’t know the answers, but as a rabbi and a personal trainer, these tasks will be front and center until the day when once again we can truly hug each other again…providing that personal touch.

Staying Away from the Dead

The Afterlight

Jewish tradition has placed a great deal of emphasis on purity and impurity–not in terms of hygiene, but more in a spiritual sense. There are lots of laws concerning what causes such an impurity, and what to do to contain that uncleanness.

The weekly Torah portion, Emor, addresses the Kohanim, the ancient priests and the specific laws that they were bidden to follow. Among them was that they were not to come into contact with a deceased person since this is something that imparts ritual impurity. The only exceptions were for the death of a parent, brother, unmarried sister or child. All other Israelites could tend to the bodies of the deceased within the community without concern; the Priests, however, had to be ritually pure to serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

It is noteworthy that many of these ideas are on our minds today in the midst of COVID-19. We are very aware of the people with whom we come into contact. We want to know with whom they have been in contact. The questions that are asked when you enter a doctor’s office or even a supermarket parallel those that might have been asked of a priest: Are you pure? Is it safe for you to be in our midst?

The parallel isn’t exact, but the Torah demonstrates that our ancestors dealt with the same questions and uncertainty as we do today. In 2020 it is COVID-19. In ancient times, it was death in general…as well as certain skin diseases. We often read these sections of the Torah thinking how quaint their understanding of medicine was back then. How quaint will we look in a hundred years when our descendants see how we dealt with our current crisis?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Doors

That is the big question now in the United States. At the Federal Government’s urging (and to the dismay of many health experts) states are beginning to “open up” again. The last couple of months have been difficult, and everyone has faced different challenges. So we have this question: should I stay or should I go?

I have only gone out when there was something that I needed to accomplish that couldn’t be done online. Most everything that my family needs is delivered to the house. I teach an online workout every morning. My clients train with me via Zoom. I avoid contact with others when I am out–including appropriate physical distancing and always wearing a mask. As things open up, we all have to figure out what is the right thing to do.

Earlier this week, the local JCC where I work as a personal trainer announced that we will begin to open the facility in phases. Starting in about 10 days, the Fitness Center will be open by appointment only for personal training and Pilates only. It is not totally clear what any of this will look like, but we may train one-on-one with our clients in a separate designated area, wearing masks, no locker rooms or shower, etc.; in other words, nothing will look as it did before. This will be a huge adjustment for me and my clients.

We have to remember that one of the goals of any Fitness Center is to foster the good health and fitness of its users. What good is it to build up muscles and endurance if you end up exposing yourself to a debilitating and sometimes deadly virus? In a way, we personal trainers are like doctors in that we have to ensure that “first, [we] do no harm.” We cannot work on all the areas of fitness that our clients come to us for unless we can guarantee to a reasonable degree that they will be safe doing so.

Should we go or should we stay? Everyone will answer this their own way. Certainly those who have more than two of the categories that put you at risk should consider staying. Otherwise, we may want to think about all the steps that we can take to get back into the swing of things while staying safe and healthy.

For me, I think it will be like getting into a pool. I usually don’t just dive in, but rather put one toe in at first to test out the waters. Once it looks safe I slowly guide myself in.

I’ll keep you posted on how things play out when I’m back at the gym.

The Holy Human Body

Generalized Human Body

In the Torah and elsewhere throughout Jewish Scripture, there is a tremendous emphasis on holiness. “Holy” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit, but what exactly is holiness?

In Hebrew, every verb and many nouns and adjectives have a three (and sometimes four) letter root. The word for “holy” is Kadosh and its root is Kuf-Dalet-Shin.

Kaddish, Kiddush, Kodesh – what's up with that? – Coffee Shop Rabbi

In early Hebrew, this three letter root signified something different or set apart. For example, there is discussion in the Torah about setting aside a gift for the Tabernacle; a person could vow that whatever was born from a cow would be given to God; that calf would be considered Hekdesh–using the same three-letter root. The calf was set aside for the Tabernacle only and could not be used for other things; this made it holy.

