Parshat Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12
This week’s Torah portion introduces the prohibition against mutilating or harming one’s body as a sign of mourning.
Our rabbis explain that we may not mutilate our bodies because they are, in fact, not ours. They are God’s body and God’s soul, which He placed within specially designed physical vessels, together to fulfill a special and unique mission on this Earth. Therefore, we are enjoined to be proactive regarding the health of our bodies.
Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, is quoted as saying, “A small hole in the body can lead to a large hole in the soul.” Indeed, even after the soul leaves the body, there is a prohibition against cremation, which is truly a desecration of the body. “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” via burial is a sacred principal in our Torah.
The Torah portion also contains the prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees, defined in the Talmud as bal tashchit, an instruction not to be wasteful or destructive in any area of life. Both prohibitions convey the same message. Be it a human being or animal, an object or the environment around us, all are God’s creations and must be treated with respect and utilized properly, not wastefully.
With the knowledge that we have today about the effects of smoking and drugs on the body, many halachic authorities consider these to be proscribed by Torah. Recreational marijuana has recently become a big issue. Although there are those who claim there is no detriment in recreational marijuana, many experts claim otherwise. Because safeguarding the body is a Torah obligation, when in doubt, it is wise to err on the side of caution. (I do not refer at all to medical marijuana used to alleviate serious pain.)
We also know that excessive consumption of alcohol wreaks havoc on the body. Thus, excessive alcohol consumption would also fall under this prohibition. As far as moderate intake of alcohol — which according to many medical studies is actually beneficial — Jewish law allows for it; and, in fact, wine is mandated as part of many Jewish observances, such as Kiddush, Havdalah, and the bris and marriage ceremonies. Of course, people with alcohol addiction issues can and must use grape juice as a substitute for wine to fulfill these obligations.
Now, as we approach and prepare for the upcoming new year, is the time to focus on maintaining a healthy body and a healthy soul, as prescribed by Torah. In this merit may we all be blessed with a good and sweet year, physically, materially and spiritually.
Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg is a rabbi at Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield.