OK. So. There are some things you’re not going to see from your car. Or the bus. Or the train, etc. , etc, and so forth. There are some things you are only going to see while on your feet. And, pretty or not (and I wouldn’t call Ben Gurion pretty), you’ll be glad you did.
“Praise Ha’Shem who has prepared the footsteps of a man.”
It is one of of the morning prayers. And like all of them, it forces us to think about that which we take for granted. Now I’m not going to be overly theological here — maybe not even theological at all. But there are things worth remembering.
Most of us are lucky enough to be blessed to be able to walk. Some are not. I have a beautiful twenty year old niece who has never walked. While she seems to live a happy life, knowing her keeps me always in mind of the blessing of footsteps. They are nothing to take for granted.
I also write as a former runner — injured in my 40s and thereafter years in the gym. I never enjoyed the gym. Footsteps — yes, of a sort. But not the kind of footsteps that acquaint you with the world.
I have always been a walker. But in the past year I have taken myself out of the gym and onto the streets. It has been a wonderful blending of revelation and exercise.
Now I’m a bit excessive. Well, about almost everything. So why should walking be different? At home I average eight to ten miles a day. In a new city that can easily grow to fifteen or even sometimes twenty. The last two days in Tel Aviv have seen me cover 35 miles.
Why? Well, yes, there is the exercise. But there is so much more than that. If you are really afraid of missing out, think of all you miss by using transportation. I know. Sometimes you have to. And I understand that recently I have been blessed with the luxury of time that permits excess. But even if you wander around for half an hour a day, it will make a difference.
How else would I have come across young girls in several neighborhoods in Tel Aviv — no older than eight or nine in groups of two or three — out wandering with their friends, not only fearless but apparently unaware that there might be anything to fear. From this I learned a lesson about Israel — everybody takes care of the children, so really there is nothing to fear. (Random terrorism aside.) Or wandered into a children’s park in Shanghai, hidden among enormous towers and buildings, to see the escape hatches that Chinese kids wear on their pants pre-toilet training? How to have wandered over to the far end of Grand Street in New York, a little bit of Lower East Side preserved in 1950s-era apartments and public housing. Or seen the pre-adolescent Hasidic boy , tzitzis and peyes flying behind him as he was running home alone between the Chinese fishmongers?
Photographers know these things. But why leave all the fun to them? Walking brings you down to the ground. It inserts you right into the middle of places you’ve never known and places you’ve been a dozen times that maybe are just a bit different today from yesterday. Walking forces you to confront people face to face, even if you shyly avert your eyes, not to mention if you smile and try to engage even if only in passing, if only for a moment. Walking takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to see the abject poverty of a Beijing neighborhood hard against a prosperous middle class development and, more to the point, forces you actually to look at people, to see people, who might make you sad or uncomfortable. You can’t escape. You are there, and so are they. Walking places you in the middle of life. It keeps you from just passing through. It gives you understanding. It forces you to confront the world that is.
There will come a day when I cannot walk. Perhaps I will be instantly deprived. Perhaps it will go slowly, so that I must go slowly, and perhaps less far, and perhaps less often. When that day comes, I will be sad (except if I go instantly, of course). But I will remember the world I have engaged by wandering around on my feet. I will have some memory of life as it is.
We can read the prayer as one of direction — Ha’Shem determines the footsteps of man — and that is a common reading. As for me, I prefer to understand it as acknowledging that Ha’Shem determines that we do in fact have footsteps. We take them, and the result is imprinted on our minds and our souls.
What a terrible thing to waste. Get out and walk. You’ll be a better person.