We do like our gyms, us Americans. With about 36,450 gyms spread out across the fifty states, there are more gyms in the USA than McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger Kings combined! Bringing in over $27 billion a year, the gym, fitness, and health club industry is robust and growing. While the US has only 4.4% of the world population, we have about 23% of the world’s health clubs. 

There are high end clubs like Equinox, Exos, or the Madison Square Club, which charge annual membership dues in excess of $25,000, and there are budget-friendly clubs like Planet Fitness, which charges just $10 a month for basic membership at its 1,500 clubs in the US, and there are clubs at every price point in between. But the one thing all health clubs have in common is rows and rows of treadmills and ellipticals. 

Many gyms have their treadmills strategically stationed near the big glass windows so that passersby can see the dozens of fit customers walking or running steadily, and ignite the latent, “I really need to be working out more!” feeling. Most big-box gyms have over forty treadmills, as well as a dozen ellipticals, the modern version of the stairmaster. Overall, there are about a million treadmills standing proudly in gyms across the country. But what most people don’t realize is that the most popular machine in pretty much every gym was actually invented as a torture device for prisoners in the early 1800’s. 

Victorian England was not a great time and place to live in history. The cities were overcrowded and dirty. The industrial revolution was at its peak; big smoke-belching factories were everywhere, underpaying and overworking their labor forces. Despite the meager pay and horrid working conditions, millions of people left the countryside and descended on the cities looking for opportunity, causing widespread disease and poverty. The streets were filled with vagabonds and thieves, opium addicts and derelicts. The laws were quite harsh, but many of the vagabonds didn’t mind being locked up in British prisons, where at least they knew they would be fed and have a bed. The government was searching for something that would make people never want to come back to prison, and the treadmill was the solution. 

Sir William Cubbit, an English engineer, invented the device as a way of working convicts to “reform stubborn and idle convicts.” Vybarr Cregan-Reid, a historian from the University of Kent, takes it one step further. He claims that “the treadmill was invented in the early 19th century, when penal philosophers were trying to work out a punishment that was just short of the death penalty.” 

The early treadmills were much more like a stairmaster. It was a sixty-foot wide set of stairs, built on a giant wheel and often partitioned into human sized compartments.  The prisoners were either forced to hold a bar at the top of the steps or chained to that bar, and as the wheel turned, prisoners had to keep climbing or they would on the moving steps and get injured. Prisoners could be forced on the treadmill for up to six hours at a time. Every few minutes a bell would sound, and one prisoner could climb off and sit down for a few minutes before getting back on when the bell sounded again. A prisoner would climb the equivalent of 2,500 feet per hour. It was exhausting labor, and combined with the poor diet served in prisons, resulting in widespread injuries and illness. 

The first prison treadmill was installed in England in 1818, and by 1822 there was a treadmill installed in a New York City as well. From there, they spread all over the world. Sometimes the wheel would be connected to gears and would power a mill that ground grain, hence the name “treadmill,” but just as often they were just “grinding the wind.” The monotony and exertion of the treadmill was so terrifying to prisoners, that guards claimed that the mere threat of it tamed the most defiant prisoners. 

In the US, the treadmill was eventually abandoned in favor of other forms of backbreaking labor like laying bricks, breaking rocks, or picking cotton, but in England, widespread use of penal treadmills continued until the late 1800s when it was abandoned for being too cruel. They were formally outlawed in 1902. A century later, fifty million Americans pay hefty membership fees to go to a gym and mount the treadmills and ellipticals. 

We can all relate to the torture of the treadmill, even if we never go to a gym. If we have our wits about us, the most terrifying treadmill of all is the treadmill of life. What if I’m just walking through life without really getting anywhere? What if I keep climbing from step to step, but my life is one big wheel and I don’t really go anywhere? What if five years of my life go by, and all that happens is that I go to work every day, pay my bills, eat dinner, shave and shower, catch up on the news or sports, buy more stuff, sleep, go to work, pay my bills, eat dinner, shave and shower, catch up on the news or sports, buy more stuff, sleep, go to work, pay my bills…? What if nothing real is changing except the ground beneath my feet? How frightening would it be if I spent a decade of my life without becoming a better person? 

