Rabbi Reflection: A Spiritual Fitness Challenge

By Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch / Temple Anshe Amunim

As we enter the springtime months, even if winter has a few more snowstorms in store for us, our thoughts turn to the great outdoors - it’s only natural here in the Berkshires. Certainly, many enjoy the many winter sports and activities that our county has to offer, from skiing to snow-shoeing to winter hikes. Soon enough, many of us will be hiking, biking, and running on our beautiful roads and trails. Maybe you swim, boat, or work out at the gym. Or perhaps yoga, walking, or Pilates are more your speed.

I’ve tried many sports, workouts, and outdoor pursuits. Whether team sports or individual activities, in the end, I’m always competing with myself - trying to make it to the gym a certain number of days per week or moving from the green trails to the blues on the ski slopes. Many of us are accustomed to physical fitness challenges, through workout programs, fitness tracking apps, and wearable fitness watches. 

For me, exercise is threefold in its benefits: physical, mental, and spiritual. The physical benefits are obvious. Mentally, I feel calmer and more clear-eyed about what matters when I exercise. Spiritually, exercise is one way that I connect with myself, connect with my breath, and connect with the world around me.

Exercise can be spiritual, and yet there are some elements of our spiritual life that are not as easily fulfilled on a basketball court or an elliptical machine.

This spring, I’d like to invite you to participate in a Jewish Spiritual Fitness Challenge. Many studies have shown that 30 minutes of exercise a day can make a significant difference in one’s health - and many make this a daily priority. What if we dedicated 30 minutes a day to our spiritual fitness? What would that look like for you? How would that impact your day-to-day interactions and your overall well-being?

As is evident from the numerous physical activities that I referenced, there is no one way to approach physical fitness, and the same is true for spiritual fitness. First, we need to understand what we mean by Jewish spirituality in the first place. I’m inspired by this explanation from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, one of the key organizations working on practices for this area of Jewish life:

We are often asked, “What do you mean by Jewish spirituality?” Spirituality is experienced differently by individual people. These are some words that we associate with spirituality:

meaningful • purposeful • awareness • experience-based • values • healing • soul • love • alive • integrity • God • Divine • energy • depth • interconnected • life •  force • clarity • journey • discernment • safety sacred • mysterious • the unknown • potential • attention • presence • open-hearted • vulnerability • transformation • unfolding • joyful

With these concepts in mind, here are a few suggestions for taking on a Jewish Spiritual Fitness Challenge:

Daily Meditation

Meditation is a simultaneously rich and simple practice that enables us to focus on present-time awareness and equanimity. In other words, meditation helps us to be in the moment and to be calm. Meditation is something one can do anywhere and at any time, although designating a particular time for meditation can often help with the development of a regular habit. Many different religions, cultures, and communities have meditation among their key practices. Jewish meditation can take many forms, including focusing on messages from Jewish text and tradition as guideposts. In particular, the connection between the Hebrew words nefesh (soul) and n’shima (breath) has always resonated strongly for me. For those new to meditation, Kripalu is an amazing local resource, and there are countless apps and Web pages that enable easy access and introduction to meditation. For those who would like to check out meditation in a Jewish setting, Temple Anshe Amunim offers weekly Jewish meditation on Shabbat mornings at 9 a.m.

A Walk in the Woods

We are lucky to live in a place with beautiful scenery and easily accessible trails for nature-lovers of all ages and abilities. Time spent in nature, whether alone or in a group, often lends itself to spiritual connection. There are numerous texts and teachings that emphasize the connection between Judaism, God, and nature, helping us tap into the sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves, to the radical amazement, wonder, and awe that we feel when we stand on top of a mountain or catch sight of a delicate spider web.

One of my favorite moments in the Torah is the story of Jacob’s dream. Sleeping out in the middle of a desert, Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down. He wakes up with a start and exclaims, “Achein yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati - Surely, God was in this place and I did not know it! Even a 30-minute walk in the woods can help us connect with the presence of the Divine in our lives.

Study with a Friend

Chevruta study is the Jewish practice of learning with a partner, or literally, with a friend. While we can certainly develop rich spiritual lives through our own internal work, there is something inherently Jewish about coming together to share ideas, to collaborate, to teach each other, and even to respectfully argue over different perspectives. As we learn in Pirke Avot, “When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence dwells with them,” (Mishnah Avot 3:2). There are numerous opportunities to study with another person or in a group throughout the county, formally or informally.

Shabbat and Beyond

Shabbat, our palace in time, is the temporal and spiritual meeting place of the Jewish people. While we may not all physically gather in the same place, we are united in observing this day of rest, connection, community, and reflection. Shabbat is our weekly spiritual check-in, the extra work-out for our souls that propels us through the more average days of the week. It may just be the extra boost that your Jewish Spiritual Fitness Challenge needs. If you haven’t been to Shabbat services recently, it’s always a good time to try it out again.

These are only a few components of a Jewish Spiritual Fitness Challenge, and what works for you might not work for me. As we make our way out into the sunshine again this spring, I invite you to consider what it would look like for you to turn inward, both individually and through our Jewish community, as well.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch is spiritual leader of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.