Parshas Pinchas (5771)
By Rabbi David Zauderer (Zee)
There’s a phrase my wife and I have been hearing a lot lately – especially during her latest pregnancy up until our son was born (yes, we did have a baby this week, in case you were wondering). When talking about newborn babies, we’ll often hear people say: “as long as it’s healthy”.
My former fitness trainer – an Israeli bodybuilder named Robi – used to always tell me in Hebrew: “Ha’ikar hi ha’briut – the most important thing is your health”.
There is even an old Yiddish expression that many Jews are fond of saying - Abi gezunt – which basically means, "Don't worry so much about a problem, whatever it is. You've still got your health and that’s the most important thing"
I am here to tell you, however, that according to our Torah and the traditional Jewish worldview, health is not the most important thing. Rather, it’s what you do with your health that is the most important thing. I always like to use the example of the famous American actor Christopher Reeve. He achieved his initial stardom for his acting achievements, including his notable motion picture portrayal in 1978 of the comic book superhero Superman.
Yet he became a true superhero after he fell from a horse he was riding in 1995 and became a quadriplegic. After that accident, he became an major activist for spinal cord research, and spent the rest of his life (until he died in 2004) using his name and fame to create awareness and to lobby for ways to help those who were confined to wheelchairs with spinal cord injuries like he was.
Among his many accomplishments after his injury, he co-founded the Reeve-Irvine Research Center, which is now one of the leading spinal cord research centers in the world. He also created the Christopher Reeve Foundation to speed up research through funding, and to use grants to improve the quality of the lives of people with disabilities. The Foundation to date has given more than $65 million for research, and more than $8.5 million in quality-of-life grants.
I think it is fair to say that Christopher Reeve – great actor that he was - did far more good for the world after his accident than before. Like I said, it’s not your health that is the most important thing – it’s what you do with it. And some people – like Christopher Reeve – accomplish more good in their lifetimes without having good health than others do who are completely healthy.
Don’t get me wrong …. I am not saying you shouldn’t care about your health, G-d forbid. Of course, we need to eat right, exercise daily, and stay away from unhealthy and dangerous activities. There is even a mitzvah in the Torah that commands us to be healthy – “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoseichem” – see Deuteronomy 4:15 and Talmud Berachos 32b.
What I am saying is that good health needs to be viewed in the greater context of our purpose here on earth. You see, in the Torah worldview, life isn’t just some kind of contest – whoever can stay healthy and live the longest wins. That only works if this physical world is all there is, in which case, the healthier a person is, the more he can partake of all the physical pleasures this world has to offer.
According to Jewish belief, however, this world is not the end – there is an Afterlife, the “World to Come”, where our souls go to enjoy their eternal reward – and in that world, they don’t measure your biceps, put you on a scale, or ask you how many times a week you went to the gym. There they want to know how much you did for others, how many people who suffered from spinal cord injuries did you help, how much charity you dispensed, etc.
This powerful idea – that mere physical health is not the “be all and end all” of life but rather it is how we spend our lives, the mitzvos and good deeds that we do, that is most important in the greater scheme of things – is reflected in a Midrash in this week’s Torah portion:
“Rabbi Shimon said: How do we know that one who causes a man to sin is even worse than one who kills him? For one who kills a person only removes him from this world but he still has a portion in the World to Come, whereas one who causes him to transgress ‘kills’ him both in this world and the World to Come. Two nations advanced against Israel with the sword, and two with transgression. The Egyptians and the Edomites advanced against them with the sword, as is proven by the texts: “The enemy declared, I will pursue, I will overtake ... I will unsheathe my sword …” (Exodus 15: 9); “The king of Edom said to him, ‘You shall not pass through me - lest I come out against you with the sword” (Numbers 20:18). Two advanced against them with transgression, namely the Moabites and the Ammonites [who used their women to entice the Jewish men to debauchery and idol worship]. Of those who had advanced against them with the sword it is written, "You shall not reject an Edomite ... You shall not reject an Egyptian …" (Deuteronomy 23:8). Of those, however, who had advanced against them with transgression, endeavoring to make Israel sin, it says, "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the congregation of G-d, even their tenth generation shall not enter the congregation of G-d, to eternity" (ibid. v. 4)” (Midrash Tanchuma Parshas Pinchas #3).
What this Midrash is telling us is quite shocking – that it is far worse to ‘corrupt’ someone and cause him to sin than to kill him!
Yet it reflects an age-old Torah truth – that a person’s true worth (as well as his station in the eternity that is the World to Come) is not measured by how many years he lived or how many pounds he lost on South Beach but by how much good he accomplished while living in this world. And a person who did great things for others, even if he became a quadriplegic or died young, is far greater and more beloved to G-d than someone who lived a long and healthy - but empty or corrupt - life.
This will help to explain a strange verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes (7:1) which states: “A good name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of birth”. Remember that this was written by King Solomon, the “wisest of all men”, so there must be some very deep wisdom here from which we can learn. So what could King Solomon possibly mean when he writes that the day of death is better than the day of birth?
The answer is that on the day of a baby’s birth, as joyous an occasion that it is, there is still a big question mark next to his name. Physical life, in of itself, is not a cause for total celebration, since we have yet to see what the baby will do with that life. It is only after the day of his death – when we can look back and see all the mitzvos and accomplishments he actually achieved – that we can truly celebrate his life.
My hope and blessing for our newborn baby – whose Bris Milah (circumcision) will be this Sunday, G-d willing - is that he should live a long and healthy and mitzvah-filled life - and should give us true Yiddishe nachas and make us all proud!