Deuteronomy Take Care of Yourself
Parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)
So take care of your soul, my friend, she is far more precious than gold.
Every evening for months and months now, I have started my 19-month-old’s bedtime songs with these words. They are from Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld’s interpretation of a 16th-century North African piyut (a Jewish liturgical poem) and to me they call on each of us to honor and protect the preciousness and brilliance of every human being—each of us a soul whose “light is like seven mornings in one.”
This charge to tend to our own souls, to our own well-being, in its deepest sense is one way of hearing the halakha (Jewish law) that obligates us to shmirat hanefesh—a principle that traces its origins to this week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11).
With so many dos and don’ts, so many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” Va’etchanan, is really a “Greatest Hits” of the Torah’s ideas about how we ought to be living our lives. It’s got the actual Ten Commandments in a “remixed” version, which differs from how they appear in the book of Exodus. It includes the Shema with its declaration of God’s Oneness and the rousing commandment to “love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” And it doesn’t hesitate to also go into detailed instructions about how to perpetuate this love: “teach these words to your children, speak of them in your home and on your way, when you lie down and when you rise up . . . . ”
Tucked away in Moses’ pre-Ten Commandments exhortation to the people are the words that are used to teach the principle of shmirat hanefesh: “v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotehem” (“be very careful for your own sake” or “take very good care of yourselves,” from Deuteronomy 4:15).
Shmirat hanefesh is usually seen as an obligation to avoid unnecessary risks to our own health and safety. Of course, ideas about what constitutes an avoidable risk change over time as our understanding of the world itself changes. In the Talmud, for example, there are a number of risks that are easily understandable in our day, but there are also warnings against, for example, blood-letting on cloudy days or on days when the wind is blowing from the south.
Jewish law has also been mindful of weighing the risks of certain behaviors—such as hunting for wild animals, versus the need of people to earn a living. If hunting wild animals is how you feed your family, then the obligation of shmirat hanefesh does not apply to you around this activity. The risk is still there, but avoiding it would cause too much damage in another area of your life.
In more modern times, shmirat hanefesh has been the principle used to debate whether smoking cigarettes should be forbidden under Jewish law. And in these times of COVID, shmirat hanefesh has been used to infuse the practice of wearing a face mask with religious and spiritual meaning.
I first encountered the concept of shmirat hanefesh when it was used, or rather misused, by “concern trolls.” In response to calls of mine to grant equal respect, dignity, and rights to people regardless of their size, I’ve received messages, emails, and comments on social media asking how I, as a rabbi who is a fat activist, plan to address shmirat hanefesh. Here were folks who want to further stigmatize fat people by feigning concern for our health—an all too familiar “concern” to any fat person—but this time they were dressing it up in halakha.
This raised a number of genuinely interesting questions for me, such as: Does it make sense to think of fatness as an avoidable risk that an individual is taking given what we know about the failure rates of attempts at intentional weight loss? Does shmirat hanefesh apply to physical health over and above mental and spiritual health? And who, in each generation, gets to decide what risks shmirat hanefesh applies to?
Beyond these questions, the messages people were sending me also sent me back to the origins of shmirat hanefesh itself, those three words at the beginning of a verse in Deuteronomy (4:15). Look what happens when we read verse in its entirety as well as the verse that follows: “Take very good care—since you saw no shape when Adonai your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman.”
The words that are used to bolster the idea of shmirat hanefesh are actually plucked from a verse about idolatry; they are specifically warning against the temptation to worship “the form of a man or a woman.”
Such irony! What a retort from the text itself!
The people who were using shmirat hanefesh to concern troll me were, to my way of thinking, engaged in the very act that the verse is warning against. By taking an overly narrow view of what our bodies ought to look like (at any cost) and then elevating that ideal to something that our society basically worships, they were, dare I say it, engaging in the very idolatry that the verse warns against!
Rather than ceding the concept of shmirat hanefesh to the concern trolls, I want us to re-expand our sense of what taking care of ourselves might really mean: our mental health as well as our physical health; our soul’s well-being as well as our body’s; a warning against taking unnecessary risk, yes, but with an understanding that no single risk we take is isolated from the rest of our lives as a whole.
Rather than using it as a tool for reinforcing stigma, I want a shmirat hanefesh that resonates with the kind of soul-care in Rabbi Anisfeld’s song. I want a shmirat hanefesh that starts from the premise that the ability to serve God with joy requires us to be deeply good to ourselves.
Rabbi Minna Bromberg `10 is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Israel. She was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and received her PhD in sociology from Northwestern University. She is the President and Founder of Fat Torah, an organization dedicated to smashing the idolatry of weight stigma and fostering belonging for every body.