Feet dangling in the air three feet off the ground, an upside-down body twisted into the unlikely likeness of a gothic question mark moves unsteadily in my direction.
It takes a moment for my mind to confirm what my eyes have insisted all along—a young man is supporting his body with the palms of his hands, as he dances a bizarre handstand along an otherwise unthreatening sidewalk.
He will not give in, nor will his foe; they appear to be equally matchedIt is an early spring morning, and I have taken a brief detour to admire the serene magnificence of one of G‑d’s many beautiful riversides.
Others have come here as well, not only to accept nature’s morning offering, but more specifically, to exercise.
On a small concrete pad, a gray-haired gentleman softly but firmly punches the air. He falls back as if repelled, and then attacks again. A straight-legged kick, three perfect punches, and again he retreats. On and on he duels some hidden enemy, punching, swirling, launching, retreating. He will not give in, nor will his foe; they appear to be equally matched.
Were I to return to this scenic spot in an hour’s time, that young man will yet be twisting his body into unimaginable shapes. His elder neighbor will not have moderated his admirable struggle; he will still be commanding his wrists to slice imagined blocks, propelling them into the lake with sudden thrusts of his feet.
I admire these people. They spend hours every morning exercising their limbs and muscles, pushing themselves relentlessly with great discipline. Imagine how wonderful I would feel if I observed their grueling morning routines. I feel stiff and lifeless just watching them!
These people donate the freshest hours of their day, every day, to perfecting their muscles and joints. The have earned themselves fit, agile bodies, the proud products of years spent walking on their palms and determinedly punishing the air.
Judging by the fluency of their moves, they undoubtedly follow up with some evening exercise. I would imagine that their daily diet and activities are adapted to reflect their athletic goals.
The lake is enchanting, the exercises intriguing, but I cannot stand here musing forever. I am on my way to the synagogue for morning prayers…
And then it hits me!
Do I not likewise dedicate an hour of my every morning to exercise? Spiritual exercise, that is.
I cannot claim to build muscular stamina during that time. Rather, I develop my soul’s bond with G‑d and determine the strength of its influence on my body and life.
Lovingly, I wrap the prayer shawl around my body, and bind my biceps with tefillin. My session has begun.
This is quality time spent honing my emotions, refocusing my mind, reinvigorating my trust, and readjusting the compass of my life.
By the time I’m through, I can feel spirituality pulsating throughout my being.
There is simply no compensating for time and hard work when it comes to prayer—a couple of snatched minutes just won’t do the trick.
Each day, I put myself through identical words, motions and emotions. The text is more or less the same each morning, but the feeling is completely fresh each day.
I must force myself to focus, ignore a range of distractions, and maintain mental momentum.
Yes, this training certainly revolutionizes my day; if I enter the synagogue weary or dejected, I will leave invigorated, brimming with newfound trust. Incredibly, I exit with not only spiritual, but also physical, energy.
This training certainly revolutionizes my dayEach morning, I praise G‑d for everything He created—from the breathtaking morning riverside scene to the pulse and breath that fills my every living moment.
I describe to G‑d my worries, my requests. I beg Him, plead with Him, praise Him, and love Him in a series of mental and emotional workouts.
He listens carefully, I know it. He delights in this morning routine at least as much as I do. He waits for it, although He does not require it for His wellbeing, while I sometimes slacken despite needing it desperately.
And when I am done, I feel so much better, lighter, accomplished. Even the universe’s manifold cobwebs seem to have thinned over the hour.
What I felt unable to do before prayer, I know I can do after.
I am stronger. I am healthier. I know I have secured a better future.
I will follow up with a brief stint in the late afternoon, and then another short drill in the evening. My diet and activities throughout the day will reflect my spiritual goals.
No, I no longer envy the topsy-turvy fellow at the water’s edge, nor the gray-haired gent deliberately slicing the atmosphere.
My own brief bout of vigorous morning physical exercise is limited to just ten minutes by the urgent need to rush off to the synagogue and devote myself to over an hour of spiritual, mental and emotional training.
Ahh, there’s nothing like a good tefillah, a good prayer!
I need it. My home requires it. My future demands it. I just couldn’t manage without it.