Sure, I may have gone through the motions: wrote nice birthday cards to my wife and parents, did homework occasionally with my children, donated to my synagogue, went to my friend’s children’s bar mitzvahs, went on vacation with the family in midwinter, and came in second place at the community Iron Chef competition that raised money for cancer research. Again. But if that is what I did every year prior for the last five years, the steps may be changing, but I’m still in the same place. The monotony is terrifying, and I can only distract myself by turning up the volume of the distractions.

Rosh Hashana is coming up, and that is the one time in the Jewish calendar where we can totally re-invent ourselves, make a new person out of me. It was the day that mankind was created 5783 years ago, and it is the day that each year since we get the opportunity to recreate ourselves. A day we can get off the treadmill, and started hiking up Life Avenue. In the High Holiday prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, we pray Chadesh Aleinu Shana Tova, please our Father our King, RENEW for us a new year. Please G-d, let this year be a new year, qualitatively different than the previous ten years!

G-d can grant us new opportunities in the coming year, but it is we who need to get off the treadmill. One incredibly powerful way we can do that is by opening up a new Word Doc, or notebook and writing in it the goals we hope to achieve in the coming year. We should at a minimum have two goals, one in the realm of spiritual activity and one in the realm of our relationships with others. Ideally, those goals should be really small, as big ambitious goals usually remain ambitious goals, while small action plans often end up becoming part of our life. But, in the notebook or Word Doc, we should also keep track of every met goal from previous years. Imagine being able to look at that notebook in ten years and being able to say, “5779 was the year I started calling my parents every Erev Shabbos to wish them a Good Shabbos, 5780 was the year I started doing Mommy and me time with each of my children at least once a mont, 5781 was the year I started saying one Chapter of Psalms every night for someone in the community in need, 5782 was the year I upgraded my Shabbos experience by ____________, 5783 was the year I started tracking my income and charity on a spreadsheet to ensure I was giving at the proper levels…” 

There can be almost no better feeling than looking at a list like that after ten or twenty years. You know with deep certainty that you were not living life on a treadmill, rather you were treading through life resolutely and getting places. We have a little more than a week before Rosh Hashana, let’s spend that time thinking about how we want this year to look different than the dozens that preceded it, let’s write it down somewhere and let’s start tracking our progress. Because the minute you step off the treadmill of life, every step takes you further down the path, every step brings you closer to the ideal you, every step is a new journey, and there is nothing sweeter in a New Year than making it a New Year!

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s parsha, Ki Savo, begins with the laws of bikkurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would see the first of his fruit beginning to bloom, he would tie a ribbon around it. When the fruit would finally be ready to eat, the farmer would take the first fruits of the seven species and bring them to the Temple. (The seven species with which Israel is blessed are; wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates, and olives.) At the Temple, he would thank G-d for the land he was given, and say a special prayer detailing how the Jewish people got to Israel. H would then give the basket of fruit to the Kohen. 

What we need to understand is how this beautiful mitzvah landed where it did, directly after the portion about Amalek, the Jewish people’s archenemy. Last week’s portion ended with the commandment to remember the insidious attack Amalek launched against the Jews as they were coming out of Egypt. Amalek’s attack was not just against the physical nation, but against the spirituality which the Jews represent. The nations of the world, hearing of the miracles of the Exodus, truly feared G-d and respected His people. Amalek attacked the Jews, knowing they would lose, but hoping that they would at least show the rest of the world that G-d Chosen Nation was fallible just like everyone else. How does a mitzvah like bikkurim juxtapose itself to this heinous nation’s attack?

If we look at the verses describing battle with Amalek, we see an interesting verb being used. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were going out of Egypt. When they chanced upon you on the way, and they struck at you who were hindmost, all the feeble ones at your rear, and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of G-d.” (Deut 25:17-18). Here is my question to you: if you were to see long columns of soldiers armed to the teeth, and heading directly towards you, would you call that an army “that chanced upon you?” NO! They didn’t chance on anyone, they came out with full intent to attack! So why does the Torah describe this attack as one in which Amalek chanced upon the Jews?

The answer is that this verb describes the essence of Amalek. Amalek is the nation that wants to deny the validity of G-d and the implications of a world with a G-d. To Amalek, everything that happens in the world is random, by chance, and not predestined by G-d. No G-d created the world, no G-d has a guiding hand that plays a role in current events, and no G-d has any knowledge of right and wrong which He would impart to people. Even when one nation attacks another, it is just happenstance, not anything done as part of a design or plan. When the Torah commands us to remember Amalek, it doesn’t only mean we should remember the battle, but that we should focus on our distance from their message, their raison d’etre. 

