“The Dialectic of Body and Soul”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter several weighty and significant texts. Among the most prominent texts are the Decalogue–the Ten Commandments, and the Shema prayer (“Hear O’ Israel”–the first paragraph). Because of the importance of these texts, other significant statements and issues that are found in this week’s parasha are often overlooked.

In his final admonition to the Jewish people before he was to pass from this world, Moses calls on the people to heed G-d’s Torah. In his plea, Moses states (Deuteronomy 4:9): “Rahk hee’shah’mer l’chah, oosh’mor naf’sh’chah m’od, pen tish’kach et had’vah’rim ah’sher rah’ooh ay’neh’chah, ooh’fen yah’soo’roo mil’vav’chah kol y’may chah’yeh’chah, v’ho’dah’tahm l’vah’neh’chah v’liv’nay vah’neh’chah.” Only beware for yourself, and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life, and make them known to your children and your children’s children.

In effect, Moses tells the Jewish people that they must never forget the awesome events they were witness to at Mt. Sinai, where, amidst the thunder and lightening, they received the commandments. They must recall that G-d revealed Himself directly to the people with no intermediary and that no prophet or philosopher can ever challenge the validity of the Torah.

Our rabbis read further into this text and distinguish between being aware, “l’chah“–for yourself (your body), and “naf’sheh’chah“–for your soul. They point out cogently that when the Torah warns about our bodies, it uses the term, “rahk“–“only beware,” but when it speaks about our souls it uses the more forceful term “m’od“–“beware greatly.” The Chozeh of Lublin (R’ Jacob Issac Horowitz, 1745-1815, the Seer of Lublin, Father of Chassiduth in Poland) notes that, although one must show concern for the needs of both body and soul, the soul is primary, and therefore the word “rahk“–“only,” comes to signify limitation on the attention to be lavished on the body.

For centuries, Jews have maintained that the primary focus of Jewish life is to be on the spirit. The spirit is, after all, what distinguishes us from among all the nations of the world, and all the philosophies of humankind. We, who are fortunate to live in this unusually affluent and abundant generation, where most Jews no longer concern themselves about where their next meal will come from, have been fortunate to witness in this blessed milieu the explosion of Torah study throughout Israel and the Diaspora. In fact, there are probably more full-time students studying Torah today than in any other time in Jewish history.

It is quite amazing to see that more and more children of parents who are talented and committed professionals–lawyers, doctors, engineers, are frequently foregoing advanced secular education, to focus entirely on Torah. We’ve actually reached a point where certain families may be found who, for already three or four generations, have devoted themselves entirely to the calling of Torah. Who will put food on their tables? That is not their concern. Somehow they manage to make ends meet, living modest lifestyles. Many thought that the roof would cave in when the government of Israel recently cut back on subsidies for large families. And while it is true that there are more young men now from Chareidi backgrounds seeking to enter the job market, the roof has not caved in, and Torah continues to flourish.

The Baal Shem Tov (R’ Israel ben Eliezer, 1700-1760, the founder of the Chassidic movement), however, took a different view of the interface between body and soul. He maintained that when one’s body becomes weak, the soul experiences a proportional weakening, which is why the verse adjures Jews to strictly tend to the needs of their bodies. “Hee’shah’mer l’chah,” beware for yourself, the Baal Shem Tov warned, so that you can fulfill the requirement to beware greatly for your soul!

Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 4:15, we encounter an additional warning, “V’nish’mar’tem m’od l’naf’sho’tay’chem,” and you shall beware greatly for your soul. The Talmud, in Berachot 32b, maintains that this verse instructs every person to take utmost care of their body, to safeguard and to properly maintain their physical well-being. The Chofetz Chaim (R’ Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, 1838-1933, a foremost leader of Jewry, famous for his saintly qualities) invokes the parable of the wagon driver who pays careful attention to the welfare of his horse, for the horse is the key to his livelihood. Similarly, only with the proper protection of the body, can the soul fulfill its Divine mission.

We live in a society that faces many blandishments, many of them due to abundance and wealth. Along with these blandishments come many blessings, but also many challenges. Because we have the gift of abundant food, many members of society are now faced with the challenge of obesity. Exposed to an almost infinite variety of pleasures available, our citizens are unable to focus for longer than a sound bite, and many have become addicted to liquor, cigarettes and drugs. While we certainly need to focus on the well-being of our souls, now may be the time for all people, especially the Jewish community, to pay more attention to our bodies. This is a time that requires forceful statements from rabbis warning of the ills of overeating and of smoking. These leaders need to discourage the growing tendency of “Kiddush clubs” in our synagogues. Our Rabbis and Rebbetzins must encourage everyone to eat and exercise properly and should be expected to serve as examples for the community. Lay leaders of our communities should also be expected to live up to certain standards of healthy living and should also encourage the teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins of our communities to take care of themselves properly. This can be accomplished by providing them with prepaid gym memberships, mandatory visits to nutritionists, access to personal trainers, bicycles and treadmills, thus caring for the physical well-being of the teachers and rabbis as they do for their souls and their Torah.

The fact that these instructions regarding concern for physical well-being are included in this particular parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, together with the vital texts of the Shema and the Ten Commandments, underscore the importance and the critical attention that needs to be placed upon the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body.

May you be blessed.

Have a meaningful fast.