Rabbi Ron Symons on September 28, 2022
Even before we start talking about Yom Kippur, I want to have a conversation with you about what I do on a daily basis. I am not sure how I did this, but I have become one of those people that works out almost every day of the week. I know, I know, you’re thinking how easy it is for me given that the fitness center is right below my office. You are right. However, there’s something that clicked in me about my internal motivation to care for myself, both body and spirit, as the years have moved on.
Three days a week I work out with a personal trainer as we try to build my core strength. Two days a week, you can find me on an elliptical spending somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes getting my heart rate up as high as I can. What’s amazing about both is that I am pushing my physical body to extremes that I never thought I could reach. Well aware that this is more than just a physical accomplishment, I am still surprised that I have the frame of mind to push myself. After all, I’m waking up at 6 AM in order to get to the gym before work! Who have I become?
As much as I love the workout, its increased heart rate and muscle strength, I equally love the time I give myself in the steam room when I am all done. I always hope to be the only one in the steam room so that I can engage my spirit in full voice. That’s right I sit there, surrounded in a fog of physical and spiritual steam as I recite my morning prayers so that I can exercise my soul just as I exercise my body. I begin with the traditional prayers of thanks for waking up (Modeh Ani), an acknowledgement that my body works (Asher Yatzar), an awareness that I am more than a body but also a soul (Elohai Neshamah), the Sh’ma (God is One), and the V’ahavta (Love the Eternal your God). It all comes to an end as I sing the original redemption song of the sea (Mi Chamocha) and motivate myself to continue the journey right here in Pittsburgh.
As religiously unconventional as my practice might be, it all works for me and my spirituality. I imagine myself sitting in that steam room with the likes of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Joshua in the days of the Roman Empire where perhaps they also recited their prayers in those types of hot spaces and in those ways before synagogues became the go-to institution of Jewish religious life.
I will not be in the fitness center nor the steam room on Yom Kippur not just because it is closed, but because I need to do something different on that sacred day.
Rather than building up my body, I’ll focus on how my body can survive with just a little bit less. For me, the self-control I need to neither eat nor drink is similar to the self-control I need to wake up at 6 AM and work on my body. For me, putting aside my own nutritional needs and donating food to a local food pantry is a reminder of the privilege that is inherent in how I walk in the world.
Rather than reciting my prayers in a steam room by myself, I’ll be surrounded by neighbors in this generation reciting the words given to us by generations past and articulating dreams we want to come true for generations yet to be. For me, being in synagogue with so many neighbors is inspirational not only because of what we say together but also because the variety of lifestyles and opinions we represent. For me, being in community on Yom Kippur is a big part of the march to redemption that started so long ago.
No matter your practice on Yom Kippur or every other day of the year, I hope that you have the ability to strengthen yourself both physically and spiritually, to do that both on your own and in community. Both the physical and the spiritual… both the individual and the communal… are paths towards redemption: our ability to transform the world as it is today into the world that it could and should be tomorrow.
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Please note that you have the responsibility to take good care of yourself on Yom Kippur depending on your physical well-being. It is ok to eat and drink on Yom Kippur if you need to maintain your health.
Please also consider joining us in community at the JCC on October 5 at 3 PM in Squirrel Hill or on-line for High Holidays of Hope Yom Kippur When Rights Are Challenged: Standing Up With Our Neighbors. All are welcome no matter your background or membership.