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The Torah and Quarantine 15 #638

07/31/2020 11:45:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Va'ethanan: "Take utmost care of yourself..." (Deuteronomy 4:9)

The Torah and Quarantine 15


There is a phrase associated with the deadly Covid-19, which has been making its way within medical and nutritional circles.

It’s known as Quarantine 15 — and it refers to the fact that so many Americans have gained weight during the pandemic.

In May, the website WebMD conducted a poll of 900 readers, reporting that 47 percent of Americans had gained between seven and 20 pounds during the first two months of the Covid-19 crisis.

Of those polled, about 72 percent reported they had been exercising less. About 70 percent stated that they had been “stress eating,” often feeding their anxiety through “comfort foods.”

And this week, the British government launched a national program encouraging its citizens to address obesity caused, in part, by isolation during the pandemic. Laws limiting the advertising of “junk food” are being considered.

So, what does this have to do with Torah? Everything.

Centuries ago, our Sages declared that pikuach nefesh — the saving of human life — is one of Judaism’s most important principles. 

The Talmud teaches that most of the laws listed in the Torah can be disregarded for the sake of staying alive. This has served us well during wars, and inquisitions, and times of persecution.

There has been much written about the effects of the pandemic on our mental and spiritual well being. So many are tired of isolation, sad at being confined and anxious to reconnect.

But what about our physical well being?

Indeed, the more time we are spending at home, the more we have relied on the refrigerator to buffer our mental and spiritual uncertainty. Take it from our medical experts — this is a concern — and each of us has been affected.

Which leads us to a lesser known interpretation of this week's Torah portion.

In this week’s Torah reading, we revisit two of Judaism’s most influential passages. In Parashat Va’ethanan (And Moses pleaded) we review the Ten Commandments and the Shema. Is there anything more important in Judaism?

But also contained within this important week are two sentences, which can inspire us today, as we begin to address Quarantine 15 and other physical effects of isolation.

The Torah teaches “…take utmost care and guard yourself scrupulously.” (Deut. 4:9), and then continues, “For your own sake, therefore be most careful…” (Deut. 4:15).

Many of our commentators interpret these sentences as a reminder for us to remain spiritually focused. But some Sages guide us in a different direction. They speak about the importance of guarding and preserving our bodies.

Rabbi Ephraim Luntchitz (1550-1619) of Prague looked at these sentences and focused on an interpretation of “take utmost care and guard yourself.” He wrote, “ ‘guard yourself’ means taking care of the body,” stressing than an elevated spirit is connected to how we preserve our bodies.

Our great Sage, Maimonides (1138-1204), taught that it was important for every one to exercise in some way before they begin their day. He even tabled a dietary plan to support healthy eating. He warned everyone to avoid consuming anything which pollutes the body and hence the soul.

He cautioned especially those who spent their entire days at their desks, or in stationary positions, to eat and drink in moderation. He wrote that a person should "accustom himself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger."

Maimonides also taught about the importance of exercise. He wrote that a person, “should engage his body and exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning.” Hilhot De’ot (4:2) 

During these extraordinarily times, we are rightfully concerned about our health and that of those around us. But there is a bigger picture. 

The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) taught that — in essence — the purpose of life is to make ourselves into something better.

He wrote, “For it is your life...a person needs to perpetually strengthen himself, because if he doesn’t — why is he alive?”

Clergy and commentators across religious and secular lines have reflected upon some of the positive outcomes of the pandemic. They have reminded us that increased time at home has strengthened families; many have noted that the pandemic has reminded us not to take life for granted.

And while we cannot fully protect ourselves from the effects of Covid-19, we can take extra steps to help extend the length of our days.

Author and commentator, Akiva Gersh, notes that we can protect and sustain our lives through healthy choices, including avoiding pesticides and promoting sensible eating. 

He writes: “So holy and valuable is our being alive in the eyes of God that we are directed to stay away from something that is even just potentially harmful.”   

So as we begin the gradual process of returning to normal, let us consider harnessing the wisdom of our Sages to develop a new normal.

Each morning as I leave home for synagogue, my wife reminds me, “Make sure you drink lots of water and pay more attention to what you eat. Let’s take a walk when you get home.”

During the early days of the pandemic, I tended to mechanically nod, but lately I’ve been paying more attention. Like you, I would appreciate the blessing of more years — to be a source of good on this earth. And that begins with pikuach nefesh — the protection and preservation of human life.

As WebMD notes, “A few pounds of weight loss can make a difference. Even a modest decrease can lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels and improve the negative consequences associated with diabetes and heart disease.”

While we can't completely control how Covid-19 will affect our world, we can protect ourselves and others by wearing masks and respecting social distance.

We each have more work to do on this earth. And we can only do so if we remain intact. We will outlast the virus.

This week’s Torah portion can inspire us to “guard ourselves” by taking better care of our bodies. How can a few steps each day help ensure that we remain spiritually alive and vital for years to come.

Judaism is a religion of action, and each of us can play a role in addressing the two major villains of our time: Covid-19 and Quarantine 15.

We as Jews know how to survive. This is no different or less threatening than the trials our ancestors faced. Indeed, each one of us is a warrior.

Let us remember, especially during this challenging time, to nurture our souls. Engage with family and friends, connect with your community, even if it is by Zoom.

But in addition, let us never forget to take care of our bodies.

For the body is the greatest gift granted to us by God.

Let us never forget to take care of that gift. For we each have so much more to give. Each of us has a role to extend our days, by attending to our physical well being.

Let us never forget even during these challenging times: What a blessing it is to be alive.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

(Join us at Shabbat services tonight, as we ask you "What is your personal 11th commandment?" The Rabbi will also answer the question, "Why do we light two candles on Shabbat?")


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