This week’s Torah reading draws a strong connection between our spiritual lives and our physical lives. In B’hukkotai, God promises the people that if they follow the path laid out in the Torah, it will lead to physical goodness in the form of rain, abundant produce and security from war. However, God also promises the people that turning away from the divine path will lead to equally physical and negative consequences, including illness, famine and loss of security.
On the one hand, we often look askance at this type of theology. Does God really physically punish us and the earth for our sins? Don’t we know of many cases in which people seem to prosper despite their sins? On the other hand, we are increasingly aware of the many connections between the physical and spiritual sides of a human being.
Studies show that a person with a healthy spiritual life is much more likely to enjoy physical health, and it has become a truism of medical science that mental and physical states influence each other significantly. In this light, perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us ancient wisdom that we are only now beginning to appreciate anew.
The ancient rabbis did many things to try to drive this connection between the spiritual and the physical home for us. One example comes at the end of the long list of bad things that will happen to those who sin. The Torah gives reason for hope, because eventually, the people will turn back to God. When that happens, says God, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac, and I will remember My covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land” [Leviticus 26:42].
The rabbis took this promise of ultimate redemption from physical privation and transformed it into a promise of spiritual redemption by making it a key part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, the day on which we focus on the spiritual aspect of our lives. The ancients knew of no gulf between the spirit and the body. Instead, they tried to get us to turn our whole selves — spirit and body together — toward a holy path.
A second example of this rabbinic emphasis comes in the haftarah for this week from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is speaking of the spiritual deprivation of the people and urging them to turn back to God. The haftarah ends with a plea to God for help in this task: “Heal me, O Lord, and let me be healed; save me, and let me be saved; for You are my glory.”
The ancient rabbis were so impressed by the force of this prophetic plea that they incorporated its words into the central Jewish prayer, the weekday Amidah, but they made a crucial change. They took this prayer for spiritual renewal and made its words the opening of the prayer for physical healing!
When we have pain in our bodies, we look for physical causes and seek out a doctor. When we have pain in our hearts and souls, we look for spiritual causes and seek out, perhaps, rabbis or counselors to help. But the ancient teachings of Jewish tradition are pushing us to look further. We need to consider both body and soul, both the physical and the spiritual, if we are to move toward true healing for ourselves and our world.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org .