By Rabbi Ori Bergman
Summer is a wonderful opportunity to focus on my health and recalibrate my physical well-being. I do so as I find it difficult to remain healthy during the winter months. I grew up in a home where there was always something cooking so food has become an integral focal point of daily life. So, over the years, I’ve watched my waistline expand and shrink (mainly expand) depending on the season, as well as my emotional state and level of activity. The consequence is poorer health and a lowered sense of well-being. This is a struggle that many of us relate to.
Health in Judaism is not a practical imperative but a spiritual one. “You shall greatly guard your souls” (Deuteronomy 4:9) is interpreted by our sages as a mitzvah to guard the health of your body. Maimonides put it another way: When keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the way of God … it is a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.”
About 10 years ago, my mother introduced me to Weight Watchers (now just WW) but it was only in the last 5 years, that I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom behind the system. So, below are 4 lessons learned over the years which I hope to integrate more and perhaps will support you on your health journey.
I’ve had many, many ups and down over the years struggling to maintain a healthy equilibrium. There is one factor above all else that has kept me “in the game” and that has been WW’s weekly weigh-in and workshop. I go in, I check in, and take part in 30 minutes of conversation and a guided session on some aspect of healthy living. The simple act of showing up and joining the group encourages me on an off-week and motivates to keep going.
There’s a mishnaic term which speaks to this idea: Schar Halichah, the reward of attending (literally “reward of going”). It describes someone who goes to the house of study and despite not learning anything, is rewarded and seen favorably for just attending. One sage attributed all his greatness to his mother who would take him, as an infant, to hear the sound of the house of study. Torah study is weighed against all the mitzvot so find a class to attend. Judaism’s ethical code expects exceptional ethical sensitivity so surround yourself with ethical exemplary people. Change nothing else but your surroundings and you will see a tremendous impact to your life.
Central to WW is the act of tracking the foods you eat. Bottom line: people who track lose more weight. Awareness is key, even if you had a bad day and had 1, 2… 5… too many cookies. In the big picture, it leads to progress.
Rabbeinu Yonah states that we are to go about our lives in this way as well. We should end the day, reflecting on the day that was. Come the morning, we should reflect back on our sleep habits and the previous evening. Finally, in the afternoon, we should pause to reflect how the day is going. The awareness itself nudges you in the right direction.
Embrace the Challenges
Despite WW being geared towards healthy living (and weight loss), it views food very positively. All foods are on the table you just need to plan accordingly.
Maimonides teaches a simple principle: eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re thirsty. The Torah ensures food becomes an opportunity for a mitzvah at every turn. Foods are accompanied by blessings which hone us into a state of gratitude and non-entitlement. We prepare food in anticipation for Shabbat where the pleasure itself becomes a mitzvah. The dietary laws serve to elevate and sanctify our beings and consciousness.
So, the challenge of food becomes the very means through which we reach our goals. Food is no longer an enemy but the gateway towards better health. Our challenges are portals to our self-improvement.
If Nothing Changes…Nothing Changes
As the weekly workshop nears its end, after we’ve had the courage to weigh in, after we heard each other’s success and challenges and after we’ve picked up some nuggets of wisdom, we turn our attention forward to our goals. We are called upon to consider something (however big or small) we can accomplish that week. A small change that might just tip the scales in our favor.
This is the beauty of Teshuva (Return/Repentance) which we are called upon to do every day. To consider small shifts that direct us forward and help us grow. Constantly looking forward on ways that we can improve.
May we all have great success as we strive to nurture both our bodies and souls. Shabbat Shalom!
Ori Bergman is Rabbi of Kehillat Ohr Tzion