Parshat Va’etchanan continues the first part of the farewell address delivered by Moses. He completes his review of the previous 40 years and then begins his exhortation: “And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
At least 10 times in the course of this parsha, Moses speaks of the laws, rules, and commandments that the people are to obey. The reality is that law is the natural language of Judaism. It encompasses not only contracts, torts, and criminal procedure, but every aspect of life. So it is hardly surprising that the Torah contains within it teachings about health and medicine.
Just about everyone is aware of the principle of pikuach nefesh, the importance of preserving human life, which is so highly regarded that 610 of the Torah’s 613 commandments can be — indeed, must be — violated to save a human life. And most people are also aware of the mitzva of bikur holim, the obligation to visit, pray for, and assist those who are ill.
However, I believe that most Jews are less aware of an equally important mitzva found in this week’s Torah reading: v’nishmartem m’od l’nafshoteichem, “Guard your souls/yourselves very much.” The rabbis understand this to mean that the Torah commands us to guard our health and to avoid doing anything that may be harmful.
This is not only a matter of practicality, but a profound theological statement. Our lives are a trust given to us by God. To do anything that would impair our health, shorten our lives, or cause us harm is an affront to God who gave us life.
As the Talmud often asks, Mai nafkah minah? What is the practical impact of this conclusion? The answer here:
• A Jew may not smoke.
• A Jew may not use illegal drugs.
• A Jew should drink only in moderation and never even think about drinking and driving.
• A Jew should have physical exams and screening tests (even the really unpleasant ones) as often as recommended.
• A Jew should follow doctor’s orders, even if the patient thinks he or she knows better.
A story is told about Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, a Lithuanian rabbi who later became rosh yeshiva of Mesifta Torah V’Daat in Brooklyn. He once refused to officiate at the funeral of a member of his community who had died of a serious illness. The man, who had been told by his doctor to eat on Yom Kippur for health reasons, was instructed by Rabbi Kamenetsky to follow this prescription, but chose to fast nonetheless and then died. Rabbi Kamenetsky did attend the funeral and, to discourage others from following this reckless behavior, announced that the family should not sit shiva since the man had, in effect, taken his own life.
This is strong stuff, but it’s an indication of just how important the commandment to guard our health is. After all, all human lives are precious in God’s sight. So gai gezunterhait! Go in good health!