Among the many topics addressed in this week’s Torah portion is the obligation to safeguard one’s health: “And you shall verily safeguard your body/soul” (Devarim 4:15). The Hebrew word used is “nafshoteichem,” which could mean either your “physical” body (nefesh) or your “spiritual” soul (also referred to as nefesh).
The Rambam in Hilchot De’ot (4:1) says (and I paraphrase), “It’s all very nice to be a talmid chacham and devote all your time to the study of the Torah, but if you neglect your health and become ill, then you cannot continue to learn or to perform mitzvot.” The Rambam, physician to Saladin, devoted entire chapters to discussing ways to preserve one’s physical health. This sentiment is echoed by the Shulchan Aruch (32a).
Chazal tell us that our soul is comprised of three parts. The highest level is called neshama, the intermediary level is called ruach and the lowest level is called nefesh. The first letter of each of these levels makes up the Hebrew abbreviation Naran.
Reb Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Chaim, Alef, 15) explains this structure using the parable of a glass blower creating a glass vessel.
The first stage is when the breath (neshima) is still in the mouth of the glass blower. This corresponds with the highest level, the neshama. The next stage, the intermediary ruach stage, is when the glassblower blows the breath through a straight glass pipe. The final stage, the lowest nefesh level, is when the breath enters the molten glass and inflates it to the shape of vessel.
Similarly, from a spiritual perspective, the most elevated neshama level is the “breath of Hashem” (as it were), which is so spiritually elevated that it cannot physically reside in the body. The ruach level is when this “breath” is in transit, and the nefesh level is the destination – in the physical body.
R’ Chaim is describing a one-directional flow of spirituality, but in fact the traffic is always bidirectional. Not only does our soul affect our bodies, but what we do with our bodies affects our soul. This is the basis for the laws of kashrut. Chazal say that by eating bugs and unclean creatures we defile our soul. In Meir Panim I explore at length the physical act of smiling and the effect it has on our mood and service of Hashem b’simcha” (Facial Feedback Hypothesis).
The Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 3, 3) says, therefore, that it is insufficient for someone to only maintain a physically healthy body – e.g., listen to what your doctor tells you, do regular exercise, eat the correct foods, etc. All these things are essential and are an important part of the above mitzvah; however, on their own they resemble a kind of “idol worship,” like the culture of the ancient Greeks who idolized health and the physical body. The intention of the above verse (Devarim 4:15) applies to when a person maintains their health in order to serve Hashem at a maximal level.
Safeguarding oneself is not only limited to eating the right foods and doing Pilates twice a week; it is also personal safety. Steering clear of hazardous objects and environments – at work, in the home, on the road, in the air, on the internet, while reading a newspaper – these are obligations no less than the above in preserving our bodies and souls.
Judaism, unlike Hellenism, does not sanctify the body for its own purpose. It considers the body as a means to an end – that of serving Hashem. Chazal liken parts of the physical body to the various structures in the Beit HaMikdash.
The brain, which is the repository of knowledge, is likened to the Kodesh Kodashim and the Aron HaBrit, the repository of the Torah. The face, containing the eyes (sight), nose (smell) and mouth (food) corresponds to the Menorah (light), the Mizbach HaZahav (Ketoret) and Shulchan (Lechem Hapanim), etc. The Zohar HaKadosh says that when someone performs a mitzvah with a specific part of their body, the name of Hashem is imprinted on that part of the body.
The purpose of the Mikdash is to serve as a sanctuary for Hashem’s Shechina (“presence”). However, the verse that commands us to build a Mikdash (Shemot 25:8) specifies that we should do so in order that Hashem can “dwell within us.” Not only within the confines of a building but within every one of us.
We just finished mourning the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and have spent the last three weeks fervently praying that Hashem rebuild the third Mikdash speedily in our days. Perhaps that will be achieved when we first rebuild our own “personal” Mikdash, preparing ourselves to be a suitable “structure” for Hashem’s Shechina. Working on our middot, working on preserving the precious gift of life that Hashem gave us and using it to serve Hashem.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: How many differences are there between the Ten Commandments in Yitro and Va’Etchanan?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: In the first verse of Devarim, why does Moshe use euphemisms? Why doesn’t he spell out exactly which sins Am Yisrael angered Hashem with – the eigel, the meraglim, ba’al peor, etc.? Moshe was using something called “lashon sagi nahor,” which means “saying something in a nice way.” Nobody likes to be reminded of their shortcomings. By using “hints,” Moshe was showing his respect for Am Yisrael and at the same time, Am Yisrael knew exactly what he meant.