Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775 Sermon

The Shalom of Health and Wellbeing

Erev RH 5775

Rabbi Todd Chizner


As this is the New Year, I will begin with a question about the upcoming year. What would you like to receive in the upcoming year?

Now – “How would I feel if I get what I want?”

You’d probably you feel pretty good.  Right?

Whether the item on your list is a thing, such as money or a new car, or if it’s not so tangible, such as better relationships with the ones we love or health for ourselves or for someone we love, most likely if you received any one of the things on your own list, it would make you feel happier; otherwise it would not have been on your list.  In fact, all the things that we want, that we really want , have the ultimate purpose of bringing us some positive feeling–either security, joy, happiness, or contentment.

So, it’s not really the thing that we want.  What we want are the feelings.  The feelings of overall well-being.

I would call this yearning a desire for shalom. Shalom doesn’t just mean peace, it also means wellbeing.

I believe that everyone wants Shalom, and more importantly every one of us needs more of it in our lives.

I never realized this as clearly as I have in the last year and a half.  About a year and a half ago, I had major surgery to remove a tumor in my pancreas.  I am disease free.  However, this past year and a half has been a time of stress and discomfort for me.  Blood tests, scans, waiting for results, worrying while I was waiting for results , not feeling like myself.  Then just a few months ago in June I had reparative surgery, not for disease, thank God, but to repair something from the major surgery I had.  I was led to believe that I would be allowed to go home the same day, but I ended up staying for three long days.  In those extra two days,I lost my calm and composed demeanor.  I became quite frustrated.  Frustrated at the whole situation.  It was as if the whole year and a half hit me at once.  As I lay there in the hospital, fed up, I had an epiphany. I AM SICK OF BEING SICK – I WANT WELL-BEING IN MY LIFE.  I found myself repeating that saying over and over again.  I want well-being in my life.  That’s all I want.  Still, as I thought about that idea, I realized that wellbeing is not just emotional, it is largely dependent on our physical. It is so hard to have emotional and spiritual wellbeing when we are in pain or discomfort.

My grandma was right: As long as you have your health, you have everything, or at least you can have everything.  Health is not only a component to having everything, it is the foundation.

Think about the times when you have been ill. It’s really difficult to be as productive as when you are healthy. If you’ve ever been in pain, you know you it’s almost impossible to think about almost anything else.  Or, when your mind is filled with worry and anxiety about a medical issue or someone else’s health, it’s nearly impossible to focus on things such as learning or studying.  Without our physical health it’s very difficult to pursue more spiritual matters.

When I got out of the hospital in June,  I took the motivation from my epiphany and decided I would work on my physical health.  As you might imagine, I went online to look up the most up-to-date methods for improving one’s physical health.  I found a lot.  Juicing and blending, low carb diets to 500 calorie a day diets, 25 minute exercise routines to dancing your way to health.  Cross-fit training to cross country running.  But, all of it seemed a bit too radical for me.

So I decided to take an approach that I was more comfortable with–something a bit more rabbinic.  So, I began doing research into Jewish wisdom on how to care for the human body.

I was shocked. There is next to nothing in the compendium in the 3000’s of years of Jewish wisdom on physical health.  There are only a few verses in the Torah that show specific mention of care for our physical health and in the places that we would expect the Torah to say something about how to take care of our bodies it doesn’t. For example, a verse from Deuteronomy commands us to take special care of our lives.  This would have been the perfect place for the early rabbis to talk about our diet and exercise.  However, they clearly saw this as applying to caring for the soul and our moral lives,  but not our bodies.

Possibly, if you asked the ancient rabbis why they didn’t see caring for our life as caring for the body, they would have thought that was a pagan concept.  The pagans of their day built statues in honor of the physical form and worshipped the human body.