Think about this in other contexts. The place where Torah scrolls are kept is called an Aron Kodesh; Aron is a cabinet or closet, but this one is special because it contains the Torah; it is a separate or set aside piece of furniture. The Sabbath Day is often called Shabbat Kodesh, because it is different that every other day of the work; we do not work but rather use the time to pray, feast and rest. The Jewish wedding ceremony is called Kiddushin; the relationship between a married couple is different than the relationship between friends, parents and children, etc., because it contains a level of physical intimacy; this makes it holy and different. All of these examples–and there are many more–make use of the same 3 letter root: Kadosh, Hekdesh, Kodesh, and Kiddushin.

This is the main theme of the Torah portions read this Shabbat; Achare Mot and Kedoshim deal with holiness in the ritual and ethical realm.

Is there holiness in the physical realm as well? I already alluded to the fact that there is holiness in physical intimacy. Judaism further teaches that our bodies are gifts to us from God; they are vessels of holiness. Without our bodies, we are not able to live in holiness. The weaker we are, the more ill we are, the less able we are to bring peace, justice, holiness and love into the world. Exercising, eating right and getting proper rest are not just nice things to do, from the Jewish standpoint they are also holy endeavors. We recognize that our bodies are not like other “objects” in God’s creation; they are vessels entrusted to us in order to fulfill our personal mission in the world.

The physical and the spiritual intersect; they are, in fact, inseparable. Our souls and our internal holiness cannot exist in the air; they need a vessel to hold them. Taking care of that vessel is as holy an endeavor as attending religious services, giving to charitable causes, and helping our neighbors. When we take care of ourselves we bring holiness into the world.

Wishing all of you a healthy, happy and holy Shabbat!

Staying on Track

3,000+ Free Railroad Tracks & Train Images - Pixabay

It has been about a month since I wrote about how many of us are “growing” during this time of sheltering in place–and I meant it in terms of our waistlines. I shared how I was having my own struggles with a house full of food and not as much activity as my body is used to.

My first attempt at trying to get on track was to try intermittent fasting. This was, as you may recall, not a success; it just didn’t fit with my schedule. I am also not convinced it is a long-term solution or a pattern of behavior that is sustainable in the long run.

My second attempt was to count those calories. I have had the assistance of My Fitness Pal (I do not get a kickback for mentioning them), and it is making a difference. I have used this app in the past and found that it makes me more aware of the food I am eating and when I am eating it. This was a theme of my Torah commentary a couple of weeks ago as well. Following MFP has not been as difficult as I expected. It has helped me to plan better and kept me cognizant of how often I have the craving to snack. (I am of Hungarian Jewish descent and I cannot say “no” to pastry; I come by it honestly!) Another plus is that I feel like I could do this for a while; the cravings are dissipating and I am drinking less alcohol as well.

My real downfall has been Shabbat when according to Jewish tradition we are to eat three fine meals. In many Jewish homes, the typical Friday Night dinner does not look that different than a Thanksgiving Dinner. The past couple of weeks, I have approached Shabbat with the same kind of planning that goes into the holidays. I was careful about what I ate; portion-control, avoiding seconds, limiting myself to two small glasses of wine, and not going crazy at dessert actually paid off. I have watched the weight slowly come off. I am a still a way off from pre-quarantine levels, but I am pleased with my progress.

The JCC where I work just purchased an InBody Assessment tool; it tracks body composition and is way better than the old equipment we’ve been using. All of the personal trainers had to take a 2-hour online course and pass a test before we could administer an assessment…and wait for the gym to re-open. What the training reiterated was that weight is only one number and it is a complicated one. I know that I’ve been working out more since COVID-19 and it is likely that I am building muscle which is denser than fat. I look forward to checking the other factors like body fat percentage to get a truer picture of how well I am taking care of myself.

In the meantime, I am making progress and this encourages me to stay on track. I am taking control of my fitness…and it feels great!

What gets you on track…and what keeps you there?

An Ancient Text is Still Compelling

The holy scripture

One of the beauties of the Torah is its enduring wisdom. Although the document has remained unchanged for millennia, it continues to teach us and guide us in 2020. One could make the argument that there is so much in the world today that the Torah could not have anticipated, and therefore it is of little value in our contemporary world. The authors(s) of the Torah could not have conceived of cellphones, air travel, organ transplantation or perhaps even loving, committed, intimate same-gender relationships. In a way, this is really a side issue. The Torah still has overarching themes that apply in a world that looks so different than the biblical period: building a relationship with God, looking out for others, pursuing justice, seeking peace, and bringing holiness into our lives are just a few of these themes.

