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.
A article in the most recent AARP Bulletin (May 2019, Vol. 60, No. 4, pg. 4) highlights something that those in the Fitness Industry have been saying for years…and now there is even more research behind it.
The study began in 1995 as a joint venture between AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health), and tracked the exercise habits of more than 315,000 people ages 50-71. It showed that even if a person has been inactive most of their lives, getting into regular exercise can add years to our lives and quality to those years as well.
The research shows that: “those ages 40-61 who begin exercising after years of physical inactivity can still extend their longevity. They had a 32 to 35 percent lower risk of mortality. The odds of death from cancer and heart disease also decreased. Compared with those who never exercised during the multiyear study, those who exercised their entire lives had a 29 to 36 percent lower risk of death.”
This is good news indeed–especially for fitness professionals who face the skepticism of those who have never been physically active during most of their lives. Of course, the real challenge is changing that behavior in the first place. Those who have felt that exercise or taking proper care of themselves was not a priority earlier in their lives are not necessarily going to “see the light.” Usually it takes a “wake-up call” or “Aha moment” to change the way they act. It should be comforting for them to know that not all is lost; even in their later years, they can have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of years in their lives.
As for change, Judaism has always taught that we are capable of change. Most religious traditions have a similar viewpoint. This is why there is a strong emphasis in the faith community on redemption in its many forms; there is a sense that we can always improve ourselves, and as a result, the world around us. We are not stuck with “it is what it is.” We have the potential to make “it what it ought to be.”
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!