It is important to note that while physical wellbeing is a basic rule of good living, the injunction to be healthy is a principle of Torah. We are called upon to “carefully guard your life” (Devarim, 4:9). This is a warning to avoid needless danger and to watch over our health. Inflicting any kind of physical damage on oneself (like excessive cigarette smoking) is forbidden (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, 4:76). The Rambam explains: “Having a whole and healthy body is part and parcel of serving God, for it is impossible to have understanding and wisdom in the matter of knowing the Creator if a man is ill. Therefore one must avoid things which damage the body and to habituate oneself with things promoting health” (Laws of De’ot, 4:1).
Rabbi Kook teaches that t’shuva is bound up with personal strength and valor. Man was created to be a strong, active creature. This is true not only for Olympic athletes, but for spiritually enlightened people as well. The holy men of the Torah possessed not only great personal attributes and wisdom, but also great physical prowess. Though Yaacov spent all of his youth studying Torah, he could lift up a huge boulder when needed (Bereshit, 29:10). The “little” shepherd boy David was able to overcome lions and bears (Shmuel 1,17:34-36). And the holy spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) which marked Samson’s life was marked by incredible physical prowess.
Rabbi Kook writes that a person must do t’shuva for physical weaknesses and their consequences. For instance, a person who is overweight and easily tired may lack the energy to perform the commandments with the proper enthusiasm, or he may feel too weak to resist bodily temptations. His fatigue may interfere with his Torah learning and prayer. In God’s service, a strong body and a strong mind go hand-in-hand.
Rabbi Kook explains that a weakening of the will is due in large measure to a lack of physical energy and strength (Orot HaT’shuva, 14:20). When a person’s willpower is weak, he can fall into many bad habits. As part of his overall mending, he must improve his physical health, as well as his moral and spiritual worlds.
Interestingly, Rabbi Kook was fiercely condemned by certain ultra-Orthodox groups who belonged to the Old Settlement in Jerusalem when he extolled the virtues of exercise and a healthy physique. In his classic work, Orot, Rabbi Kook writes that the exercise of young Jews in Eretz Yisrael, in order to strengthen their bodies to become mighty sons to the nation, adds overall strength to the Jewish people, which enables the righteous to bring more Divine light into the world (Orot, Orot HaTechiya, pg.80).
“When young people engage in sport to strengthen their physical capabilities and morale for the sake of increasing the overall strength of the nation…, this holy endeavor raises the Divine Presence ever higher, just as it is exalted by the songs and praises sung by David, King of Israel, in the Book of Psalms….” (Ibid).
Upon hearing this comparison between sport and the Psalms of King David, the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem vehemently attacked Rabbi Kook. They were afraid that any praise of the secular Zionists could lead to a crumbling of barriers between the holy and the profane. In addition, their negative attitude toward the praise of physical strength can be seen as having evolved from the miserable state of the Jew in the exile, where Diaspora Jews were helpless against the oppression of the gentiles. A philosophy developed whereby a Jew was supposed to look solely to God for salvation and rescue. The Jews were so outnumbered, how could they fight? Physical prowess was meaningless. A Jew had to rely solely on Torah and prayer. While that might have been true in the Diaspora, with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, physical strength became a necessity if the Jews were to successfully settle the Land and defend Jewish settlements against bloodthirsty Arab attacks.
In the generation of national revival, as the Jewish Nation returns to its Homeland, a new type of religious Jew must appear to take up the challenge. Rabbi Kook writes:
“Our physical demand is great. We need a healthy body. Through our intense preoccupation with spirituality, we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected bodily health and strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than our holy spirit. We abandoned practical life, and negated our physical senses, and that which is connected to the tangible physical reality, out of a fallen fear (that God doesn’t include the physical world within the realm of holiness), due to a lack of faith in the holiness of the Land” (Orot, Orot HaTechiya, pg.80).