Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Runs With the Sun

Several years ago I took an education course in Brooklyn College with the goal of impoving my teaching skills. The professor had each of us pick an "Indian name" on the model of "Dances with Wolves" and explain it to the class. The exercise made me "think outside the box": not all cultures make us prisoners of the names our parents pick for us. Not that I ever had a problem with my Hebrew name, but many of us, girls in particular, are saddled with Yiddish names we would just as soon be rid of. Many such girls, upon reaching adulthood, adopt a Hebrew name. They often encounter opprobrium from the community, and might even experience halakhic problems when documents such as a ketubah or, God forbid, a get, which require the person's name, need to be drawn up. Several Native American cultures require boys about the time of puberty to go off alone on a "vision quest" or journey of self-discovery, and return with the name by which he would thenceforth be known.

I picked as my Indian name, "Runs With the Sun." I explained to the class how I love the feel of the sun on my strong shoulders when I run in summertime, how John Denver's song "Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy" resonates powerfully with me. Unlike most runners, I acclimatize to heat easily. The sunshine and the sweat it induces put me in touch with my physical self, a part of my being long neglected in our culture. I feel connected with an earlier time in our history, when we were strong and vital, when we were not ashamed of working in the fields (ve'asafta deganekha), when we were "normal." In these topsy-turvy times men are encouraged to "get in touch with their feminine side." Not me. We've been doing that for far too long. Running with the sun, I am in touch with my essential, robust maleness, and that is when I feel closest to God. And when I finish running and take a shower, well, ha-meivin yavin.







I am RUNS WITH THE SUN - At the Staten Island Half Marathon in 2007













I am reminded of that classroom exercise today because we recited Birkat Ha-hama, the Blessing of the Sun, recited every 28 years. Once in a generation we have the opportunity to thank God for the wonderful gift He gave us in that yellow orb, that medium size star somewhere on the fringes of a mediocre galaxy. How it is just the right distance from earth for life, and ultimately humankind, to flourish. How its light is mostly in that middle portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to be captured by plants and transformed into energy that I can use to make me feel so powerful and energetic. The shorter wavelengths are so energetic that they destroy DNA; the longer ones lack sufficient energy to be used in photosynthesis. Of course, it works the other way around too; living things evolved to make use of the resources that are available. Those of a mystical bent will rhapsodize about the sun being in the exact position it was when God "hung it in the sky" at the beginning of time. There's nothing wrong with mysticism as long as it doesn't ask us to deny observable reality; Rav Kook was a mystic. But this dyed-in-the-wool scientist was always put off by mystical speculation. I prefer to find God in what I can explain, not in what I cannot.

A ritual performed once in a generation inevitably engenders stock taking. Where was I 28 years ago? What have I accomplished in the intervening time? Where do I hope to be 28 years from now? Has our community gotten stronger or weaker? What do the next 28 years hold in store? Last time we recited Birkat Ha-hama, in 1981, Ronald Reagan had just assumed the Presidency. We were experiencing hard times economically, but Reagan assured us that things will be better; he talked of Morning in America. There was no Internet, no personal computers, we typed everything from letters to doctoral theses on electric typewriters and either covered up our mistakes with unsightly white fluid or retyped the whole page. The Cold War was raging; half of Europe was held in slavery to the Soviet Union, and Soviet Jews were not allowed to leave the country (neither was anybody else). Nuclear holocaust topped our list of fears. Reagan called the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire. He was derided by the liberal press and the "intelligentsia," but calling a spade a spade was the first step in dealing with it. He dedicated his presidency to winning the Cold War, and when he left office the evil empire was teetering. A year later the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down and Eastern Europe would be free. Two years later the Soviet Union itself collapsed. I had gotten married two years prior, in 1979, my children had not been born yet, and I had yet to purchase the home where I now live. I was still working on my Ph.D. in biology. Giants like R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were still with us. R. Slifkin was a baby, but "his" ideas were so mainstream that no one bothered writing about them. We did not have all the craziness that plagues our community today. My running times were at their peak and the highlight of my year was the New York City Marathon, when I would tour the five boroughs in a singlet with the Israeli flag across the chest. 28 years and two knee surgeries later, my running times are nowhere near what they used to be. I have to be grateful that, to my doctors' surprise, I am able to run at all. In the community, all sorts of lawlessness run rampant; the thinking seems to be that it's okay to lie, cheat and steal as long as you don't get caught. Young men who work and earn an honest living are Grade B on the marriage market. Relative birth rates over a generation resulted in the haredi lunatic fringe taking over the community and pushing the rest of us to the fringe. An anti-intellectual and anti-scientific mindset became the norm. The community seems to be following senile "leaders" over a precipice, not knowing or caring that their present lifestyle is unsustainable.
What will the future be? Next time we gather for Birkat Ha-hama will be 5797, or 2037 on the civil calendar. Holocaust survivors will have all died out, as will World War II veterans. Germany and Eastern Europe will no longer have living perpetrators; will that change how we view those countries? What new inventions will transform the lives of our children and grandchildren, as computers and the Internet transformed ours? Will I be able to gather with others for the ritual at all? I will be 84 years old if I live that long. Will I be institutionalized, unable to care for myself, eating what others want me to eat, lying in my own filth until others decide to clean me? As a teenager, I saw my father caring for his father who had Alzheimer's disease, and I knew in the marrow of my bones that that kind of life is not for me. I long ago stopped asking for long life when we bentsch Rosh Hodesh, having seen long life turn into a curse. My peregrinations on the planet lead me to believe that many others share that view, though not as much in the frum community. Will science come up with replacements for cartilage and synovial fluid so that we don't lose mobility? Will it come up with a way to stop the loss of muscle mass so we can get old without getting weak? Will my children, now 23 and 26, be married with children of their own, or will they find their fulfillment elsewhere? Will we as a community pull back from the cliff in time, or dwindle into an Amish-like existence, irrelevant to the rest of society and with most of our young dropping out? Will there be a strong "normal" Orthodox or Conservative movement for them to drop into, or will they simply be lost to Judaism? Or will Mashiach have come and redeemed us and the world?

I wish all my readers a happy and kosher Pesah.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous shmuel said...

Great stuff.
Reb Zev, check out "Younger Next Year" (and their website by that name) by Lodge et al. They argue that a man must lift weights 3x/wk and do aerobics 6x/week for the rest of his life to avoid the illnesses of old age.
Wishing you good health and naches, and keep up your writing. I love it.

Fri May 22, 10:04:00 AM EDT  

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