The Spirituality of the Treadmill

For a few months now, a group of young men from the neighborhood have organized a weekly full court basketball game in the courtyard of our shul.  During this whole time, one of the organizers has consistently invited me to join the game.  Until yesterday, I did my best to resist these invitations — the guys are younger, faster and taller than me; I haven’t played basketball for probably 20 years; and I’m out of shape.

But then my friend offered one last word of encouragement: Don’t worry if you’re not that good.  We have a lot of guys who aren’t so good, and some that even have never played before.  We even have one guy from England.

With that, I decided I could probably play with these guys.

But obviously aware that I would be terribly out of shape if I didn’t first prepare a little, I decided to begin ‘working out’ a few weeks before my inaugural game.  Basically this entitled me getting on my treadmill and jogging for 30 to 40 minutes everyday.  As my distance clocked increased – from 3 to 4 to 5 to 6 kilometers – I began to feel pretty good about myself … and ready to begin playing basketball.

Boy was I wrong.  After about 2 minutes of running up and down the court, I was totally winded, gasping for air.

How could this be?  At home, I had been running for nearly an hour without any problem.

And that exactly was the problem.  The physical activity of running relatively slowly on a treadmill is nothing like running full speed (which by me is still relatively slow) in a competitive basketball game.  All physical activities are not the same; and all physical activities are not necessarily good preparations for other physical activities.

[It probably didn’t help that my style of running on a treadmill was not necessarily the most challenging. At times, I would sometimes get off – maybe even get a snack – but let the treadmill continue running.  When I would return, I was always amazed at how many calories I had burned during my snack as well as the distance covered.]

The same can be said for spiritual activities.  What might be required in one situation might not be helpful for another situation.

Such is the case with Jacob when he hears the news that his son Joseph is still alive in Egypt and has invited him – and the entire family – down to Egypt to live during the difficult days of famine currently gripping the entire world.  Jacob is obviously thrilled by the news, but he is also apprehensive.  Specifically, he is worried that going down to Egypt may not be so temporary.  What happens if the family assimilates and forgets its traditions?  What if they never want to return to Israel?  What happens if they are not allowed to return — as indeed does happen when the Egyptians, once friends, eventually enslave his family (and the Jewish nation that emanates from them)?

As a result of these fears, Jacob prays to God before leaving Israel and entering Egypt.  When he does, he calls out to the ”God of his father, Isaac” — and God answers him by that same appelation.  One one hand, the use of this name is not at all odd; of course it makes sense to call to the God of his father.  What is odd, however, is that Jacob purposely omits his grandfather’s name, Abraham.  After all, in times past, God was called the “God of both Isaac and Abraham.”  Why the omission here?

Perhaps this is the answer:  Abraham was known to be a trailblazer.  He was the first to initiate the relationship with God, and indeed the founder of the religion.  He was creative, courageous and took great risks spiritually and otherwise to lay the groundwork for the Jewish people.  In contrast, Isaac was more insular.  He was ‘slow and steady’ – mantaining many of the innovations of his father Abraham but not adding new ones.  His role to consolidate the accomplishments of Abraham, not to innovate.

Perhaps when Jacob approaches Egypt, he realizes that Jewish history is entering a new stage.  Outside of our land, the spiritual requirements of survival will be different than those within the land.  The people will need to look inwards, strengthen their commitment to one another and maintaining their tradition; otherwise, the strong forces of Egyptian society might simply overwhelm their unique way of life.  The spiritual preparation provided by being an Abraham would not be appropriate.  To innovate and take risks might spell disaster.

On the other hand, the commitment to maintenance modeled by Isaac might be just the thing needed to insure success in the Diaspora.  So Jacob prays to the God of Isaac for help, because it is this type of spiritual preparation that will guarantee the proper result.

Of course, what makes this idea so powerful is its corollary.  Yes, it might be necessary for a Jew in the exile to turn inward, to play it safe, because indeed, if he or she took too many innovative risks, the danger of being overwhelmed by the majority culture would be great.  However, once a Jew has returned to Israel, well then, one perhaps can return to the ‘God of Isaac AND Abraham.’  Surely, we must continue to maintain the accomplishments of the past – the maintenance of Isaac – but at the same time we should also feel committed to following the footsteps of Abraham.  The innovator.  The courageous.   The trailblazer.

Returning to Israel allows the Jewish people to think out of the box, to consider creativity a positive force not a negative danger.  And just as Abraham is the initiator of Judaism — the original or most authentic Jew as it were — returning to this way of life also allows us to return to ourselves, to be who we truly were meant to be.

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