If you are seriously planning on doing t’shuva this week, don’t forget to exercise and get into shape. Rabbi Kook teaches that in order to return to one’s healthy spiritual source, a person must also return to his natural, optimum physical being. To reach inner peace and harmony with G-d’s Creation, an individual must first have a healthy body.
In our days, where health-food stores and sports clubs abound, this simple teaching is known to almost everyone. What is new, however, is that Rabbi Kook sees this as part of the process of t’shuva. Being in good shape is an important factor not only in attaining personal well-being, but also in forging a connection to G-d. Rabbi Kook writes:
“Every bad habit must cause illness and pain. Because of this, the individual and the community suffer greatly. After a person realizes that his own improper behavior is responsible for his life’s physical decline, he thinks to correct the situation, to return to the laws of life, to adhere to the laws of nature, of morality, and of Torah, so that he may return to live revitalized by all of life’s vigor” (Orot HaT’shuva, 1).
To hook up with the spiritual channels connecting heaven and earth, a person must first be in a healthy physical state. For instance, one of the basic requirements of prophecy is a strong, healthy body. Physical and spiritual health go together. The Rambam, who worked as a physician when he was not studying Torah, has systematically detailed in his writings the rules of healthy living, stressing the importance of exercise, proper diet, sexual moderation,
and bodily care as a prerequisite to keeping the Torah (Laws of De’ot, Ch.4).
Today, everyone seems to have a battery of doctors. People cannot seem to do without an assortment of pills. Medical clinics are filled up months in advance. Yet the natural state of a man is to be healthy. Physical ailments, headaches, back pain, allergies, or being overweight are all signs that the body is in need of repair. Sometimes the remedy is medicine. Sometimes a proper diet. Sometimes rest and relaxation are the cure.
Rabbi Kook’s call to a state of natural well-being has been partly answered in our generation. Today, there is a vast world industry in being natural. We have natural foods, natural organic vegetables and fruits, natural whole wheat bread, natural herbal teas and medicines, natural clothes, natural childbirth, and an assortment of back-to-nature lifestyles. In the past, it was written on food labels which ingredients were included. Now it is often written which ingredients are NOT INCLUDED: no preservatives, no additives, no salt, no carbohydrates, no artificial coloring, and the like.
In line with this return-to-Eden existence, Rabbi Kook teaches that when a person corrects an unhealthy habit, he or she is doing t’shuva. It turns out that gyms and health clubs the world over are filled with people doing t’shuva. If you are riding an exercise bike to get back into shape, you are coming closer to G-d. Tennis players are doing t’shuva. In Los Angeles, even though the morals of the health-conscious people in aerobics classes may be bent out of shape, they too are engaged in the beginnings of t’shuva.
Accordingly, if a person stops smoking, he is engaging in repentance. If a fat person goes on a diet, he is embarked on a course of personal perfection and tikun. When a teenager who is addicted to Pepsi begins to drink fruit juice instead, he is returning to a healthier state. In place of caffeine, his blood will be carrying vitamins throughout all of his system. In the language of the Rambam, this person is replacing a food which merely tastes good, for one that is beneficial to the human metabolism (Laws of De’ot, 5:1). As he explains, a person should always eat what is healthy and not merely foods that give his taste buds a lift. Interestingly, the Rambam’s guide to healthy living, written generations ago, reads like the newest best-seller on the market.
It is important to note that while physical wellbeing is a basic rule of good living, the injunction to be healthy is a principle of Torah. We are called upon to “carefully guard your life” (Devarim, 4:9). This is a warning to avoid needless danger and to carefully watch over our health. Inflicting any kind of physical damage on oneself (like excessive cigarette smoking) is forbidden. The Rambam explains: “Having a whole and healthy body is part and parcel of serving G-d, for it is impossible to have understanding and wisdom in the matter of knowing the Creator if a man is ill. Therefore one must avoid things which damage the body and to habituate oneself with things promoting health” (Laws of De’ot, 4:1).
In his book “Orot HaT’shuva,” Rabbi Kook emphasizes that t’shuva is bound up with personal strength and valor. Man was created to be a strong, active creature. This is true not only for athletes, but for spiritually enlightened people as well. The holy men of the Torah possessed not only great personal attributes and wisdom, but also great physical prowess. Though Yaacov spent all of his youth studying Torah, he could lift up a huge boulder when needed. The young shepherd, David, was able to overcome lions and bears, and the giant warrior Goliath. The holy spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) which marked Samson’s life was an incredible physical brawn.
A person who is overweight and easily tired may lack the energy to perform the commandments with the proper enthusiasm, or he may feel too weak to resist bodily temptations. His fatigue may interfere with his Torah learning and prayer. In G-d’s service, a strong body and a strong mind go hand-in-hand.
Rabbi Kook explains that a weakening of the will to keep the Torah in all of its fullness is often due to a lack of physical energy and strength. When a person’s willpower is weak, he can fall into many bad habits and sin. As part of his overall mending, he must improve his physical health, as well as his moral and spiritual worlds.
Interestingly, Rabbi Kook was condemned by certain ultra-Orthodox groups who belonged to the Old Settlement in Jerusalem when he extolled the virtues of exercise and a healthy physique. In his classic work, “Orot,” Rabbi Kook writes that the exercise of young Jews in Eretz Yisrael, in order to strengthen their bodies to become mighty sons to the nation, adds overall strength to the Jewish people (“Orot,” Orot HaTechiyah, pg. 80).
The ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem vehemently attacked Rabbi Kook for this enlightened outlook. They were afraid that any praise of the secular Zionist pioneers could lead to a crumbling of barriers between the holy and the profane. Their negative attitude toward physical strength evolved from the miserable state of the Jew in the ghetto. In the Galut, Diaspora Jews were helpless against the oppression of the gentiles. A distorted philosophy developed whereby a Jew was supposed to look solely to G-d for salvation and rescue. The Jews were so outnumbered, how could they fight? Physical prowess was meaningless. The Diaspora Jew had to rely solely on Torah and prayer. While that might have been true in the exile, with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, physical strength became a necessity if the Jews were to successfully dry up the swamps, settle the land, and defend Jewish settlements against hordes of hostile neighbors.
In the generation of national revival, as the Jewish nation returns to its homeland in Israel, a new type of religious Jew must appear to take up the challenge. Rabbi Kook writes in “Orot”:
“Our physical demand is great. We need a healthy body. Through our intense preoccupation with spirituality, we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected bodily health and strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than our holy spirit. We abandoned practical life, and negated our physical senses, and that which is connected to the tangible physical reality, out of a fallen fear, due to a lack of faith in the holiness of the Land....” (Ibid).
In fact, Rabbi Kook emphasizes, it is the revival of the nation’s physical strength which brings about a renewed spiritual strengthening.
“All of our t’shuva will only succeed if it will be, along with its spiritual splendor, also a physical t’shuva which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, firm, mighty bodies, and a flaming spirit spreading over powerful muscles. Through the power of the sanctified flesh, the weakened soul will shine forth — like the dead’s physical resurrection.”
Jews, religious or not religious, are not to be “nebechs” or weaklings whom everyone can push around. We must be strong to learn Gemara, and strong to build the Land.