By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Whether in the domains of physical health, intelligence, spiritual growth or career development, the qualities of adaptation and optimization stand at the heart of success.
In a world marked by constant flux, both within and around us, resources fluctuate, moments of crisis loom and the ability to assess data and make wise adjustments becomes paramount. It is the application of these skills, the capacity to identify the best system to apply and thrive within its confines, that can reshape the trajectory of one’s life.
Can we really eat healthily?
Recently, a close friend, someone with a keen focus on health, remarked to me: “You need to be wealthy to eat healthily these days.” Is there truth in this statement? Perhaps, but what’s the underlying reason?
One of the challenges of healthy eating and breaking bad habits often originates from a deficiency in proper education about nutrition. Many individuals regularly include sodas, Skittles, Snickers bars, Doritos, fast food, sugary cereals and other harmful products in their diets because they were never taught the fundamentals or the long-term effects of consuming junk food.
Manipulative marketing tactics through commercials, packaging, store-placement and other advertising have collectively contributed to a culture where people are confined to unhealthy eating practices. This extends even to professional athletes, whose performance depends on their physical health, yet many of them astonishingly indulge in large quantities of pizza, deep-fried foods, candy and sweetened “sports drinks” due to the cultural norms ingrained from an early age. However, they often pay the price later in life, after they retire.
Within religious communities, fervent individuals often cite the Torah’s directive to safeguard our bodies. Yet, practical guidance on optimal diets and exercise routines often remains obscure and inadequately implemented. Our traditional healing advice — much of which is rooted in the medical wisdom of Maimonides as found in Jewish law — is subject to reevaluation as our understanding of the human body, and its changing constitution, progresses through generations and scientific research. This highlights the flexibility, even in the presence of timeless mitzvahs, to adapt health advice as we continue to accumulate knowledge.
Compounding the challenge, today’s abundance of misinformation and multiple views often blurs the lines of what is truly healthy. And upon closer examination, it becomes evident that many widely promoted “nutritional facts” are often baseless and misleading. Thus, the lack of accurate knowledge extends beyond low-income families, affecting a much broader population. On the flip side, a wealth of information on diet and fitness is now available through books, podcasts, articles and more. One just needs to put in the time to find the best advice for oneself.
The bottom line is that it is imperative, now more than ever, that we invest in better nutrition education for ourselves, our children and our communities. We must also recognize the significant resources directed toward promoting unhealthy processed foods. Even if we face budget constraints, we can take meaningful steps: (1) Avoid consuming sugars, cooking with seed oils and purchasing an excess of junk foods and sodas; (2) dedicate some time to minimal research on healthier choices; and (3) prioritize better-quality, wholesome foods.
The month of Elul
Applying this to the current time in the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul has arrived, when spiritual stocktaking is primary as we prepare for the High Holidays. At some point in life, many people may give up trying to be a “better person” and settle for maintenance. However, Elul comes to remind us to keep the inner flame that fuels personal growth burning brightly.
The Torah and its commandments are often likened to nourishment for the soul. Some people are spiritually wealthy, possessing the time and mental capacity to immerse themselves in study, meditation and prayer. However, the majority have limited spiritual resources at their disposal. They may be able to allocate only an hour or two a day for study or contemplation, as the rest of their time is consumed by the demands of earning a livelihood, nurturing their families or, at times, succumbing to distractions that hinder the soul’s health.
But regardless of the stage of life in which we find ourselves, we can adapt and optimize the quality of the time we devote to our souls, pouring our full effort and focus into those moments. Furthermore, what sets spiritual growth apart is that the sacrifices we make and the extra effort we invest, even in smaller quantities of time, can have a profound transformative effect on our lives. As the body changes incrementally, the soul that enlivens grows exponentially.
The fundamental message here is that, just as with physical health, we all have the capacity to nourish our spiritual well-being: (1) Avoid harmful behaviors (i.e. negative mitzvahs) that dampen our spirits and weaken our morale; (2) dedicate time each day to deepening our understanding of our faith; and (3) prioritize better-quality, meaningful prayer sessions and engage in positive mitzvahs to renew the connection with G-d (and our spiritual selves).
As we navigate the month of Elul, we find that the path to spiritual growth and teshuva is illuminated by three pillars: Torah study, tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity) — boosting the mind, heart and actions. Now is the opportune moment to embark on that long-awaited Torah class with a rabbi, to gift the treasure of Jewish education to our children and to go beyond our comfort level in supporting noble causes. Each day of this month is a precious opportunity. So, ask yourself: What am I doing to feed my soul?
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.Elul and health