So, nothing developed within Jewish law and practice that focused on taking care of our bodies.  Then, in the 12 century, a daring rabbi named Maimonides, who was also a physician, saw the need to care for the body.  In fact, he gave a different explanation of the Torah verse I mentioned a moment ago.  He wrote, “The law of caring for our lives aims at two things, the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body. He went on to say that as between these two aims one is greater in nobility– namely the welfare of the soul. But, he stressed, one must work to perfect the body first.  He wrote, “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore , one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Hilchot De’ot 4:1).

Maimonides was no doubt a health nut.  Did Maimonides come up with a workout routine or diet plan?  Probably.   But unfortunately, we don’t have any record of it.

So, as far as I know there is no official Jewish wisdom on how to care for our bodies.

I decided that I wasn’t going to let the lack of Jewish knowledge on the subject of physical health stop me.  I want it and I need it.  I decided to develop my own Jewish diet and exercise plan.

First, let me say that we have to revise the Jewish menu.

We invented such coronary-clogging delicacies as schmaltz, which is clarified chicken fat used in many Jewish dishes.  We invented kishka/ stuffed derma, beef fat mixed with flour and seasoning which is then stuffed into an intestine casing.  And, how about gribenus, which is crispy rendered chicken fat.

Maybe you don’t eat those things but how about how we have devised ways to use cream cheese and sour cream: in sweet kugels, in cakes, on bagels?

I’m not suggesting that we need to get rid of it all, but we need healthy Jewish food and some vegetables.  What is a Jewish vegetable?  Is there such a thing?  Oh yes, parsley!  Once a year at the seder.

((Take out green Smoothie and hold it up))

I have been drinking smoothies like this every day for nearly 4 months. Using my super high speed blender, I mix enzyme and vitamin rich greens such kale, spinach or parsley with anti-oxidant bursting berries, omega three filled nuts and probiotic yogurt.  I throw into the smoothies foods that I have never heard of before: chia seeds, flax seeds, coconut meat, and gogi berries.

This is the new Jewish food as far as I am concerned.  After all, I always make it under strict rabbinic supervision, which means I make it myself.  I am proud to say that in the process of drinking this every day for breakfast, I have cut out wasteful breads and sugars from my diet. I have lost several pounds.  I feel great. My digestion is better than it’s been in years, and my mind is sharp.

We all can improve our nutrition . I want to share with you what I have learned about good nutrition, and I want to learn from you too how you are maximizing your diet.

I have also begun to add more exercise to my life, but in this area I definitely need your wisdom and your encouragement.  Many of you are very disciplined and knowledgeable in this area of physical health. Ideally, I would love for us to create a new group in our temple and call it “Running with the Rabbi”, although for right now, we would need to call the group “Walking with Rabbi” (I’m not up to the running part yet).

We could meet on Sunday mornings, have a smoothie, share recipes, then go out for a jog. I would then love for us to create a Temple Judea team where we could run in a race together, or bike together , raise money for the temple, get healthy in the process, feel great.  Sounds like fun.

I realize as I say this that this would be very self-serving.  It sounds like I am suggesting that that you help me to use the temple for my own benefit.  I’m ok with that.

Remember, what we all want most in life is Shalom and well-being.  And, I look to the temple and the temple community as a source of Shalom in my life.  I hope you know that the temple is here for each of us to add joy to our lives in all ways.

I also want to let you know that a new yoga class is in the works here at the temple . One of our members is a yoga instructor who has generously offered to teach classes.  I do not know when that will start but you will find out.

Also, several of our groups have speakers coming in this year who will be speaking on health-related subjects.  Look out for it in the mail.

As far as the other areas of Shalom in our lives–the spiritual ones–shalom of the mind, of the soul, of our synagogue community, and of Israel, I plan on addressing these during my other sermons on the highholidays.  Because we need more shalom in our lives…

But first, we need to focus on our health.

As we begin this holiday season, think about all the things you want in this upcoming year. The things we really want in life are not the objects themselves; they boil down to happiness, peace, joy and contentment, captured by the Hebrew word Shalom.

May we work on making our bodies strong in order perform all the work of Shalom we can.  Shana Tovah.