In about a month, the Jewish community will again gather, each in their own way, to welcome the year 5777. The month prior to the new year, Elul, is a month in which we are called upon to begin to turn our souls to the challenge of reflection; a preparation for the Holidays and new year. Elul begins Sept 4. There are so many themes to this time of year. This year, I would like to take a look at four values that, in many ways, may be considered part of each of our hope for the coming year. Elul is a perfect time to do this. The values are health, healing, wholeness and holiness. They can form an interesting foundation for living life in the coming year and each has a strong basis in our tradition.
One of the most desired of prayers for each of us for the coming year is health. We all are living with the knowledge of the increasing fragile nature of life. We are coming to know that staying healthy is a key to living life. If we loose health, we loose so much. Our tradition is filled with texts that underscore this. A favorite is a Midrash from Leviticus Rabbah that speaks of Rabbi Hillel and his going to the bath house to do a religious act; that of bathing his body. The Midrash speaks to Hillel saying that his body, which was created by God, is sacred and keeping it clean and healthy is thus a religious duty. (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3) The functioning of the body, a true miracle, is celebrated each day in every prayer book. The “veins and arteries” prayer that appears in the morning service speaks to the need to give thanks that the “veins, arteries and vital organs” function as a finely balanced system. The prayer understands that if this system were to fail, we would be unable to function or, “to stand in life before You”. The theology is, as with Hillel, the belief that since our bodies come as a gift from God, we need to give thanks for them and, have a religious duty to take care of them, watching what we put into them and keeping them healthy.
A study of texts on health will bring you to the writings of Maimonides (12th century) who was a practicing physician as well as scholar and whose writings speak to the Jewish apprach to medicine which is holistic in nature. A reading of some of his writings shows his belief that before you examined the physical concern of a patient, you needed to examine in detail the psycho-spiritual issues that the patient was desling with. “First the physician needs to obtain a clear understanding of the patient’s subjective world and secure a diagnosis of the patient’s psychological distress…Only after the ‘psychological workup’ can the physician begin with a medical intervention”. (“Moses Maimonides: Physician, Scientis and Philosopher”: Rosner/Kottek.eds. Jason Aronson.. 1993. 167.168). Maimonides also wrote on the value of exercise in an essay “Preservation of Youth”. He linked body movement to mental and physical well being noting that “no movement is as beneficial…as body movements and exercise”. Judiasm’s view that medicine is a holistic modality, a linkage between mind, body and spirit, is of increasing importance in today’s world. Increasingly, studies show this inter-connection.
Much of health may be out of our control. Yet, Jewish tradition teaches us that we can engage in some aspect of self care by understanding that there is a link in how we treat out bodies and health, to how we see our own self. The idea of being “in God’s image” can be interpreted in a very Jewish way, of having the mandate to see our bodies as sacred. In that sense, we have, as Hillel noted, a religious duty to take care of this body, to practice healthy lifestyles and engage in healthy choices. And, it is never too late to begin such a practice. As we approach this new year, this month of Elul when we begin to think about what changes and hopes we can have for the coming year, why not consider how oyu can enhance life by examining ways in which each of us can practice making choices that celebrate health and thus enhance life. For as we all know, without a sense of health, physical as well as mental, life can be a challenge and our hopes and dreams can often by short circuited. It is our life, the only one we have.
Rabbi Richard F Address.
NOTE: If you or your congregation wants more information/resources on developing a program on health and wellness, feel free to contact Jewish Sacred Aging for material.
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.