The Jewish Duty of Taking Good Care of our Bodies
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week we are going to read two parashot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The second parasha, Kedoshim, starts with these words: “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.” (Vayikra 19:1).
How can we be holy? The Torah enumerates a long list of laws that enable us to become holy people. There are laws related to different aspects of daily life. They deal with ritual, with business ethics, with proper behavior toward needy and afflicted people, and with family and social relations. They are very meaningful and important laws.
In this opportunity, I would like to focus on one of these laws: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” (Vayikra 19:28) It means that we shouldn’t injure or damage our body.
Many sages understand this verse as one of the Jewish sources that affirms the importance of caring for our bodies. Our tradition teaches us that we are created in the image of God (Bereshit 1:27, 9:6) and that there is something holy within us, which is our souls.
In that sense, some would say that our body is holy because it is the house of our soul. Our body is like a vessel that contains something very sacred so, for this reason, we should take care of it.
Another idea that we have in our tradition is that our body is a gift from God, and as such it must be treated with extreme care and respect.
The sages also say that the body belongs to God. It is as if we are given the gift on loan. We must take good care of our gift for we are responsible for it. Our responsibility, however, has some conditions. We cannot do whatever we want with our body.
Following the verse I quoted from this week’s parashah, the Torah forbids injuring ourselves intentionally, which was an ancient mourning practice. The body is not ours to injure. We cannot damage the gift we are borrowing.
Therefore, we may affirm that in Judaism not only our soul is considered holy but also our body, and for this reason we should take care of it.
We usually take for granted the well-functioning of our body until we have a pain or feel discomfort or when we are sick. And then we realize how good, complex, and wonderful our body is when we are healthy. But we should be grateful and aware of our body not only when we are sick. We should notice how incredible it is that our body has the ability to find ways to recover itself when we are sick.
Especially in this time of the global Coronavirus pandemic we are aware of how vulnerable our body is and how thankful we should be when it is healthy.
Our tradition doesn’t take the proper functioning of our bodies for granted. You can see it in a special blessing we have after we use the bathroom, the “Asher Yatazer” blessing (we have it in the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, page 63):
“Blessed are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe, who has made our bodies with wisdom, creating them with many openings and many hollows. It is revealed and known before Your holy throne that if just one of these were perforated or blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You Adonai, who heals all flesh and performs wonders.”
This blessing acknowledges our vulnerability and reminds us to be thankful for the amazing gift God gave us. In fact, in the Siddur Sim Shalom, there is a title above this blessing in Hebrew which says: “Blessing for the gift of our body” and above the translation in English it says: “We marvel at the miraculous ways our body functions.” Without a doubt, this blessing helps us to be aware of the complexity of our body and to understand the importance of being thankful for it functioning well.
As we all struggle with the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic, despite the concerns, fears, depression, desolation, sadness, anguish we may feel, it is important to take good care of our body. To have a good nutrition, do exercise, sleep well, etc. We need to keep our body as healthy as possible.
Following the verse from this week’s parashah, it is a Jewish religious duty to take care of our body, not to injure or damage it, and to be thankful for this beautiful and amazing gift that God gave us. We shouldn’t take for granted the well-functioning of our body and we should be thankful every day, when we wake up and when we go to rest, for our sacred body.