Building Muscles, One Rashi at a Time

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Young cheerful student in glasses showing thumb up holding stack of books on white.
15 Aug 2018

Despite years of really trying to maintain a minimal but fairly steady exercise regimen, I’m still extraordinarily weak. This became painfully clear in recent months when I began experiencing – again – a lot of knee pain and was sent – again – to physical therapy. Not my first rodeo. (It’s a figure of speech; I’m not strong enough for a rodeo!)

So I was temporarily banned from anything that might exacerbate the pain, and received a new daily regimen aimed at strengthening my leg muscles so my knees won’t have to work so hard. Some days, I try and fail to remember to do them. Other days, I remember successfully, and progress to trying and failing to actually do the exercises.

Turns out, legs can be really heavy when you’re trying to lift them to build strength.

One night, I was diligently attempting a lot of reps when I just couldn’t do it anymore and decided to recruit some help from one of my kids.  “Would you do me a favor? Just come over here and lift this for me.”

Not surprisingly, I was met with laughter, and no help at all.

Turns out, even my kids know you can’t always get someone else to do the work for you.

If I want to build strength in my own muscles, I have to do the work. The work hurts and is not always fun, but I will hurt more if I don’t do it – and my life will improve overall if I do. If I’m honest, the effort itself sometimes feels good, once I get past the challenge of actually starting to do it.

And I can recruit help:  not to do the work for me, but to do it with me. It’s great when I get someone down on the floor to do the exercises with me, or when I’m actually with the physical therapist and can get guidance to make sure my form is good and I’m hitting the right muscles. Those are the times I stay focused and progress the most.

There are some really obvious metaphors here about the benefits of hard work and the support we might get from peers and advisors, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of letting them do the hard work for us. I think we all know we have to work hard, ourselves, if we want to see results – in any area of life and growth. As the memorably named Ben Hei Hei reminds us: l’fum tza’ara, agra; reward is achieved in direct correlation with effort (Avot 5:23).

One area, though, where I think this truth is sometimes overlooked – but that is particularly close to my heart – is the religious arena. In particular from my perspective as a Jewish educator, the arena of Jewish learning.

My passion for Jewish education is bound up with text study, and text study can be hard. I hear from lots of people who feel they don’t have the necessary skills to engage with texts, or who have the skills but feel they have too much going on in other areas of life to put time and energy into using those skills. Even those who make the effort to attend classes or read something will often tell me they want their Torah study spoonfed. Not my word; often, this is precisely what I hear from prospective students. They don’t want to delve, question, and analyze; they want nice ideas handed to them in a neat, inspirational package. I get that, and there is certainly a place for it. And of course, there can be plenty of effort involved simply in finding the time to imbibe those spoonfed bits of packaged Torah inspiration. (It’s at this point that I must take a moment to say, Thanks for reading!)

But there is a place for hard work, too, including the hard work of delving into Torah sources on our own.

As Rambam points out (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1), the “crown” of Torah, greater than the “crowns” of royalty or priesthood, is a morasha (inheritance) for us all, ready and waiting for each of us to take it – but we have to come take it. How do we take possession of this inheritance? Several paragraphs later, Rambam offers guidance from Avot 6:4, describing the trials and tribulations that accompany Torah study, including deep engagement and struggle (ameilus) with Torah itself. When we look at Pirkei Avot in context, we find that embarking on those trials is said to bring happiness not only in the next world, but even in this one. (“Ashrecha in this world; tov lach in the World to Come.”) Weird; struggles can make us happy! The commentaries I’ve seen on this line suggest the mishna is offering reassurance that one will ultimately enjoy worldly comforts to make up for initial hardships endured while pursuing Torah study, but it seems to me that the word “ashrecha” also implies a less physical sense of satisfaction that comes from personal effort that leads to personal achievement. (Cf. Malbim on Tehillim 1:1.) The inherent satisfaction that comes from jumping in the sea of Torah and emerging victorious.

Don’t we feel that way when we get down to it and really work ourselves physically? Why shouldn’t the same hold true for a spiritual/mental workout? But only if we do it – we, through our efforts, not by finding someone to lift the weights for us.

Two paragraphs later in Pirkei Avot, Chazal further emphasize the challenges involved in making Torah ours: Torah is only truly acquired through 48 “things” (qualities?). The very first item on the list – because apparently it’s not obvious – is talmud – learning. We can’t truly acquire our Torah heritage without putting in some effort to learn it.