There are some parts of the Torah that are clearly antiquated and we may wonder what use they have: the ownership of slaves, animal sacrifices, putting to death a child who will not listen to his parents, etc. When we dig a little deeper, we can try to identify the values that underlie these laws, and many times we find guidance and inspiration. Other times, we remain mystified…and that is okay.

The Torah portion for this week is a double-parasha; Tazria and Metzora are read together. These two portions have been viewed as being in the “antiquated” category. The understanding of medical and scientific phenomena were very limited and the laws regarding what today we might think of as mold, mildew, and a number of skin conditions seem out of date. The laws in the Torah portion represent the ancients’ best understanding of how to deal with conditions that they could not comprehend; they legislated as best they could in the face of mystery.

As antiquated as these laws seem, this year they take on a greater significance. We find ourselves close to the situation in which our ancestors found themselves. We are confronted with a disease that we do not fully understand. We do no know how to prevent it; there is no vaccine. We have no 100% effective way to treat it. We are not fully certain how it spreads. So–like the Priests in ancient times–we are doing the best we can to stop the spread and to care for those who are stricken. The similarities between Tzara’at (the skin condition often translated as leprosy) and COVID-19 are striking.

Can we gain any inspiration or guidance from the text of the Torah? The laws tell us that we are not to abandon those who are ill. The Priests had to check on them regularly to see their progress and determine when it was safe for them to return to the community. It was a process that could be quite lengthy. Sound familiar? The Torah tells us that in the face of that which we do not understand we must be cautious. We must always seek to preserve life. Through it all, we must also preserve the dignity of those who are ill. And let’s not overlook that those who were “caregivers” were given a place of esteem in society.

The most repeated commandment in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger because we know what it is like to be strangers ourselves. A text that is thousands of years old speaks to us in modern times–and especially in the age of COVID-19. Its message of love and concern for others is enduring; let the Torah inspire to be better than our fear and selfishness. Let us work to bring holiness and wholeness into God’s Creation.

Re-Opening the Gyms

Sometimes Open Needs a Push

A couple of days ago the Personal Fitness staff had its regular weekly meeting via Zoom. It is really great to see my colleagues–especially since they are a great crew–even if it is via Zoom.

Not surprisingly, part of the agenda was about the “push to open” gyms. In Ohio, it appears that there will be a gradual re-opening of certain businesses starting in May including gyms. This, of course, does not mean that the state will force them to re-open (as they were forced to close), but it does mean that there is an effort afoot to try to get life to the new normal.

We are pretty excited about the prospect of being able to go back to work and train our clients. There are, however, a lot of details that need to be worked out first. I, for one, am very worried about the risks of face-to-face (in the flesh) training. In all honesty, I am worried about the COVID-19 virus simply because there is no vaccine and the treatments are limited. I am not a spring chicken and although I am in good (great?) shape for my age, many people younger than me have succumbed to the virus.

It does appear that when gyms get back to business (at least the responsible ones), the doors won’t just be thrown wide open with anyone coming in whenever, wherever and however they wish. My guess–and this is not based on anything told to me by the higher-ups–is that our facility and others will open up gradually. Perhaps at first it will just be available for those working with personal trainers. Maybe last names A-L will come on even numbered days and M-Z on odd numbered days. Will locker rooms be available for use? Showers? Steam rooms, saunas and whirlpools? Probably not at first. What about cardio equipment that is usually packed pretty closely together? How will equipment be cleaned–especially dumbbells and mats? Gyms are among the touchiest places out there…not to mention that people are sweating, breathing hard and otherwise sharing bodily fluids all the time.

How will this all work? I don’t have the answers, but many gyms are looking to the East…the Far East. There are places in Asia where gyms have re-opened and here in the US we are watching closely to see how they do it and whether it is safe. Until we do have answers to the questions above and many others, it is my hope that the doors aren’t just flung open for business.

My gym has been super-responsible and super-responsive during this whole crisis. Let’s hope that ethos continues and that other gyms follow suit.

I cannot wait to get back to the gym…but until these issues are sorted out, that’s just what we’ll have to do. After all, it’s all about being healthy!