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Exercise, Torah and T’shuva

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Question
This summer I joined a gym in order to get into shape. Now with the start of the new yeshiva year, I am back to fulltime learning. Would continuing to workout be considered taking time away from my Torah studies (Bitul Torah)? In other words, should I forget about staying in shape?
Answer
This question is particularly appropriate as we enter the Hebrew month of Elul, when we begin to make spiritual preparations for the upcoming Day of Judgment. These are the days when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to ask forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Sages teach that this period is a propitious time for supplication and T’shuva, a time when G-d is especially near to answer the prayers of His people[1]. T’shuva is generally translated to mean repentance. It is often superficially understood to be a way of getting one’s life back on the right path, a system of do’s and don’ts - doing good deeds and staying away from bad. While this is certainly an aspect of T’shuva, the source of T’shuva is something much deeper. T’shuva is something much greater than a simple accounting of the rights and wrongs in a person’s life. T’shuva is a spiritual enterprise which encompasses all of creation. It is the expression of the world’s yearning to come closer to G-d[2]. The root of the Hebrew word T’shuva means “to return.” In his book, “The Lights of T’shuva,” Rabbi Kook explains that: “When one forgets the essence of one’s soul; when one distracts his mind from seeing the true nature of his own inner life, everything becomes doubtful and confused. The principle T’shuva, which immediately lights up the darkness, is for a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul. Then he will immediately return to G-d, to the Souls of all souls. And he will continue to stride higher and higher in holiness and purity. This is true for an individual, a nation, for all of mankind, and for the perfection of all existence[3].” In his probing study on the phenomenon of T’shuva, Rabbi Kook outlines the unfolding stages of this all-encompassing process. Interestingly, the first step on the way is getting one’s body in shape. Rabbi Kook calls this T’shuva of the body. To return to a state of inner harmony and Divine connection, a person must first have a healthy body[4]. It is important to note that while physical well-being is a basic rule of good living, the injunction to be healthy is a principle of Torah. We are called upon to carefully guard our lives[5]. The Rambam explains, “Having a whole and healthy body is part and parcel in serving G-d, for it is impossible to have an understanding of the Creator if a man is ill. Therefore one must avoid all things which damage the body and habituate oneself with things promoting health[6].” In our days, with health food stores and sports clubs abound, this simple teaching is known to everyone. What is new, however, is that Rabbi Kook sees this as a part of the process of T’shuva. Being in good shape is an important factor, not only in attaining personal well-being, but also in forging a holy connection to G-d. In his classic book, “Orot,” Rabbi Kook writes: “Our physical demand is great. We need a healthy body. Through our intense preoccupation with spirituality, we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected our physical strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than holy spirits[7].” Rabbi Kook understood that powerful bodies were needed for the Jewish People to succeed in the holy endeavor of rebuilding the Land of Israel. “All of our T’shuva will succeed only if it will be, along with its spiritual splendor, also a physical T’shuva which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, firm mighty bodies, and a flaming spirit spreading over powerful muscles[8].” Jews are not to be “nebechs” or weaklings whom everyone can push around at will. We need not be ashamed of our bodies. We must be strong to learn Gemara and strong to build the Land. Therefore, as long as you don’t exaggerate your holy work-out time at the gym, we don’t see this as infringing on your Torah learning. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Mishna Berurah, 581, introductory remarks. 2. The Art of T’shuva, by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman, Preface. 3. Orot HaT’shuva, 15:10 4. See The Art of T’shuva, Chapter One. 5. Deuteronomy, 4:9. Rambam, Laws of Rotzeach and Shmirat HaNefesh 11:4. 6. Rambam, Laws of Deot, 4:1. 7. Orot, Pg.80. 8. Ibid.
Rabbi David Samson is one of the leading English-speaking Torah scholars in the Religious-Zionist movement in Israel. He has co-authored four books on the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook and Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Rabbi Samson learned for twelve years under the tutelage of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. He served as Rabbi of the Kehillat Dati Leumi Synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem, and teaches Jewish Studies at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva Institutions.
Tzvi Fishman was a successful Hollywood screenwriter before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984. He has co-authored several Torah works with Rabbi David Samson and written several books on Jewish/Israel topics.
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