How Many Dollars Will You Have Left at the End of this Game?

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Before beginning to train for a marathon last year (a marathon that ultimately never happened!), I met my running coach at a local Dunkin Donuts for some advice and guidance. As he sat down, he placed two hundred dollars in cash on the table and said, “Here, this is for you.” I must say it was a pretty strange sight to be sitting at an outdoor café and having so much cash slid across the table at me. Curious as to the direction this was going, I listened as my coach instructed me that we were now going to play a game. The cash represented me, my overall wellbeing, my energy levels, and my health.

He asked me if I had run yesterday morning and when I answered in the affirmative, he requested sixty dollars in cash, representing the depletion in my energy as a result of the strenuous run. He then asked if I had eaten properly for the rest of the day. When I answered yes, he returned twenty dollars to me. Had I stretched properly? Once again, with a positive response came another twenty dollars across the table. Did I get a good night’s sleep that night? This time, the answer was no. It had been a late night and with not enough sleep, my body didn’t have enough time and ability to recover properly. As a result, he kept the remaining twenty dollars, and very quickly I was down ten percent.

He and I continued to play this hypothetical game. Runs and workouts would deplete my energy levels; rest and recovery would restore my health. The more I ran and worked out, the more money I gave him and the less I retained. The more I maintained discipline in my eating and my recovery, the more he returned to me. We played these scenarios out, imagining the months of grueling and demanding training as money was passed across the table from me to him and from him back to me.

By the time we reached the anticipated race day, out of my original two hundred dollars, I was down to only twenty left, not the reserve of strength and energy that I would want to do my best and succeed at such a taxing marathon. His message to me was clear: You can run, train, work out, and exercise until you are blue in the face. But if you don’t equally invest in your rest and recovery and if you don’t eat and sleep properly along the way, you are doomed to failure.

I walked away from our meeting with a much clearer understanding of how to prevent burnout or injury and how to set myself up for success. I also walked away with an important life lesson beyond just training for a marathon. Our wellbeing involves our mind, body, and soul. Invest only in one and ignore the others and the pyramid collapses. Maintain balance and discipline and you will be firmly on the road to success.

The exercise with my coach that morning reminded me of another such experience, this time from a Rabbinic conference I had attended a few years ago sponsored by the Orthodox Union and coordinated by our very own Naftali Herrmann. At the opening session, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb asked us all to draw a tree with deep roots in the ground and an abundance of leaves hanging from its branches. We were then asked to fill in both the roots and the leaves. Roots represented those activities that gave us energy, fueled our well-being, and made us feel more alive. Examples included learning, sleeping, exercising, reading, or playing with our children. Branches represented those activities that drained us of our energy and made us feel more exhausted or depleted.

The point of the exercise was twofold. First, it helped us appreciate that if our day is filled with activities on the branches without a balance of activities that nourish our roots, we will grow tired and wither. Too many days like that lead to burnout and fatigue. Our days need a balance of investments in both our roots and our branches. The second goal was to give us a greater appreciation for how we identify our roots and our branches, which activities suck energy from us and which activities give us a greater sense of vitality and energy. Only once we understand and appreciate those two categories can we work towards a life of balance and overall wellbeing.

For the past year and a half, many of us have been running on fumes. Desperately trying to maintain our work schedules, balancing Zoom schooling with quarantines, and having limited abilities to travel and essentially a modified or nonexistent vacation last summer have left many of us depleted --- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

It is why this summer is so critically important for all of us. Some can get away for longer, others for shorter periods of time. But everyone needs to rest and recover. We need to take time to reflect and reenergize. It is critical we gain a greater understanding of our branches that deplete us and our roots that revive us. Failure to do so will leave you like I was at the end of my lesson with my coach: tired, worn out, and run down, hardly a recipe for becoming the best version of ourselves.

The Rambam writes in the fifth Perek of the Shmoneh Perakim, his introduction to Pirkei Avos: “The purpose of his body’s health is that the soul finds its instruments healthy and sound in order that it can be directed toward spiritual growth.” Of course, our ultimate goal is spiritual perfection achieved through a commitment to Talmud Torah, Chessed, davening, and refinement of our middos. But our body is the vessel that is essential for this pursuit of spirituality. It needs to be nurtured, nourished and afforded the opportunity to rest and replenish.

Elul is only a month and a half away. It marks the period of focus on our spiritual condition and health. But before we get there, let’s make sure the vessel for that spiritual growth is strong and balanced. This summer, invest in yourself and come to our religious race day with a complete two hundred dollars, full of vigor and energy.

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