The mitzvah of bikkurim is one that helps us achieve an attitude that is the polar opposite of the Amalek worldview. After working on his field for an entire season, day in and day out, a farmer could very well feel that the success of his crops belongs wholly to his hard work. The mitzvah of bikkurim reminds us that no matter how much work we put into our field, ultimately, it is G-d that blesses us with bounty. (The modern day equivalence of Bikkurim would be taking the first few dollars of every paycheck and giving it to charity. Even though we worked hard for that paycheck, this act would demonstrate that, ultimately, we believe our success is from G-d!)

While Amalek says that everything is random, we say everything is divinely inspired. We use our bikkurim to combat his worldview! May G-d rebuild the Temple speedily in our days, so that we can once again bring bikkurim!!

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha begins with the mitzvah of bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would notice the first of his crops begin to bloom (specifically the seven fruits with which Israel is praised; wheat, barley, grape, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates), he would tie a string around it. When they would mature, he would bring them to Jerusalem and give it to the Kohen in the Temple. He would say a paragraph describing the Jewish people’s history of difficulties, and would then go on to enumerate his blessings – the fact that he is bringing his crops to the Temple, in his land, undisturbed by the world. This was meant to underscore the elation a Jew should feel at this juncture. At a time when we might be most tempted to take full credit for something (when our crops finally grow in after months of hard work), this mitzvah helps us recognize that our bounty is a gift from G-d.

The next portion deals with the confession of the tithes. We are not always so up to date on our required tithes, so, once every three years, there is a commandment to take any tithes that we were supposed to have distributed already, and GET THEM OUT! This is done on Erev Pesach, after the three years are over. After making sure that all our tithes are distributed to the proper destinations, (some go to the Levite, some to the poor, and some to yourself to be eaten in Jerusalem), you confess to G-d, saying that you have taken care of all your obligations, and asking G-d to He look down with favor onto His nation and bless us with continued largess and beneficiation.

It is at this point that Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has chosen us to be His treasured Chosen People. When we walk in the path G-d has set for us, that designation will be recognized by the whole world. (I think you can figure out the flip side of that coin. So if you are wondering how to stem Anti-Semitism, or how to bolster the world opinion of Israel and the Jews, don’t go marching in Washington. March down the corridors of self-introspection, and see what you can do to help the world understand that we are the Chosen Nation!)

After that, Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they should proceed directly to two mountains called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival There, six tribes should ascend each of the mountains, leaving the elder Levites in the valley along with the Ark of G-d. The Levites should then face Mount Gerizim and proclaim a blessing (e.g. Blessed is he who judges the widow, orphan, and poor person with righteousness), to which all the Jews should answer with a thundering Amen! Then, the Levites should face Mount Eival, and give the inverse of the blessing in the form of a curse (e.g. Cursed is he who perverts the judgment of the widow, the orphan or the poor), and everyone should answer Amen! Most of the 12 blessings and curses dealt with matters that could be done secretly (moving a boundary in the middle of the night, giving someone bad advice, forbidden sexual relations, and so forth). This was the Jews’ way of saying, as they established their homeland, that they as a society abhor furtive and underhanded crimes.

The last portion of this Parsha contains the strongest admonition Moshe ever gave the Jews. In it, he detailed for them the incredible blessing that they can bring to themselves if they keep the Torah, but also the terrible destruction that will come as a result of us cutting ourselves from our Source. In it, we find something fascinating. Moshe says that all the hardships we encounter will be come upon us, “Since you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness” (Deut. 28:47). It is clear that G-d doesn’t want us to simply serve Him – this is not Wal-Mart – G-d wants us to serve Him with joy and goodheartedness! He wants us to be enthused by the practices we keep, He wants us to be elated in our prayers, and ecstatic to be in His service!

So, I’m going to sign off, because I am sure there is somewhere you have to ecstatically rush off to!

Quote of the Week: Honesty is the first chapter in the book or wisdom. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Random Fact of the Week: A tree planted near a streetlight will keep its leaves longer into the fall than other trees.

Funny Line of the Week: When someone tells you that nothing is impossible, ask him to dribble a football.

Have a Peachy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Doron Levin

    Thanks, Rabbi Burnham and please accept my best Shabbos wishes for you and your family.

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