Do Not Look Around
My toes are curled over the lip of another pool on another early morning. I like to visit places by swimming there. I swim, in part, as a strange form of tourism: a glacier-fed lake in Yosemite’s high country, the arctic-fed ocean water off the coast of Oregon, the local pool. Some people sample food of a new locale; I encounter a place through its water. I swim, too, out of necessity. My back is a chronic problem and, stubbornly, I refuse dozens of people who have recommended to me yoga and pilates (forms of exercise sweeping the land) and stick to what I know, and what also is good for me: swimming. For purposes of health and tourism, I awake at 5:25 A.M., put on an undershirt, turtleneck, sweatshirt, and overcoat to protect my thin Los Angeles blood, and dutifully follow the woman’s instructions on my GPS from the Hampton Inn in Chicopee, Massachusetts to the Springfield JCC across town. I hang my many layers in the locker, pull on a suit and goggles, and, by 5:55 A.M., I am standing at the edge of another local pool. This one is typical of most JCC pools built in the 1960s and 70s, decorated in earth tones and small tiles. Standing at the water’s edge, I face the same small fear that I faced hundreds of mornings in my teens and early twenties: diving into water so much colder than the warm bed I got out of just minutes before.
I see a woman in the next lane but the pool is quite empty. I am happy I will have a lane to myself, that I am not in her lane. She is slow. Really slow, like to the point where, for a moment I, quite obnoxiously, think to myself, “My God, she’s doing breaststroke and going backwards!” With that unnecessarily smug and boastful thought having passed through my mind, I dive into the water and begin swimming.
I read a book a few months ago: The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Milman. A book influenced by various schools of Eastern philosophy, one of its main lessons is to teach you to focus on where you are and what you are doing. Not trying to be aware, but being aware of what you are doing and where you are. The book argues that the mind, which we treasure and think of as a gift, can also be a distraction from reality, a stumbling block to experiencing the present. The mind makes us anxious about the unknown future; it also makes us feel nostalgic for, or guilty about, the past. Memories of another place or another sensation are a gift but can be a hindrance too because rather than being where you are and doing what you’re doing, memories bring you, well, somewhere else. Since reading the book, my swimming has become a dance between contemplation and meditation.
Sometimes when I swim, I write in my head. Sermons. Articles. Sometimes, I think about my career, or my relationships with my wife and children. I value the pool as a space to think about things I care about—rather than thinking about the e-mails and distractions that consume so many of my thoughts. I swim, but, while I swim, I observe my day and develop insights about my life. When I swim, I also pass the time by thinking about swimming. For example, to keep track of how many lengths I’ve swum this morning, I swim my first 300 meters (it is a 25-meter pool, so 300 meters is 12 lengths; swimmers don’t measure their workout distances in number of times up and down a pool—you can tell whether someone was [or wasn’t] a competitive swimmer if they tell you they swam 80 lengths rather than 2,000 meters) by breathing once every three strokes for my first fifty meters, then once every five strokes for the next fifty, and then repeating the pattern through three times (3 × [50 + 50] = 300). Strange, but few swimmers jump in and just swim. They divide up the laps into “chunks” to break up the monotony.
Someone watching me swim would never know the struggle going on inside my head between what is on my mind—writing, relationships, breathing patterns—and my efforts to keep things out of my mind. This morning I swim and, as I push off underwater, I find myself thinking about the fact that I felt a need to look around and scoff at the speed of the woman swimming next to me. I chide myself for thinking about this and tell myself, if only for a few moments, to let go of my mind and just breathe and experience the sensation of swimming through the chlorinated water of a 1970s indoor JCC pool on a cold winter morning. I swim through the water and try to meditate, to rid myself of extraneous thoughts and to fully focus on the sound of the water and the experience of exercise and breathing. I have adjusted to the initial shock from bed to pool—a transition I experience as birth from womb to the world in some corner of my mind each time it happens—and I am methodically swimming freestyle, counting my breaths, loosening up. My left shoulder is a bit sore but that pain is fading as I get going. After a flip turn as I push off the wall, I notice the bubbles flowing in front of my mouth as I exhale and the tint of the water, blue-gray both from my light blue goggles and the color of the fluorescent light overhead filtered through the water. Aware of my focus and the intensity of my experience, I am pleased with having achieved a level of meditation—and then immediately displeased with myself for having been pleased with myself. Just as quickly as it was there, the meditative moment is gone. So I flip a turn, pull with my arm that is closest to the bottom of the pool to turn my body onto its front, breathe to the left, and start swimming five strokes
before my next breath, a pattern I will maintain for this second 50 of my morning swim.
I start to wonder about myself. Why did I need to look around at that woman? Why do I need to break up my swimming into manageable chunks? Why can’t I just be? I think about a teaching I learned recently with Rabbi Gordon Tucker on “looking around.” Rabbi Issac Meir of Gur, author of Óidushei Ha-rim, related a parable to explain the verse, “Do not climb up to My altar by steps” (Exodus 20:23):
Two blind people wished to reach a rooftop, and tried to figure out how to do it. One of them got himself a ladder and the other got himself a long plank to serve as an inclined ramp. Both of them ascended. But the difference between the two of them was this. The one who climbed on the ladder [the rungs of which recall the steps proscribed in the verse] knew at each step exactly how much higher he was, and exactly how many steps he still had to ascend. But the one who ascended by the ramp—as long as he was not at the rooftop, he had no idea where he was situated and just how high he was. . . . Similarly here: “Do not climb up to My altar by steps”—that is, do not look around, just continue to do good works and to engage in the service of God.
