There was a time in my life where I had a lot of trouble sleeping. When I encountered the following Talmudic text, I empathized with Rabbi Yohanan whole-heartedly: “Rabbi Yohanan said: If one says, ‘I swear that I will not sleep for three nights,’ he should be flogged, and afterward he may go right to sleep” (Babylonian Talmud Sukkot 53a). As many of us know so well, if you can sleep at night, don’t squander it.
There’s another truth inherent in this text. When a person cannot sleep, and has gone nights without it, sometimes the answer is physical exertion. Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating flogging. But, as Rabbi Yohanan points out, there’s nothing like going through a physical ordeal to help you sleep.
When going through my bout of insomnia, I confided in a friend, a dancer – someone whose work continually required a mind-body connection. She asked me if I exercised regularly, and when I said no, she answered with what seemed to be the simplest truth in the world: “Of course you can’t sleep. Your mind may be exhausted, but your body is wide awake. Start exercising, and you’ll sleep like a baby.”
And I did.
Mind, body, and soul are inextricably linked. For any to function at peak levels, all must be nourished. The rabbis understood this, and the great sage Maimonides published a great deal on the topic (see Fred Rosner’s Medicine in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides). The great Hasidic and mystical master, the Baal Shem Tov, taught, “You may be free from sin, but if your body is not strong, your soul will be too weak to serve God aright. Maintain your health and preserve your strength” (from The Hasidic Anthology: Tales and Teachings of the Hasidim). In other words, you can’t care for your soul without caring for your body.
Our priorities in life are many: providing for our loved ones, succeeding in business, continually learning, helping those around us. When we spend too much on these without looking after ourselves, we prove unable to reach our full potential.
Realizing that I needed to do something to balance the more cerebral and spiritual work of my rabbinate (and the generally exhausting work of fatherhood), I took up long-distance running.
To my surprise, I loved it.
I love being in nature, feeling the sun on my skin, the internal rhythms as my muscles stretch and contract in sync with my breathing. I love that staying on my feet for hours at a time is as much a mental challenge as a physical one – so much so that I tend to listen to dense audiobooks on topics like American history and quantum physics to keep my mind engaged while my legs do their work. And I love that this physical exercise, not only giving me the later result of a great night of sleep, opens my mind almost immediately to eruptions of creativity. Sometimes so many ideas rush at me after 30 minutes on my feet that I have to pause to write them down, lest I forget. I only intended for running to address my physical need, but I realize now that it nourishes all parts of my life.
Summer offers so many ways to enjoy the outdoors, and many of can involve exercise. Take this summer season as an opportunity to try something new: running, biking, a team sport, or even leisurely strolls – whatever your abilities permit. In focusing on the sh’leimut (wholeness) of our bodies, we will allow for sh’leimut of our souls. We are holy vessels, made in the divine image, worthy of holy treatment. So take that break from your desk or couch, and get outside. It’s a mitzvah!