This morning, I woke up at 6:00 AM and made my way to the hotel gym for a short workout. Before you congratulate me, full disclosure: I flew into Irvine two days ago from the east coast and so 6:00 AM was really the equivalent of 9:00 AM. My exercise was as much self-preservation as anything – or at least that is how I have always thought about it. When I work out, I feel healthier. When I feel healthier, I have a better outlook on the world. What’s more, I have come to observe that on those days I do not get any intentional physical exercise in, I am, shall we say, less fun to be around. And so I ran through my short circuit of weight lifting before heading back up to my hotel room to prepare for the day.
This afternoon, I found myself questioning my exercise motives.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in his talk on Jewish Values and Ethics in Contemporary Health Care, began with a reminder that because God made us (Gen. 2:4), our bodies, along with all other creation, belongs to God (Deut. 10:14). Rabbi Dorff brought a text from Mishneh Torah (Deot 3:3) which begins: “He who regulates his life in accordance with the laws of hygiene with the sole motive of maintaining a sound and vigorous physique…is not following the right course.” In short, we should not be seeking health for the sake of health – or aesthetics, or lengthened life, even. Rather, continues the text, “A man should aim to maintain physical health and vigor in order that his soul may be upright, in a condition to know God.”
When I woke up and padded down to the gym for my morning workout, God was not on my mind. Instead, I was concerned about the ways in which I would personally benefit from the exercise – better mood, improved appetite, ability to sit in a number of long learning sessions. I was tending to what Rabbi Dorff called the “pragmatic” motivations for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
I am but one part of a larger whole, an instrument of God. And God’s instruments work better when they are in tune. Dorff argues that in Judaism, the motivation for improved wellness can be – should be – to lengthen the time we have on earth to do God’s work. So many of us exercise for the sake of being able to walk farther. Judaism suggests that we instead should exercise for the sake of being able to march – literally or metaphorically – for justice.
As a rabbi and human, as an instrument of God, I am grateful for the reminder: the work we do on our own selves and in our own congregations must be for more than our selves and for our congregants. We are each instruments of God. When we reframe our most mundane, physical health-related activities toward the larger goal of honoring God and doing God’s work, our 6:00 AM workouts can become holy and purposeful. And in doing so, we may well better our ability to engage in the work God has required of us – to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Rabbi Dusty Klass serves Temple Beth El in Charlotte NC, and is a CCAR Convention “first-timer.” She is deeply grateful to the conference for opportunities to learn and grow and re-think the ways in which she moves through the world Jewishly.