Freedom From, Freedom To…

The Declaration of Independence

As we conclude our celebration of Independence Day, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of the day. So often we refer to Independence Day simply as “July 4th,” without really thinking about the history behind it. Independence Day is first and foremost about the United States of America’s (although it was not yet called that) separation from the sovereignty of Great Britain. The colonists organized a rebellion (or revolution) against the monarchy that had imposed onerous demands on the settlers. They sought to establish their independence in order to ensure “certain inalienable rights;” among these were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must, of course, recognize that not everyone was included in that statement; most notably those of African descent were not figured into the equation. In the eyes of the founders, independence from Great Britain was not just so that the colonists could do whatever they wanted. There was a bigger picture: a grand experiment in democracy and self-determination. Although the ideal is not fully achieved for everyone, the strides are worth celebrating.

Many of the founders of our nation were inspired by the biblical story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery (as were generations of enslaved Africans). In the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel were not set free from Egypt so that they could do whatever they wanted. According to Jewish tradition, exactly seven weeks after leaving slavery the people stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Law from God. The Israelites were freed from the rule of Pharaoh in order to accept the rule of God and Divine Law. This parallels the founders of this country; they were freed from the rule of Great Britain in order to undertake the rule of law as established by a representative democracy and set down in the Constitution.

Freedom should not be just for the sake of doing whatever we want, but rather in order to serve a higher calling.

This idea has applications in the world of fitness and health as well. So many of us are enslaved to bad habits: unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles, poor work/life balance, and not getting enough quality rest. What is the purpose of breaking those behaviors? Of course, we all want to be healthier or look better, but perhaps there needs to be a deeper reason. In working with older adults, I have discovered that many clients seek freedom from bad habits in order to be able to enjoy their lives; for some that means travel, for others it is keeping up with grandkids, for others it is just being able to live as independently as possible for as long as possible.

Freedom from bad habits, gives us freedom to do so much more. At first, it may seem restricting to not just do whatever we want when it comes to diet and exercise; ultimately, however, a healthy lifestyle has the potential to give us the real freedom we seek.

Wishing everyone a great summer. May we remember our freedom “from” in order to achieve our freedom “to.”

The Struggle is Real…difficult

Image result for ten plagues of egypt

Parashat Va-era contains the beginning of the process of our ancestor’s liberation from Egyptian slavery.  The end of the portion is comprised of the first plagues God visited on our oppressors.

Va-era and the following two portions are filled with miracles that accompany the Exodus from Egypt.  Modern readers often wonder if the events described really happened.  Did the Nile turn to blood?  Were there frogs everywhere, etc.?  And was it possible that these natural disasters only struck the Egyptians and not the Israelites?  Scholarly papers have been written that seek to explain the plagues from an epidemiological standpoint.  A few of them are rather convincing; there are plausible explanations for how it started and how one plague naturally followed after the other.

But do we really need to understand exactly how the plagues occurred?  Do we even need to believe that the stories contained in these Torah portions (or any others for that matter) really happened?

The miraculous nature of the story does not require historical or scientific verification.  Ultimately, what is most important is the underlying message:  the difficult path from oppression to liberation.  This story is not just about the Exodus from Egypt.  It is about the constant quest for justice and freedom in our world.  Bringing redemption to our world is never easy; it doesn’t occur overnight.  And there are times when we reach a milestone–where some wrong is righted or some injustice recognized–and feel that the moment is beyond just us.  There is something “miraculous” about it…or a sense that a higher source somehow intervened.There are those who take the story literally, but for those who don’t, there is still the valuable lesson about the work it will take to redeem our far from perfect world.

Shabbat Shalom!

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!