Russell spends seven hours a day exercising. He earns his livelihood from overweight millionaires and parents who need a babysitter for their five-year-old children. He is a taekwondo trainer.
I spend seven hours a day praying, learning, teaching and writing. My livelihood is still waiting for its sponsors. I am a rabbi.
In chassidic lingo, we are both diggers. He digs for the body’s uncovered strength; I dig for the soul’s unlimited resources. For some reason, his digging hits gold, mine barely scratches copper . . .
I hardly ever played sports, never ran, jogged or went to a gymRecently, after an hour-long Soul Dig on the weekly Torah portion, Russell turned to me and asked, “Hey, Rabbi, how’s your exercise doing? Been working out recently?”
“Um . . . well, you know.”
Russell wasn’t going to let that go. “What do I know?”
I figured I’d try some excuses. “Well, I grew up in an environment where exercise was unfashionable. I hardly ever played sports, never ran, jogged or went to a gym. Working out doesn’t come naturally to me.”
“With all due respect, Rabbi, do you think tefillin comes naturally to me?”
I thought for a minute. “I guess not.”
“So, can you explain me why you and all your colleagues are constantly harassing me to put on tefillin? Don’t you realize that it doesn’t come naturally to me?”
I decided to go the tongue-in-cheek route. “Because it is our job to do so. How else will we make a living?”
Russell played along. “Well then, it’s my job to make sure that people are healthy and in shape.”
How do you expect me to change at such an age?I tried theology. “Russell, my dear friend, you should know that every Jew has a neshamah, a Jewish soul. And tefillin is natural to every soul, even if you haven’t been raised that way!”
He was far from impressed. “Every Jew has a body as well. And maintenance comes naturally to a body, even if you haven’t been taught how to maintain your body. And, Rabbi, doesn’t it say in the Torah that you should diligently guard your body?”
Help! How do I get out of this? Just the thought of straining my body even slightly more than schlepping a cholent pot makes me jittery!
Suddenly, a new idea popped into my head. Why hadn’t I thought of it till now?
With the widest grin, I pulled out my rabbit. “Look at me, Russell. I am way past the quarter-century milestone. How do you expect me to change at such an age? My muscles are low in tone, my cholent belly is popping through all my suits, and most importantly, I am too busy.”
Russell was silent. It was the silence that speaks louder than words.
And this is what the silence said:
“You go around the world telling Jews of all ages that age is irrelevant, and G‑d waits with open arms for His children to embrace Him. You put on tefillin with ninety-year-olds and teach Hebrew to grandmas; you encourage middle-aged couples with steady jobs and comfortable lives, university students with plans and aspirations, and grandparents whose children are out of the nest, to go on the teshuvah roller coaster, reconnecting to their Judaism, shaking up their settled lives.
“You come up with nice slogans to make the return to a Jewish lifestyle sound easy and fuzzy, while we both know that returning to G‑d is hard work and seriously challenging.
“But now, when it comes to changing just one habit, all of a sudden the talker doesn’t walk. Where did the ‘It’s never too late’ go?
I had never known that eyes can speak, let alone shout“If you expect us to leave our natural habitats, it’s about time you join the journey. Wobble or hobble, but don’t watch the marathon of change from the sidelines. It’s all about one step at a time towards a life of health, where your healthy soul will marry your healthy body and live happily ever after.’
Finally his eyes blinked. The silent speech was over.
I had never known that eyes can speak, let alone shout. I never realized that words from the eyes pierce deeper than words from the tongue. What could I respond to an unspoken rebuke? I was forced to internalize the truth that had been coated with ice cream and couch potato for too long.
Stump the rabbi he did. Anything but raising my white flag would be cowardice.
“Russell, I want to change my ways. When do we start?”