L'Chaim!- A Jewish View of Health and Healing
By Amy Hirshberg Lederman
When my husband, Ray, was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, it came as a total shock. We were still basking in the glow of our trip to northern Italy; images of the lush Piedmont countryside and Lake Como still fresh in our minds.
Ray's voice had gotten hoarse during our travels but we were too busy exploring Florence to give it much thought. When we returned, he saw the doctor who ordered the X-ray that changed our lives forever. Within less than two weeks, we went from from drinking wine and eating truffles to waiting for CT scan results and scheduling surgeries. To say we were unprepared for the challenges that followed is an understatement. But then again, I have never met anyone who was.
We faced it like soldiers entering a war zone - determined that we would fight this battle together. But instead of guns, our weapons consisted of love, family, faith and hope which, when combined, are the most powerful arsenal I know.
From the start, we did everything we could to "tip the scale" in his favor. Ray's intuitive response was both inspiring and very Jewish: He took full responsibility for his physical, emotional and spiritual health.
He met with integrative health specialists, consulted with nutritionists, ate foods and drank sludgy concoctions rich in anti-oxidants. Regardless of how exhausted he was from chemo, he did some form of exercise every day. He tried acupuncture, listened to meditation tapes and gardened until we had more tomatoes that I knew what to do with. He spoke to a therapist when things got tough and a rabbi when he needed spiritual guidance. Most of all, he stayed connected - to the people and community he loved and with whom he could talk honestly and openly.
All of these steps were Ray's way of taking charge of his illness and responsibility for his total well-being. Instinctively, he was following the commandment in the Torah to "take utmost care (of your body) and watch your soul scrupulously."
The definition of health in Jewish tradition is inherently holistic. Concern for the person as a whole - for the body, mind, and soul is necessary in order to achieve optimum health. The very word for health in Hebrew, breeyut, is derived from the verb barah, which means "to create", implying the continuing regeneration of the body that is required to maintain good health. Medieval Jewish literature uses the word shlemut which is derived from the word shalem, or whole. Good health is an ongoing process of establishing and maintaining wholeness within us.
Jewish tradition elevates the act of taking care of ourselves into a religious duty; it is an extension of the way we acknowledge the sanctity of the life, of the physical body, that God has given us. Our job is to nurture and care for our body and soul as we would a most cherished gift. This is beautifully stated by a 13th century Jewish scholar who said: "A person must care for his body like an artisan cares for his tools for the body is the instrument through which one serves the Creator."
Over 850 years ago, Maimonides, who served as the court physician to the Sultan of Egypt (in addition to being one of the most influential Jewish sages and prolific philosophers) offered six basic rules that are on par with the best holistic health program we could follow today. His advice to us is: To maintain a balanced, healthy diet, exercise in moderation, get sufficient sleep, use the bathroom regularly, breathe clean air and moderate our emotions. Maimonides' counsel suggests that we have always understood what we need to do keep ourselves healthy. Jewish tradition elevates it to a sacred duty.
Our family's efforts thus far have had miraculous results and there isn't a single day that passes without us appreciating how precious and precarious life is. And while we can never know what our future holds, or what challenges to our health we will face, we do know that Judaism offers us a practical and positive way of responding to illness and maintaining optimal health.
from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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