What is “acquisition,” anyway? We use the Hebrew word kinyan to refer to taking ownership of property – but it’s also the word we use to describe the creation of a marriage. Perhaps kinyan is not really about owning per se, but about relationship. There are all sorts of kinyanim in halacha; there are different methods of demonstrating a relationship with a person, place, or thing. There are different kinds of relationships. If we want to enact a kinyan of Torah, to accept G-d’s gift and make it ours, we have to delve into it. Get to know it. Form a relationship with it, even through trials and tribulations.

Don’t all relationships take a little effort, a little struggle?

Isn’t it worth putting in that effort to build up our relationship muscles, with Torah as with all our relationships?

If we try to get someone else to do the work of Torah study for us… well, my kid might laugh at us. It doesn’t work that way, at least not if we want a full kinyan of our Torah.

Fortunately, it also doesn’t have to be as hard as it might seem. Rambam continues in Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:6 by applying another line from Pirkei Avot to the study of Torah: “It is not your responsibility to complete the matter – but neither are you free to neglect it.” Torah study doesn’t have to be overwhelming; it’s not a matter of “I have the skills, so I can learn” or “I don’t have the skills, so I can’t.”

I had the privilege for four years to teach adult beginners, completely new to Jewish texts and sometimes even to Hebrew language, in a text-based, skills-oriented environment. It was an amazing opportunity for my students and for me; for those who have hours available to dedicate to developing skills in Torah study, even if you’ve never tried that sort of study before, I highly recommend it.

But even those without large swaths of time – it’s still possible. That inheritance is still available to be acquired, little by little.

Despite the challenges I face in doing my physical therapy routine regularly, I’ve begun to notice that I might actually be getting a little stronger. I can feel the presence of muscles, though my knees still hurt on stairs and I have a long way to go. I’m heartened by this progress, and attribute it not only to my official exercise routine, which is often too much to fit into my day and even too hard to do, but to the little ways I’ve tried to let awareness of my need for growth spill into the rest of my life. Standing in a pool watching my kids, I made a conscious effort to simply walk back and forth, focusing my muscles against the water. I try to remember not to head for the closest parking space unless it’s raining or I’m in a particular rush. On a long phone call the other day, I made a point of walking around while talking. Those little things seem to be making a difference.

In the same way, even if it’s sometimes too much to engage in a regular extensive routine of dedicated Torah study – there are little things we can work into our everyday lives, if we remain alert to their potential value. A few minutes, maybe, to open a Chumash and read, and simply notice. What strikes me as interesting, or strange? Look at that word choice; what does that suggest to me? …and now I have a Torah insight that’s all my own. Or that other word choice that just seems really strange? … and the next time I have a few minutes, I can see what Rashi has to say about it, or Ramban or Malbim or whomever I have time to consult, and before I know it, I own one or two or seventy facets of a little slice of Torah. My Torah muscles are stronger for having used them; I’ve connected with the Torah that was there for the taking all along. It’s mine now, in this world and the next.

And if I’m not sure how to go about these exercises – I can get help. Maybe I simply look around daily life for things to wonder about, and enlist a teacher or friend to help find out what our traditional sources have to say about the topic. Maybe, like my physical therapist, they can guide my progress, keeping an eye on my alignment and catching any mistakes stemming from my lack of experience. Through the simple effort of asking, I make an issue my own; when I look up an answer, with or without help – that becomes mine, too.

In Devarim 30:11-14, Moshe reassures the Jewish people that “this mitzvah which I am commanding you today, it is not too wondrous for you and it is not far. It is not in the heavens…Rather, the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” Powerful words – but what do they mean? Which mitzvah is he talking about? Particularly at this time of year, we might hear a lot about the Ramban’s suggestion that Moshe is referring to teshuva, telling us repentance is not as hard as we might think – but as with virtually every Torah question, there are other explanations too. As the Netziv points out, others believe this passage is about deep Torah study: It might seem to be beyond us, with ideas too high above our heads to grasp, or requiring resources too difficult to consult. But it’s actually right there, in our very own mouths and hearts. We have the capacity, even if we think we don’t, because G-d gave it to us. We just have to find ways to engage our rusty muscles and take what is rightfully ours.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.