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20 Hour Trip to Israel

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Last week I traveled to Israel for a whirlwind 20 hours for a dear friend’s bar mitzvah. When I arrived at La Guardia I was told that most flights for the day had been cancelled or significantly delayed because of the heavy rain. Fortunately, mine was still scheduled to depart on time, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had a connecting flight in Toronto, and a delay could mean I would miss my trip entirely. 

 So I checked in and headed towards my gate through the milling crowds of irritated travelers. Sure enough, minutes later the boards started showing my flight had been delayed. I did some quick calculations and realized if I really rushed off the plane in Toronto, I could still make it. So I stayed. 

But soon my flight was further delayed, and I realized that to make my Israel-bound connection I would need to leave behind my luggage (nothing personal for such a quick trip, just a package I had agreed to take for a friend) and sprint through the Toronto airport. Still doable, but only just. 

 When I saw that my flight was delayed by another hour, I knew there was no point hanging around. I would miss my flight to Israel entirely. So I asked for luggage back, left the airport, and headed home. 

 On the way I called my travel agent to explain the situation. “How badly do you want to go to Israel?” he asked. “Let me see if I can get you on another flight.”

 And just as I arrived home, he called me back and told me that if I left that minute, there was a flight from JFK to Israel (via Frankfurt) that would still make it on time for the bar mitzvah the following morning. 

 And this is when the real internal struggle happened. I realized I had the perfect excuse to avoid this crazy shlep for a bar mitzvah—two days of travel for less than 24 hours there. I’d tried. I’d made the effort. I could stay home in my dry, comfortable house without feeling bad. After all, I’d tried. 

 But can’t we do that with every mitzvah? It’s so easy to find excuses for ourselves. Don’t want to lend a friend money? Blame it on cash flow problems. Don’t want to visit someone in the hospital? Say you’re busy. We all are. Don’t want to host guests? Easy. It’s an invasion of privacy. There is no shortage of excuses when we’re looking to get out of something. 

 With every mitzvah and every sin we do, there is an “oy!” and there is an “ah!” The only difference is in the timing. When a person stretches themselves to do a mitzvah, while they are doing it they may feel the “oy!” But later, they can enjoy the “ah!” - the satisfaction of knowing they did the right thing even when it was hard. But when a person sins, they first get the “ah!” - this is pleasurable. But later, they are struck with the “Oy! What did I do?!”

With this in mind, I asked the travel agent to get me on that second flight and whisked myself out the door and off to JFK. The shlep was definitely an “oy,” but once I arrived and joined in celebrating my friend’s simcha (with a stop to pray at the Kotel), I knew I had done the right thing and was able to enjoy the “ah” that comes along with that. 

Why Are You Walking?

This past Sunday I walked 20 miles. It took eight hours. 

On Sunday, the first day of Shavuot, my brother was making a bris in Crown Heights for his first child. I was determined to be there to celebrate with him, so I set off on the 10-mile trek from our Shul on the Upper East Side after services were over.

When I mentioned my plan to Yankel* he said I was crazy. “Why walk 20 miles for a bris? It’s too far! That’s not normal!” And he wasn’t the only one. “It’s so hot!” and “Is it really worth it just for a bris?” and “You’re meshuggeh, Rabbi,” were just some of the comments I received.

Interestingly, when I reframed the walk as exercise, I received an entirely different response. I explained to Yankel that I wouldn’t be able to do my usual morning exercise routine over the three-days (Shabbat followed by two days of Shavuot), and told him that this 20-mile walk would help burn X amount of calories. Suddenly, he saw it in a different light. “Good for you, Rabbi!” he said. “That’s amazing!” And this was repeated time and again.
 

So yes, it was a bit far. But it was also definitely doable. My son even came along! It took us three and a half hours on the way there, and four and a half to get back because we stopped a few times. Yes, it was hot. Yes, our feet hurt. Yes, we were tired. And we missed the actual bris (although we made it for the celebration). But most of all, it was an adventure and a fantastic bonding experience which neither of us will ever forget.

And it gave me time to think about why people reacted the way they did. When I said I was walking for religious reasons, I received skepticism and even a little scorn. But when I claimed it was for exercise, I received nothing but respect. And I wondered, why is it considered acceptable to sacrifice for physical health but not for spiritual wellbeing?

It shouldn’t be.

The same way we need to push beyond what’s comfortable for a good workout, we need to go the extra mile—beyond our comfort zone—for our fellow Jews. Whether it’s giving charity, teaching someone how to light Shabbat candles, or, yes, walking to a bris, it’s important that we exert ourselves for our spiritual health, just as much (and more!) as for our physical health.

 *Name changed to protect privacy.

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