Health is always a relevant topic, but it has been the overarching topic on the minds of practically all of humanity due to the pandemic.
Besides the survival instinct that compels us to make healthy choices (with some who have the instinctive drive more than others), many may be surprised to hear that staying healthy is also a Mitzvah stated in the Torah in this week’s Parsha.
In his lengthy discourse before his passing, Moses exhorts the Jewish people not to forget the revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah. On this, he says, (Devarim 4:9): רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד – “Only, beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul.”
And a few verses later (4:15): ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם – “But you shall greatly beware for your souls.”
The Talmud (Berachot 32b) cites this as the source for the obligation of watching one’s health.
Why do the two verses state the same thing? Furthermore, this seems to have nothing at all to do with physical health, only spiritual health!
Netziv, in his commentary Ha’emek Davar, Suggests that the literal translation is “Vnishmartem M’eod L’nafshoseichem – you shall greatly beware for your souls.” not of the soul. From here, the Sages derive that Moses’ instructions were to do a service for the soul. What sort of guarding is a service one can do for their soul? Namely, watching our health!
The Torah did not need to tell us to watch our health merely to survive. That’s an instinct. The lesson is to channel and enhance that drive for a higher purpose. To eat healthily and exercise so that you can have the strength, intellect, and extra days and years to pursue spiritual goals in full capacity.
Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (famously known for his great work Ben ish Chai), in his commentary Ben Yehoyada to Berachot 32b, notes that both verses are quoted with slight variations. The first in the singular and the latter in the plural because the prohibition applies both to the individual and to dangers to public safety.
E-cigarettes are a great example of the need for the two verses. If we evaluated e-cigarettes on an individual level, we would tell a smoker to try them and see if that helps quit smoking (smoking e-cigarettes might even be a mitzvah for this individual). At the same time, we would tell the non-smoker that starting e-cigarettes is a violation of self-endangerment. However, when we introduce public safety, we have to deal with the prospect of saving some by sacrificing others. The more you advertise e-cigarettes as a “safe alternative,” the more you encourage young people to try them. You might even have to ban or severely restrict the sale of e-cigarettes, even though doing so would endanger those who are smoking.
Hence the need for the two verses, one for the safeguarding of health on an individual level and the other, to consider the impact of health on a communal level.
Public safety and public policy are of significant value. It would be easier for each individual to live in their bubble and not worry about everyone else. But we don’t live in a bubble, and we have a responsibility towards the rest of our community. Our decisions about safety, and indeed all matters, should always factor in the impact on the broader community and how it is affected by our personal decisions.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay