“I feel like I’m on a treadmill.”
The expression seems to have lost its imagery now that so many have invested thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art, high-tech exercisers or dole out hundreds of dollars a month to join gyms that enable us to go steadily nowhere while sweating off calories. But back before treadmills became the defining symbol of the baby-boomers’ desperate pursuit of eternal youth, the expression “on a treadmill” meant, in the language of Torah, avodas perech — endless toil with no meaningful purpose.
So perhaps we owe the boomers a measure of gratitude for restoring the treadmill to where it belongs in Torah philosophy: as a symbol of the very purpose of our existence.
In my early years as a ba’al tshuva, one of my greatest challenges in davening was to have kavanah on the brocha of es tzemach Dovid — our prayer that HaShem send us Moshiach. Why did I find this blessing such a challenge? Because I was certain of my destiny to change the world, to inspire Klal Yisroel, to enlighten the masses of the non-observant, and to single-handedly bring about a renaissance of hashkofoh and tikkun haMiddos (ideology and character development) among the observant. How could I daven sincerely for Moshiach when I had so much to accomplish in the world?
As I have grown older and, I hope, (a little) wiser, I’ve come to realize that my contributions to HaShem’s plan for the universe will likely be somewhat more modest than I had once imagined. After all, it might just be possible that HaShem can run the world adequately without my help. In fact, the whole principle of hashgocha pratis, Divine Providence, dictates that my individual contribution is to accomplish what HaShem wants accomplished and that, should I fail, HaShem will find a different agent to perform His will.
This could be a depressing thought. After all, if G-d’s will be done with or without my help, why should I bother?
Enter, the treadmill.
Why do so many of us invest so many hours exhausting ourselves while going nowhere? The answer is simple enough: although we are not moving, we are growing — growing stronger, growing more disciplined, growing more healthy. We are putting one foot laboriously in front of the other not to reach a specific destination in place, but to work toward the achievement of an ideal self.
So it is with Torah and mitzvos. We serve HaShem not to attain a specific goal but to strive for a perfect state that is itself defined by the pursuit of perfection. We labor not for what we can do but for what we can become.
To this end my rebbe, shlit”a, often remarked that although some consider themselves FFB and others consider themselves BT, the unpleasant truth is that most of us have become FWE — frum without effort. We hit a plateau after five or ten or twenty years and discover that we’re on spiritual autopilot, going through the motions without taxing our spiritual muscles at all.
The remedy is simple to prescribe, although the medicine won’t go down quite so easily. With only a little introspection and honesty, we all can identify where we fall short. Are we stingy? Give a little extra tzeddaka. Don’t learn enough? Add a bit on to our weekly seder (even 15 minutes a week is good for starters.) Can’t seem to make it to davening before Ashrei? Set the alarm 15 minutes earlier. Don’t have enough time for the kids? Schedule a half hour a week and throw yourself on your sword before you miss it.
In short, we need to force ourselves to start doing what doesn’t come easily. And if it sounds difficult, putting it into practice will be even harder.
But only at the beginning. Like breaking through the first two weeks of aerobic training, suddenly we find our wind and discover that, with a little discipline, we can conquer the treadmill the same way we’ve conquered so many obstacles that have stood before us and fallen before us until now. With effort. Like we did back in the old days.