What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?

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physical-healthPractical Highlights of Derashot haRan, Number 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?

We live in a world of limited resources. More, we take for granted that it must be that way. The last piece of Ran’s first derashah shows he disagreed, that in his view, we started in a Garden of infinite potential, and that the way back to that state does not lie in new ways of growing food or methods of using water more efficiently.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

He starts with three far-reaching assumptions, none revolutionary on their own, but in his hands they point to a possible different direction in which to invest our energies. Like many of his time, Ran assumes humans are composites of angelic and animalistic components. Second, the more we actualize our angelic (or spiritual) side, the easier sustaining our physical becomes. Third, humanity’s purpose is to be involved in that spiritual side, not the physical; in his view, we were supposed to be spending our time studying and coming to understand ultimate truths.

Paying attention to our physical health is a two-edged sword

The Garden of Eden, in his reading, was a place where the climate was as healthful as possible, where food and sustenance were available effortlessly. That alone would not lead to eternal life, but it would create an atmosphere in which the physical side of life would need almost no tending. Moshe Rabbenu’s and Eliyahu’s living for forty days without eating were demonstrations of a natural truth, that fully developed people need less physical sustenance.

Opting for the Physical

When Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge, it’s common to understand that she ran afoul of Hashem’s threat of death for sinning that way. Ran objects. If death was the punishment, Hashem wouldn’t additionally punish Adam and Chava after they commit the sin. Ran sees Hashem’s mention of death for eating of the Tree as informational, alerting them to the natural consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree.

How so? The Tree’s fruit, whatever they were, promoted the best possible physical health. That sounds like a way to avoid death, but it worked by focusing on the physical, and that always ends in death. Adam and Chava, pre-Tree, lived an existence ruled over and guided by their spiritual involvements; yes, they needed some food and the right climate, but all that was subordinated to their spiritual and intellectual pursuits. Eating from the tree focused them on the physical, switching humanity to a framework where death can be delayed but not avoided.

Paying attention to our physical health is a two-edged sword, in Ran’s view. Since few of us are at the spiritual level to survive forty days without food or drink, we need to care for ourselves. Yet caring too much, working too hard on improving that, leads to an overemphasis, necessarily ending in decline and death. Chava’s mistake was thinking that something nutritious and physically beneficial could not be harmful. In fact, her focus on the physical exactly led to her death.

So, too, the change in childbirth was also a result of her body and spirit falling out of balance with each other. Once she turned excessively to the physical, the rest changed as well.

Putting this Story First

Rather than being there to explain our absence from the Garden, Ran says that this story comes so early in the Torah to establish the continuing role of Hashem’s Will in the world, to remind us that our spiritual/religious side both serves Hashem and furthers our physical health and survival. Obviously, the question of how much and how directly Hashem is involved in the world is a complex one, and I don’t pretend Ran’s view is the only one, but it is the one we’re studying here.

Do those Jews who are blessed with the resources to replicate much of that Garden experience use their blessings to focus their own lives on the spiritual?

Other religions (Ran likely means both Christianity and Islam) promised reward only after death, when the soul was separated from the body. That focus on the afterlife left no way to test their claims in this world. In contrast, our Torah—which bases its claim to our allegiance on the Exodus, an event that proved for all time that God was connected with us—shows ways in which following the Torah has real world affects other religions cannot demonstrate.

That, for Ran, is the meaning of Devarim (4:6-7), which speaks of the Torah as being the proof our wisdom and insight to the other nations. Rambam took that to be because the Torah is so rational that other nations see it, understand it, and therefore admire it. Ran goes in the opposite direction. He says that if all the Torah did was dish out commonsense advice, people might like it, but they’d have no reason to be impressed with it, or to realize that it is God given.

The Wisdom of Obeying Chukkim

If, however, the Torah gives odd or nonintuitive laws—chukkim, the focus of the verses—laws that have no obvious connection to our physical well-being and yet do impact it, then the nations will truly see how our Torah opens a window on an unseen world that nevertheless deeply impacts the physical one.

