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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת בשלח, תשפ״א

Parshat B'shalah, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 30th, 2021

Judaism and Wellness

A few weeks ago, a woman walked into Agudath Achim, asking for a kosher cookbook. When I asked why, she explained that in the new year, she wanted to eat healthier! While I helped her find some books, I couldn’t help but think about a litany of unhealthy kosher foods - brownies, donuts, French fries, noodle kugel, and nachos. A kosher diet does not necessarily equate to a balanced diet. And yet, as I continued to reflect, I realized that the mindfulness needed to keep kosher can lead to greater physical and mental health. When we check labels for ingredients and when we ask the servers at restaurants about their preparation techniques, we slow ourselves down enough to make healthy choices. We ask ourselves not just what do I want to eat right now, but what defines food that is sacred enough to sustain me? When we integrate food blessings into our eating practice, we remind ourselves of the contents of our food - borei p’ri ha-adamah for vegetables, borei p’ri ha-etz for fruits, and she-hakol for either animal products or items we can’t quite identify. If we can’t pronounce most of the ingredients present on our labels, if we don’t know what blessings to say, is that food really worthy of entering our body? Our lengthy after blessings force us to stay at the table and identify how our body feels after the food we eat. And of course, kashrut is not the only Jewish practice that can lead to greater wellness.

We learn shortly after the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land that as long as we keep God’s mitzvot, כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצרים לא אשים עליך כי אני ה׳ רפאך - “Regarding all of the illness that I placed throughout Egypt, I will not place it onto you, for I am Adonai your healer” (Exodus 15:26). When a person takes the first steps to practice mindfulness and to embrace the good, she earns access to God’s healing powers. Note, here, that God is not asking simply for belief or faith in exchange for that healing, but rather, God is asking for direct practice.

So many of our mitzvot demand attention to our wellbeing. For those who daven three times a day, we spend a whole lot of time with our bodies, standing, sitting, and bowing. We spend a lot of time with our inner selves as we talk to God about topics ranging from wisdom to finances to guilt to peace. Through our davening, we have the chance to identify our ease of breath, the level of challenge we face in moving our joints, and the emotions coursing through our veins at any particular moment in the day. We have a regular chance to check in - to ask ourselves what we need, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Because so many of our prayers require a minyan, a group of ten people, we often find ourselves in Jewish community. In the past year, we have learned how important it is to check up on one another, and our Judaism helps contribute to our keeping tabs on one another. We form bonds in this community partly so that we can surround ourselves with people who will let us know when we are acting unsafely, who will notice when we need some measure of support. And of course, we have our synagogue and Jewish Federation structures to help provide that assistance, whether in the form of driving individuals to medical appointments or providing funds towards care.

Once a week, every week, we have the chance to experience a halakhic form of Shabbat, refraining from driving for twenty-five hours. While it would be a whole lot easier if Shreveport had sidewalks in more places or if our synagogues were closer to where most people live, we can take this time to find those paths around our homes and take to walking or running. We can take this day to step aside from buying and selling and working to pay attention to what our bodies need right now.

God and this Jewish tradition can be our healers, but only if we make the effort to bring them into our lives. As the Israelites are about to cross the Sea of Reeds they cry out to God, and God proclaims, מה תצעק עלי - What are you doing crying to me?, as if to say, get out there, and start your healing process. Once you show me you’re ready by walking into those waters, then I will split the sea for you.

No, God does not always enact medical miracles. We were created with fragile bodies. However, even in those instances when we’re not in our ideal physical shape, our access to mitzvot and the Jewish community give us the tools to find emotional strength and to lend that strength to others. May we commit ourselves to God and the Jewish community through our daily mitzvot so that we can both be strong for those who need and gain the wisdom, understanding, and relationships to find our way through when we are in need.

עזי וזמרת יה, ויהי לי לישועה

God, you are and may you continue to be my song, my strength, and my salvation. Shabbat Shalom.