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Just Jew it

If my motivation flags, I think of Maimonides and his scorn for those who don't exercise
Illustrative: Competitors make their way from the finish area at the London Marathon in 2010. (Tom Hevezi/AP)
Illustrative: Competitors make their way from the finish area at the London Marathon in 2010. (Tom Hevezi/AP)

As the alarm on my iPhone blared at 3 a.m., I reached for it, all groggy and bleary-eyed. Tempting as it was to tap the snooze button, I couldn’t afford risking falling back asleep. I had a date to keep with a certain river on the west side of Manhattan.

Only four weeks earlier, I had once again convinced myself that committing to race the New York City Triathlon was a good idea. The first — and last — time I did that was nine years ago. To be sure, I wasn’t giving myself adequate time to physically train and mentally prepare for this undertaking. When I raced in 2009, it was after following a rigorous and challenging 16-week training regimen. Also, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was now nine years older. On the other hand, I weighed less and was in better shape than I was back in 2009. Having allowed myself to slide down the slippery slope of slothiness, I decided to do something about it. In January, I signed up for an intense fitness and nutrition program that promised to whip me into shape. Six weeks in, I was down 20 pounds. After 20 weeks, I had lost more than 40 pounds and was feeling great. So, I figured what the heck; let’s go ahead and sign up for the triathlon.

For those readers unfamiliar with triathlons, it’s a three-sport race in which you swim, bike and run. Training for it properly takes a months-long commitment that entails getting up early to jump in the pool, hop on a bike or go for a run. Since a triathlete is training for three disciplines, generally taking off only one day a week (I rest on the seventh day), it’s advisable to work on two of the three daily.

Perhaps that’s one reason some say that competing in a triathlon requires strength, stamina, and a lack of better judgment.

The particular triathlon in which I was racing is Olympic-distance. Formerly known as international-distance (pretty catchy, right?), when triathlon made its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games the title was changed to Olympic-distance. In a practical sense, it means you’re going out there to swim 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles), bike 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) and run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). Yeah, it makes for a busy morning. For the New York City Triathlon, which just marked its 18th anniversary, that calls for swimming downstream in the Hudson River, riding your bike up and back on the West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Parkway, and running around (and in) Central Park. For a born-and-raised New Yorker like me, the venue couldn’t be any cooler.

Perhaps the most common question posed to triathletes is “Why?” As in, “Why are you subjecting yourself to this? Isn’t competing in one sport challenging enough?” To answer the second question first: Yes. But racing three sports one immediately after the other is three times the fun. As for “Why do it at all?” I imagine that every triathlete has his or her own reasons. For me, it’s about setting a goal of completing what at first appears to be an insurmountable challenge. And it’s about making sure that I avoid at all costs having DNF — “did not finish” — listed as my race results. Once you implant that conviction into your deepest psyche, you will surprise yourself at what you can — and will — accomplish. Further, training and competing in three distinct disciplines provides plenty of opportunity to be introspective and self-aware. For no matter how well one performs, there’s always room for improvement. After a race, I always think about what I could have done better and how I can tweak my technique and deliver better results the next time. All in all, a pretty good life-lesson that can be applied to multiple facets of one’s daily life.

So, what about the Jewish angle? (After all, there’s always a Jewish angle.) Curious about Judaism’s approach to fitness, I searched for some enlightened thoughts in the writings of the classic commentators.

Not surprisingly, before long I discovered that Rambam — Maimonides — perhaps one of the clearest-thinking and practical-minded commentators and philosophers, directly addresses the topic of tending to one’s body and physical well-being.

In Sefer Madda (the “Book of Knowledge“), a component of his seminal work the Mishneh Torah, Rambam, who in addition to being a prolific thinker and commentator was also a physician, writes:

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God — for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill — therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.” (De’ot 4:1; from Mishneh Torah, Moznaim Publishing Corp., translated by Eliyahu Touger)

Rather than view exercise and looking after one’s physical fitness as a poor use of time, Rambam views building and maintaining fitness as a means to better serve Hashem. Implied in Rambam’s words is the notion that our body is a kli — vessel — that must be cared for as it has a very important mission to accomplish. By ministering to our physical wellness, we are at the same time fine-tuning our neshamah to allow it to fulfill its highest potential. In other words, shmirat ha’guf — guarding the body — facilitates shmirat ha’nefesh — guarding the soul.

However, mindful of not violating the edict against bitul z’man, one may ask how often is it acceptable to train when one’s time could be spent instead studying Torah, performing mitzvot or davening? Here, too, Rambam leaves no doubt:

The rule is that he should engage his body and exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning. Afterwards, he should rest slightly until he regains composure and [then, he should] eat.” (De’ot 4:2)

While it is unclear how Rambam would view two-a-days — or, “bricks,” workouts combining two or more sports such as bike-run, swim-bike or swim-bike-run sessions — he is unequivocally in favor of daily training.

Finally, Rambam addresses that all-too-human weakness of wanting to hit the snooze button and rolling over to catch a few more minutes of sweet, blissful sleep. Or, even worse and heaven forbid, neglecting to make a point of rising early in the first place to tend to one’s physical fitness.

[Conversely,] whoever is idle and does not exercise…will be full of pain for all his days and his strength will fade away.” (De’ot 4:15)

That’s some pretty high-level motivation. Just Do It.

About the Author
Harvey M. Lederman lives in Westchester, NY, with his wife and three children.
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