“The Dialectic of Body and Soul”
(updated and revised from Va’etchanan 5764-2004)

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, we encounter several well-known 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 two texts, other significant statements and issues that are found in this week’s parasha are often not paid sufficient attention.

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: רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד, פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ, וּפֶן יָסוּרוּ מִלְּבָבְךָ כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ, “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 warns the Jewish people that they must never forget the awesome events that they were witness to at Mt. Sinai, where, amidst the thunder and lightning, 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 לְךָ–“l’chah”–for yourself (your body), and נַפְשְׁךָ“naf’sheh’chah”–for your soul. They point out cogently that when the Torah warns about our bodies, it uses the term, רַק“rahk”—”only beware,” but when it speaks about our souls it uses the more forceful term מְאֹד“m’od”—“beware greatly.” The Chozeh of Lublin notes, that although one must show concern for the needs of both body and soul, the soul is primary, and therefore the word רַק“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 Jews from among all the nations of the world, and from the many philosophies that are practiced by others. We who are fortunate to live in this unusually affluent and plentiful generation, where most Jews no longer concern themselves about from where their next meal will come, have been fortunate to witness in this blessed milieu the spiritual explosion in Torah study in both Israel and the Diaspora. In fact, there are probably more full-time students studying Torah today than in any time in Jewish history!

It is quite remarkable to see that more and more talented and committed professionals, who hold advanced secular degrees in many fields–lawyers, doctors, engineers, are often ambivalent about their children’s advanced secular education, instead encouraging the next generation to focus entirely on Torah study. We’ve actually reached a point where we find certain families who, for already three or four generations, have devoted themselves entirely to the calling of Torah. While the obvious concern should be, who will put food on their tables, that does not seem to be on their agenda. Somehow, they manage to make ends meet, often living extremely modest lifestyles. Many thought that the roof would cave in when, several years ago, the government of Israel cut back on subsidies for large religious families. And while it is true that there are more young men now from Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) backgrounds seeking to enter the job market, the roof has not caved in, and Torah in both Israel and the Diaspora continues to flourish.

The Baal Shem Tov however, had 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 Torah adjures Jews to strictly tend to the needs of their bodies. הִשָּׁמֶר לְך, 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, וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, 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 bodies, to safeguard and to properly maintain their physical well-being. The Chofetz Chaim 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 numerous 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 stimuli, our citizens are unable to focus for longer than a sound bite, and many others have become addicted to liquor, drugs and, more recently, to the internet and social media. 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.

Indeed, this is a time that requires forceful statements from both religious and secular Jewish leaders warning of the ills of overeating, liquor, drug use and cellphone addiction. These leaders need to discourage the growing tendency of “Kiddush clubs,” and over-the-top kiddushes in our synagogues. Our Rabbis and Rebbetzins must encourage everyone to eat and exercise properly and they themselves 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 may perhaps be accomplished by instituting creative incentives, such as providing them with prepaid gym memberships, complimentary 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 most vital texts of the Shema and the Ten Commandments, underscores the importance and the critical attention that needs to be placed upon the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Tuesday evening, July 18th, and all-day Wednesday, July 19th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av. The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Wednesday night, July 26th and continues through Thursday night, July 27, 2023.

Have an easy and meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha b’Av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, that are read between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי, be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.