Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My gym teacher gives the best mussar schmooze...

I actually had another idea for an inaugural post, but this will do nicely.

I was initially concerned about the "waste of time" that so many other guys seem worried about when I signed up for my first (and only - thank you reduced requirements) gym here at YU. As boring as it was probably going to be, I still hoped to at least physically benefit from the "Wellness and Fitness" course. It turns out that this particular gym is actually quite spiritually invigorating as well.

The instructor, a man originally from South Carolina, who later moved to Harlem in his early teens (or slightly before, I forget) is a perfect example of what I would call a righteous gentile. Most guys who attend YU come from somewhat sheltered Jewish backgrounds (*cough* Five Towns *cough*) and really have had no contact with, or developed relationships with people who aren't Jewish. Having relatives who live in the South that I grew up visiting regularly, I can say that things are a little bit different below the Mason-Dixon in smaller cities where Jews are in the clear minority in terms of population. Given that statistic, you often have the opportunity growing up to actually get to know someone who isn't Jewish and appreciate them for who they are as a person, instead of simply labelling them as "off limits" because of their religious beliefs. At any rate, I personally know several individuals in my own hometown who I would characterize as righteous gentiles, and now I have another to add to my little list.

Anyway, the fellow who instructs us how to do proper stretches, makes us run laps, do push ups and sit ups, and occasionally referees a pick-up basketball game is an amazing human being.

He regular gives us little pep-talks in the midst of discussing how our muscles work and what we should be doing to lower our total fat-to-muscle ratio, and often veers off onto topics of moral and ethical behavior. I wouldn't categorize him as a bible-thumper per say (since the term is often met with some derision), but he is a firm believer in the absolute truth of the biblical texts, and that G-d's will is the top priority in his life (second comes family, and third is his own self, but more on that in a minute). While his view is a little bit black and white, which leaves little leeway for morally ambiguous areas, his commitment to Truth and conviction that spirituality is just as important as being physically fit (if not more so) is very admirable.

For example, today he began his usual introduction, and quickly tangented into the best mussar schmooze I've heard this teshuva season. He spoke about his own life experience, growing up in South Carolina - and the impression that his parents and grandparents had on him. Both were married their whole lives, and demonstrated to him the significance of the covenant that marriage establishes. He remarked that the sacred bond of marriage is so sacrosanct in his eyes (since marriage is one of G-d's gifts to mankind) that it would be sacrilegious for him to even think about looking at another woman no matter how good she looks. The thought of cheating on his wife would never occur to him because he utterly rejects the horrid mindset that has pervaded society since the multiple social revolutions that occurred in the 60's (when he grew up). He even went on to discuss how terrible it is that nudity is being allowed on TV these days (even in its "least offensive" forms), decried the filthy pictures found in abundance on the Internet, and how men debase themselves by fooling around with multiple women instead of faithfully committing themselves to one woman.

The coach believes that the world has really gone down hill since the 60's, and the world has become far more anti-Semitic and racist than the times when he grew up with being called epithets and having to endure segregation and then integration. He prays for Israel just as diligently as he prays for the welfare of the United States, because he believes that Jerusalem is central to the meaning of history (past and present), that it belongs to the chosen people, and that we are in fact very significant in G-d's eyes.

Although he is a democrat, and never thought he'd live to see and African-American as President of the United States, he says that he will judge President Obama just the same as he judged former President Bush - entirely on his success or failure in his position and what he does for our country. He already has a slightly negative view based on the "bogus" claims that the recession is over - and noted that Obama will have to earn his vote in the next election. I find that mindset to be very honorable, since he divorces his own personal beliefs from the reality of the situation. (As a side note, I personally have nothing against having a person of non-white race as our President, I just wish we had a more qualified/experienced person filling the role, say Colin Powel - but time will prove Obama's worth, so I'll leave it at that).

As I mentioned before, he values the word of G-d as the absolute top priority in his life. Abiding by G-d's word gives a person happiness and success in this world, and appropriate reward in the next. He views people like King David and (ed: lehavdil) John the Baptist as people to look up to, since they risked their lives for G-d. He thinks David is an ultimate model of how people should be - when he became spiritually depressed he isolated himself in a cave (this is how coach said it) and wrote the Psalms to raise himself up - AND he danced with unparalleled joy before the Ark - all for the Glory of G-d. Additionally, as great as David was - the Bible clearly says he made some mistakes, but he repented for them fully - and that's a model we should all follow.

Second comes family - because you have to put others (especially those closest to you) before yourself. He particularly emphasized the significance of his wife's role in his life, and how his relationship with her had deepened over time - in addition to adding many dimensions to his spiritual relationship with G-d. Considering his own self was a distant third on the list of important elements in life, because you can't ignore your own value, but G-d and family come first. Taking care of your physical body, as well as nourishing your mind (he likes Shakespeare and reading in general) is very meaningful, because we are a physical representation of G-d on earth (hence the whole made in His image thing). People are basically walking spiritual conduits, and we all need to ensure that we sustain and maintain our physical selves for as long as we can - all the while reaping the spiritual benefits that life has to offer through study and devotion to G-d.

As coach continued talking, the guys who came late filed into the room, listened for a moment, then sat on the floor in a semi-circle absolutely mesmerized by the words they were hearing (I was standing, but I could have listened to him for another hour or two).

He concluded by saying that we all know we've done things this past semester (and last semester) that we regret and know were wrong - himself included. Everyone (again, himself included) has to properly turn to G-d and repent for these mistakes, and admit that we received absolutely no benefit from transgressing His will (interestingly enough, I read in an essay by HaRav Nebenzahl shlita, lehavdil, who said the exact same thing). The bottom line is that G-d's love for each of us allows us to return to Him with our full hearts, and He is waiting for the chance to forgive us.

After coach finished speaking, and we all stood dumbfounded by the amazing mussar we had all just experienced, a friend of mine turned to me and said that coach's mussar schmooze was better than his own rabbi's sermon from Rosh Hashana. While I mean no disrespect to my own Rabbi and his inspirational drasha, I couldn't agree more. I get the feeling that only at YU could I have encountered such an amazing person. I am SO happy to be taking this course, to improve my physical health, and get the best spiritual boosts I've had in this country since leaving Israel (with a few exceptions). G-d certainly works in wondrous ways...

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