Ran had to realize his claim was mostly theoretical, at least in the world he and we live in. It is rare to have a community or even individuals who fulfill the Torah so fully they are guaranteed good outcomes, such that people would connect their welfare to their observance of the Torah. Nor does Ran invoke events of his day; he points to Na’aman, the Aramean general, coming to Elisha for help with his tzara’at.

Na’aman was incensed when Elisha told him to dip in the Jordan seven times. He had expected the prophet to come greet him, pray to God, wave his hands and miraculously heal his lesions. Ran notes that had Elisha done that, Na’aman wouldn’t have changed; he’d have been impressed, but it would have been an act that matched his expectations, and he was an idolater. It was healing Na’aman unexpectedly, in a way Na’aman couldn’t explain, that proved God’s role.

Practical Import for Us?

Ran’s assumption about the relative importance of the spiritual and the physical isn’t unusual among medieval Jewish thinkers, but it raises the question of whether we agree. If we don’t, do we have sources to suggest an alternate balance of the physical and spiritual in a well-lived Jewish life?

By spiritual, let me add, I do not mean only Torah study. Ran would have agreed that keeping the mitzvot, building a life focused on doing kindnesses to others, understanding Hashem’s world in order to better understand what Hashem wants out of it, and so on, all qualify for what I’ve been terming spiritual. To what extent do we, as Jews, live our lives that way?

Ask it another way: If the Garden offered a climate and easy sustenance to allow us to focus on the spiritual, do those Jews who are blessed with the resources to replicate much of that Garden experience use their blessings to focus their own lives on the spiritual? For example: there are Jews today who, at relatively young ages, have enough money to live the rest of their lives in comfort. Do they shift their focus to more spiritual endeavors?

Some do, for sure, but Ran’s implicit challenge stands.

The second piece of Ran’s presentation is at greater odds with contemporary assumptions. He is arguing that our spiritual reality affects our physical reality, for individuals as well as nations. Moshe and Eliyahu reached a spiritual state where forty days without food was natural. Do we accept that possibility? If not, how do we understand the interplay between our spiritual state and our physical existence?

Lest some readers say that Ran is only one view, let me note that in Guide (III:17), Rambam, the rationalist in the history of Jewish thought, states that the righteous earn more Divine Providence than the rest of us. Even for him, the spiritual affects the physical.

So Ran is reminding us that the earliest stories of the Torah call our attention to fundamental questions about the world. His view was clear: in our composite world, the spiritual has practical implications, and the more we can cultivate that side of ourselves, the more fortunate we will be, the more that world will yield its greatest bounty to us. What do we think?

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. The Ran here must hold that punishment is something other than the direct effect of sin. Otherwise, saying that death was a consequence of eating the fruit IS an assertion that it is itself the punishment, and wouldn’t explain why additional punishment was warranted.

    But, in derush #10 the Ran says that sin fouls the soul and blocks its ability to receive Divine Good, thereby sin causes punishment. (See also his talmid’s talmid who appears to take the same position in Iqarim 4:13.)

    In other words, I’m wondering how to make peace between this derush and this quote from #10:

    נצטרך לומר, כי העונשים ההם ענין טבעי, משיגים לנפש מצד עצמותה כאשר הרבתה אשמה בעולם הזה. כי כאשר אי אפשר שיכרית איש עצב אחד מעצביו ולא יכאב, כן אי אפשר שאיון ממנו ימרוד בהש”י וימות במרדו ולא ישיגנו העונש ההוא, זהו הנראה בעונשי העולם הבא הנצחיים. אבל בעונשים הזמניים, כאותם שהזכירו רז”ל יורדין לגיהנם ומצפצפין ועולין, או יורדים לגיהנם ונדונים שם י”ב חודש, נראה שיתקבצו שני דברים. האחד, שיהיה דבר טבעי לנפש [היינו פועל יוצא של מעשיה זו פגיעה וענישה עצמית] על הדרך שכתבנו, והשני, שאותו הצער יביא הנפש לתכלית טוב, שתזכך שם, כדי שתוכל להיות נהנית מזיו השכינה.

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