5 Kislev 5778 / Thursday, November 23, 2017 | Torah Reading: Vayeitzei
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The Spiritual Game-Plan    

The Spiritual Game-Plan

There are so many benefits from physical activity and in my case, basketball. It stretches me to work more efficiently in other areas of my life and stay present-focused...


Several years back, I hit bottom physically.  Although I had always been athletic and thin, too many years of eating poorly and not exercising had finally caught up to me. I felt awful, but as bad as I felt, I had no desire to change my ways. It’s like I had had a free pass for most of my life: I could eat whatever I wanted and I didn’t gain weight. But now I was paying the price for my sedentary lifestyle. Wherever I was, I was sitting. If I was seeing clients I was sitting; if I was learning in Kollel (yeshiva) I was sitting; if I was in Synagogue I was usually sitting! And truthfully, this is the way I’ve lived my life since 1972 when I graduated from High School.


In contrast to the coach potato that I became, my High School years were dramatically different. Back then I was super active. I played on the Basketball team, the wrestling team, the soccer team. In school and in camp I won awards for gymnastics and swimming . But more than any sport, I loved the game of basketball. I used to shovel snow and chop ice off the court in the winter in order to play basketball. We played for hours on end even after dark when we could barely see.


Eventually I became a very good starting player for my High School varsity team - but when I got to college, for some reason, I stopped playing – and I stopped working out. I stopped everything – except my studies, and it has stayed that way for all these years. After college came graduate school, then marriage, then family, then Judaism and finally Aliyah, and in all that time, which was almost 40 years, I barely remembered how much pleasure I used to get from shooting hoops.


Ironically it wasn’t until I came to Breslev Israel that I started to re-connect again with sports. Believe it or the initial spark to start playing basketball again came during a personal prayer session. During my hour alone with Hashem I finally had time to focus and remember the joy that I used to get from playing ball, scuba diving, camping and all kinds of activities that I didn’t think were appropriate anymore, especially for a “religious” man.


When I met Rabbi Lazer Brody and saw how serious he was about health and physical fitness it peaked my curiosity.  Here was a religious man, a Rabbi, who was only a few years older than myself who was in great shape. So about 6 years ago, when I was 57, and I literally hadn’t touched a basketball since 1974, I asked Rav Brody what Rabbi Shalom Arush would say about my starting to play basketball again. Rabbi Brody told me that he had asked Rabbi Arush a very similar question about his own workouts; he was sure that Rabbi Arush would  tell me that I should  play basketball (as a participant but not an observer) – not only because it’s healthy but because it had the potential to connect me with joy. Wow, was that answer a game changer for me!


Since then, I try to play basketball a few times a week. But now, there is a spiritual component to my game that I take very seriously. I know that Hashem doesn’t want me to play the way I did when I was young and it’s still a spiritual challenge for me not to.  I’m not just talking about the obvious physical limitations I have now compared to back then. Hashem wants me to abolish the killer instinct that was instilled in me.


For example, I don’t think Hashem wants me to think about the score as much as I used to. I do my best but leave it upto Hashem as to who is going to “win” and who’se going to “lose.” These days I use a spiritual game-plan to use the game as an opportunity to work on myself to be more of team player than I used to be by looking for the open man or trying to create plays to include other players, especially if there is a young kid on my team. Playing at age 63 is also a great opportunity to learn to be “happy with my lot.” I am forced to accept that Hashem has taken away some of the strength, speed and agility that I once had and that I need to compensate for this physical decline by playing more of a mental game. Now I’m forced to make the best of the abilities that I still have and better utilize the talents of the younger players around me to accomplish my goals.


My new spiritual approach to playing basketball helps me to appreciate that Hashem is also not just randomly placing me on the court with just anyone. I try to keep in mind that Hashem may be putting me on the same team or even on the opposing team with someone who really needs to talk or who is thinking about coming back to Hashem.  That’s why playing in my black pants and white shirt is still important to me. It’s a reminder to me that I’m not only there for me.


I still have plenty of work to do on myself in terms of taming and sublimating my aggression to “win.” But I’m so grateful that I’ve re-connected, in such an unlikely way, to a way of deconditioning myself to the awful competitive conditioning I was exposed to. Thank you Rabbi Brody and thank you Hashem!


There are so many additional benefits that I get from playing basketball.  It stretches me to speed up and work more efficiently in other areas of my life. It helps me to stay present-focused and to leave my problems and regrets “on the court of life” so to speak. And probably more important than anything else: it helps me to accept and weather the necessary ups and downs of life.  Sometimes Hashem gives us a hot streak and we can’t miss a “shot” and at other times we fall into terrible slumps that feel like they’ll never end – our job, and our ultimate reward depends on our finding Him in both conditions, anyway we can.



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We invite you to visit Dr. Zev Ballen's popular daily web journal Spiritual Coaching.

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