We are naturally wired to want freedom. No one sets out to follow as many rules as possible. But just as a soccer game offers the pleasure of competition and exercise, and a recipe offers the satisfactory result of something delicious to eat, Judaism, too, promises a more meaningful life. There are requirements, it’s true. But just like the game or recipe, the requirements are necessary for success.
It is for that reason that I frame the rules of religious observance as requirements instead of restrictions. It took some time, but I realized that almost everything under the sun functions on rules and regulations, (even the economy, despite being called a free market.) Learning and honing one’s approach to the requirements of living a Torah life takes commitment, practice and patience.
I happen to be an advanced Tai Chi practitioner. Tai Chi is the most profound and effective of all the sports I’ve ever undertaken. Imagine physics, ballet, Chinese metaphysics and complementary medicine all bound into one. Practitioners have to learn them all while dancing. It can change a person’s anatomy, strengthen their spine, increase their bone density, increase balance, and more.
Tai Chi shares a similar attitude to the one I wrote above. If you’re not willing to commit six months simply to loosen the contours of the muscle around your pelvic region, you might as well forget it. Additionally, you need two to three years to start grasping the major components of Tai Chi in mind, heart and body. Tai Chi will change a person’s anatomy, then their physiology, then their perception. But these are hardly changes that will come about easily. It takes thousands of hours of hardship at times feeling lost and dejected, mixed with periodic feelings of achievement and accomplishment.
Torah observant Judaism is very similar. Lubavitch philosophy has some very basic components: focus on the positive and be grateful for your time on earth. These sound like simple ideas, but putting them into practice takes years of dedication. Training one’s mind to override negativity and be happy with one’s lot is a major project. But what a reward, to reframe one’s life as a source of joy.
For me, Torah observance and and Tai Chi are the perfect blend of earthly and heavenly pursuits. Without holiness, life feels dry. Without a hobby, I would go stir crazy from lack of physical exercise and creative expression. I’m even starting to integrate the two by teaching Tai Chi. It is a way to give back to my community, another facet of Torah observance.
Although Tai Chi has helped hone my mind, it is not a spiritual path in and of itself. I studied with some of the best practitioners in the world and spent long hours discussing and debating in Chinese the merits of Chinese civilization, Western civilization, and Jewish civilization. As I got deeper and deeper into Tai Chi and Chinese philosophy, (I speak read and write fluent Mandarin and lived in China for the better part of seven years), I realized that I was missing out on Yiddishkeit. I realized that I needed to come home and make a serious effort into Torah learning.
Since then, I have learned that in both Tai Chi and Torah observance, if I follow the structure, adopt the correct postures and the attitude, eventually the skills will come. It’s one thing for someone to say keep your speech positive. But spending time reflecting on the nature of speech and peoples’ minds to develop awareness and buy in is what makes the difference for me. Without this in the background, the many requirements of Torah observance could sap life, instead of allowing it to flourish.
Following directions and keeping requirements even though we don’t understand humbles us. It also teaches patience. There are rewards, in this life, at the end of the tunnel—both Tai Chi and Torah observance make big promises. But from my personal experience, with tenacity, persistence and commitment, they keep their ends of the bargain.