I remember the words “do not look around,” and as I breathe every five strokes I feel a tinge of disappointment in my low spiritual level—that I needed to look around even in a pool, in the one place doing the one thing I should have no insecurity about, no need to look around to feel superior because someone else is inferior. I think about being on a ramp, and being where I am, and just serving God, and swimming. As I flip another turn and start another 50, breathing every third stroke, I think about why I need to swim my 300 meter swim this way; why I will follow my first 300 swim with a 300 kick, a 300 pull, and then another 300 swim. It occurs to me—not that it hasn’t occurred to me before, but it is driven home like remembering a truth I have known before—that the point is just to swim . . . like the point is
just to continue to do good works and engage in the service of God.
Many years before, I committed every fiber of my being, dedicated my self-worth—like a sacrifice on an altar—to beating another swimmer two lanes over in a 100 meter freestyle, so that I could win a race for my team and be the hero! When I lost that race by 0.08 of a second, and had to put back together a picture of who I was, I was able to see I had mistaken swimming for the point, the ultimate point, the purpose of my life and who I was. This morning, years later in an empty pool in Springfield, Massachusetts, I know, of course (how dearly I paid to realize those words, “of course”), that the point even of swimming itself is not to swim. Swimming can be a tool for staying healthy, for learning life lessons, even to engage in the service of God.
As Rabbi Isaac Meir of Gur taught, one should not mistake the steps, even to the altar in the Temple itself, for something else, something real. An altar may be physically higher, but the altar is just a way of helping us get close to God—something that, physically, is impossible. It is ridiculous and blasphemous to say that God is over here, not there. The steps of the ladder are a tool to help us “ascend to” the altar, which is the place where we serve God, but the steps of the ladder should not be mistaken for the point. One can actually never be measurably “higher” or “closer” to God; one can only be more, or less, engaged in the service of God, which Rabbi Meir reminds us, is the point.
How am I serving God in the pool? The rabbis regarded the human body as a sanctuary (BT Taanit 11a–b). In Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah (at MT Hilkhot Dei·ot 3:3), he explains:
He who regulates his life in accordance with the laws of medicine with the sole motive of maintaining a sound and vigorous physique and begetting children to do his work and labor for his benefit is not following the right path. A man should [instead] aim to maintain physical health and vigor in order that his soul may be upright, in a condition to know God. . . . Whoever throughout his life follows this course will be continually serving God, even while engaged in business and even during sexual relations, because his purpose in all that he does will be to satisfy his needs so as to have a sound body with which to serve God. Even when he sleeps and seeks repose to calm his mind and rest his body so as not to fall sick and be incapacitated from serving God, his sleep is service to God.
If one can serve God while sleeping, during sex, and throughout business negotiations, I can swim and serve God too.
Hillel finished a lesson with his students and he accompanied them part of the way. They said to him, “Master, where are you going?” “To perform a religious duty,” he replied. “Which religious duty?” “To take a bath.” “Is that a pious deed?” they asked. He answered them, “Yes. If in the theaters and circuses, the images of the king must be kept clean by the worker to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of the human being to care for the body, since humanity was created in the divine image and likeness” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).
“Don’t ascend My altar by steps,” says God. Don’t think I am actually up. Don’t think a mitzvah is the point. Don’t forget that 300 swim-kick 106pull-swim is an illusion, a tool—a useful one, but a tool nonetheless. Don’t look around. Don’t be so arrogant so as to think that because you know the freestyle that that was the point. Don’t think that because you can do the actions of a mitzvah, that because you can read Hebrew well or say the prayers fast or shake the lulav, that that is the point. Do mitzvot, yes; but their point is to serve God.
Our minds often come in and knock us out of God’s presence. Focus on what’s in front of you not because it’s important but because it is where you are. The woman is swimming—slowly, even backwards (!)—what is the point, whether it’s backwards or forwards? She is swimming! God bless her, literally! I breathe to my left and see myself cruise right by her and approach the wall, having completed my first 300 meters and having sufficiently chastened myself for arrogantly thinking it matters that I am faster and she is slower—which is true, and yet it is a false truth built on the illusion that truth is only what can be measured and quantified. And I am filled with awe at the bigger truth: which is the beauty that she too is here, swimming, and that—although she may not see her swimming this way—I can share with her the deep joy I feel in swimming and serving God.
I take the kickboard and push off on a 300 meter kick and, as I head down the pool again, I give myself a little credit for being here too, swimming, in a strange (yet familiar) pool (all pools are familiar to me, a home away from home) on a cold morning at approximately 6 A.M. in Springfield, Massachusetts—to take care of my chronically aching back, to heal my body, to just enjoy the water—and, in doing so, serving God. My workout continues and I savor the feeling of flying that the water affords. I allow my body to let go and do what it knows to do: to breathe and process oxygen and bring blood to my muscles that are loosening and stretching and returning to health. As I finish my laps, there is an older man standing at the end of my lane. He moves slowly, deliberately, and seems like he is at least eighty years old. I decide to say “hello” as I climb out of the pool.
“Good morning. Do you swim here a lot?” I ask him.
“Almost every morning. I’ve swum most every day of my life,” he says. It is one thing to have swum as a child. It is harder, and more rewarding, to continue swimming in my thirties. He has carried a simple secret of life into old age: swim each day. I am in awe of him and hope to be him one day too—to “holy swim” each day into my old age.
“That’s a good thing,” I say, and I start to walk away toward the locker room.
“Much better than the alternative,” he calls out. “It’s a good day when you can wake up and swim.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.