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Parashat Va’ethanan 5780

July 31, 2020

The Torah and Quarantine 15
A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’ethanan
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

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

It’s known as Quarantine 15 – referring 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 crisis.

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

And this week, the British government launched a 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.

What does this have to do with Torah? Everything.

Centuries ago, our Sages declared pikuah nefesh – the protection and preservation of human life – as 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 saving a human life. (Yoma 84b)

And so, as we continue to weather this unprecedented time of isolation, perhaps it’s time to revisit this important principle — in particular, the effect the pandemic has had on our physical well-being.

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.

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.” (Deuteronomy 4:9), and then continues, “For your own sake, therefore be most careful…” (Deuteronomy 4:15).

Many of our commentators interpret these sentences as a reminder for us to remain spiritually focused as we follow the laws of Torah. 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 that taking care of one’s own condition can enable us to follow Torah to the best of our ability.

As our great sage, Maimonides (1138-1204) noted: “One must avoid that which harms the body…” Maimonides reminded us of the importance of eating and drinking in moderation. (Hilkhot De’ot: 4:1).

During these extraordinarily critical 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 – because a person lives in order to break whatever trait he hasn’t broken up to now, therefore he 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, or, for that matter, any life-threatening disease or condition, we can take extra steps to help extend the length of our days. For our lives and our bodies are sacred gifts.

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.”

More than 800 years ago, Maimonides also taught about the importance of exercise. He wrote that a person “should work or exert himself in some other way. The rule is — that he should engage his body and exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning.” (Hilkhot De’ot 4:2)

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 the 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.”

Most days, I’ve 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 pikuah 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.”

This week’s Torah portion can inspire us to “guard ourselves” by taking better care of our bodies.

We each have more work to do on this earth. And we can only do so if we are intact. What are the steps we can take to create our new physical normal?

Specifically, how can we begin to address Quarantine 15 in order to make ourselves and this world into something better?
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (2010) serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.