True Beauty is More Than Skin-Deep
We all know that part and parcel of what it means to be a Jew is to preserve one’s physical health. We aren’t permitted to take unnecessary risks, and we’re supposed eat, drink, exercise. Overall, we must treat our bodies responsibly. What is the source for this in the Torah? According to the Rambam (Hil. Rotze’ach UShemirat HaNefesh 11:4), it is based on two verses from our parsha. What is surprising, however, is that when looking at these verses, you’d never know that they were addressing taking care of one’s physical wellbeing from their context.
First, let’s examine a story from the Talmud (TB Berachot 32b-33a). The rabbis state that when in the midst of praying the Amidah, we are not permitted to interrupt our prayers for any reason. The one exception is if someone’s life is in danger. No mitzvah – with rare exception – takes priority over preserving one’s health. Thus, if a threatening authority figure walks past you while you’re davening, and if you remain silent you might face his wrath, you are supposed to interrupt even your Amidah to greet the ruler.
Mortal danger in proximity to davening
The Gemara relates a story of a devout individual who disobeyed this halakhah because of his extreme devotion, and continued his silent prayer even as a high-ranking gentile politician greeted him. The ruler was so incensed by this snub, that he waited for the Jew to finish davening and then said to him, “It says in your Torah, ‘רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ’ (4:9), and ‘וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם’ (4:15)! Both verses mean that one is obligated to preserve one’s soul. What right did you have to ignore me when I extended my greeting to you? Don’t you realize I could have you killed for that insurrection?!” The devout man succeeded in talking his way out of a reprisal from the (apparently wise and benevolent) ruler, and his life was spared.
The only problem with this story is that the context of the verses cited by the non-Jewish official have nothing to do with preserving one’s health. To the contrary, they deal with the obligation to remember the events at Mount Sinai and the prohibition of idolatry. Our parsha has Moshe warning the Jews that when they enter the New Land, they will encounter foreign cultures with enticing idolatrous practices. “Watch over and preserve your soul!” Moshe charged. Don’t stray after idols. Clearly, this has nothing to do with eating healthy, exercising, and avoiding risks.
Yet, the Rambam cites our text when stating: “One is obligated to remove and avoid at all costs any obstacle that presents mortal danger, as it says (4:9), ‘הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ’.” Where does this verse, which talks about the “soul” and is in the context of a religious admonition, allude to this new halakhah of preserving physical health?
The Netziv suggests that the clue is from the strange conjugation. If the verse was only referring to one’s spiritual wellbeing, it should have said, “ושמרתם מאד את נפשתיכם” – “Carefully guard your soul.” But instead the verse contains an unusual conjugation of “וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם… לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם”, which literally means, “You shall be carefully entrusted to your soul.” That is, there is something about “you” other than your soul that must be preserved together with your soul, i.e., the body.
Physical health & spirituality
We are still left with the question: Why did the Torah present the obligation to preserve one’s physical health in the context of preserving oneself spiritually and avoiding idolatry? Rav Hirsch offers a beautiful thought: What, after all, is idolatry? It is focusing on the physical trappings of existence, even to the point of ascribing physical characteristics to one’s deity, in order to draw religious inspiration. In reality, however, a Jew is supposed to infer that his Deity transcends the physical plane.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I know that there is much more to “me” than just my body. My soul is really the main part of me. As such, we all appreciate that a spiritual dimension exists that far transcends the veneer of our physical being, and is even more “real” than our physical existence. Once we recognize that the main part of a human being is their soul, it would be grossly incorrect to translate God, the completely transcendent Being, into our lower, physical plane by attributing any physical qualities to Him. The commandment of “preserving our souls” is thus a charge to look at our souls as the main reason for eschewing idolatry.
Under the physical façade
The mitzvah extends far beyond examining our souls. We live in a physical world, where all of our human senses perceive reality as the physical trappings of existence. It is so easy to get lost in our perception of reality and lose sight of the fact that there is so much more to existence than the physical façade. In taking inventory of the beautiful world Hashem created, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the external beauty of our world contains the source of all divinity.
Hashem warns: “You may see the form of an animal, or a bird who flies to the heavens. You may see insects, or fish, who inspire you. Or, you may look up and see the sun, the moon, and the stars. These are beautiful, perfect creations that reflect My glory (see 4:15-19). But do not think that true reality lies in those things, no matter how glorious and beautiful this physical world is. There is a spiritual reality which is far more real than anything on this physical plane. As such, be careful to preserve your body, not for the sake of your body, but for the sake of your soul.”
The beauty of living a religious life is that our vision penetrates far deeper than the surface. When we look at another human being, we’re not supposed to just see a living organism capable of advanced thinking; we’re supposed to see a neshama. When we look at the beauty of a sunset or a majestic landscape, we’re meant to translate that breathtaking beauty into a spiritual experience. When we look at a piece of produce, we’re supposed to see a gift from God, one that gives us an opportunity to feed the hungry as well as any number of mitzvot.
This is the essential nature of all mitzvot; taking something physical and being able to see a deeper reality behind the physical façade of that object with which we perform the mitzvah. An etrog is much more than a citrus fruit. The truly spiritual individual sees this more and more as one goes through life.
A universal truth
This is a universal message. One doesn’t have to be an Orthodox Jew or even Jewish to see this. This is why the Gemara cites a non-Jew as quoting the verse from the Torah, stating that a human being is much more than a collection of tissue, and that every moment of life is infinitely precious and should not be squandered. The entire justification of preserving our bodies is in order to enable our souls, the main part of who we are, to grow and be productive for as long as possible.
As the Talmud states when sanctioning Shabbat violation in order to preserve one’s health (TB Shabbos 151b): “Violate one Shabbat in order to observe many future Shabatot.” It can only be in the context of maintaining a healthy soul that we are charged with maintaining healthy bodies. For after all, what is the benefit to being “alive” if we are not being spiritually productive in that life?
In a world which has mistaken the façade of reality for reality itself, part of our role as individuals and as a community is to counteract that simplistic and occluding outlook. Our goal should be, with every bracha we recite, with every ritual we perform, with every kindness we extend, to look past the façade and appreciate that the physical body truly is a wrapper for the soul, and that Hashem’s world is far deeper than the surface. May we succeed in this holy endeavor which will usher in the Redemption, bb”a.