Hillel’s Bathhouse Lesson

Image: A person in a hat lounges in a pool of water. (Free-Photos/Pixabay)

A midrash about the importance of self-care:

There it is written, “The merciful man does good to his own soul (Proverbs 11:17),” this [refers to] Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like regarding the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, as it is written, “For in the Image of G-d He made Man (Genesis 9:6),” even more so!…

Vayikra Rabbah 34:3

I love this story because the first-century sage Hillel teaches his students about taking care of themselves, and he’s very clever about it. He first intrigues his students by going on a mysterious errand after class. His students, always hoping to learn from him, ask him where he’s going. He says, “To fulfill a mitzvah!” They ask which mitzvah, and he surprises them when he says, “I’m going to the bathhouse!”

I can just imagine them saying, “C’mon, is that really a mitzvah?” And he gives them an analogy: Just as a custodian cares for the statues of kings, we care for the image of God in the form of our own bodies. The custodian is paid to do it (receives his sustenance from his job) and keeping the statue clean is a way to honor the person pictured. How much more so should we honor the Divine Image in ourselves?

Hillel was teaching that self-care is really an expression of the love of God, because we are made in the image of God. So we should keep ourselves clean, and decently fed, and exercised, and go to the doctor when we’re sick. Those things are not just “self-indulgence” – they are another way of honoring God.

Hillel lived in turbulent times in the land of Israel, and may have suspected that even harder times were ahead. By teaching his students this important lesson about caring for themselves, he was also teaching them things they needed to know if they were going to be well enough to teach their own students in the difficult years ahead.

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Who is That Person in the Mirror?

Image: Person aims a camera at a fragmented mirror. (pxhere, Public Domain)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents or my child? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who can hold that for you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Breaking With Bad News

Image: A pink rockrose from my garden. 

I am a liberal Jew, specifically a Reform Jew. That means that I give halakhah authority but not absolute, unchanging authority, or as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan once put it:

The ancient authorities are entitled to a vote but not a veto. – Mordechai Kaplan, Not So Random Thoughts, Reconstructionist Press, 1966.

For an Orthodox observer of Judaism, yamim tovim [holidays] like today are days much like Shabbat. Most melacha [categories of creative work]  are forbidden including gardening, farming, harvesting, baking, making clothing, knitting, weaving, tying, untying, and so on. Needless to say, were I an Orthodox observer I would not be tapping away on my laptop today!

My own observance of yom tov evolves as I move through life. I understand the strictures of yom tov as guidelines to separate from “ordinary days” and to offer refreshment, connection, and Torah.

Over the past month, as I worked on my own sins, one big one was bittul Torah – wasting time that could have been spent learning Torah. I had developed a rather nasty TV addiction. I’d turn on the TV in the early evening to watch the news, and then I’d watch garbage TV for hours: cooking shows and reruns, mostly.

It was a hard habit to break, and it was only on Yom Kippur that I finally got the insight that allowed me to break the spell. I was watching the news, getting upset, and then anesthetizing myself with junk TV. It was bad for my body, bad for my soul, and an utter waste of my time.

So since Yom Kippur, I have not watched TV news at 6 pm. I only get news from reliable sources (newspapers) online. And on a day like today, a yom tov, I will leave the news strictly alone. There’s nothing there I need today, nothing that can’t wait at least until the chol hamoed, the days in between. Better yet, maybe I don’t need to hear it at all.

I’m still committed to social justice work. I still write my elected officials, and advocate for good, but I don’t need to follow every scrap of the news. I subscribe to organizations that will let me know when I can be useful: the Religious Action Center and some professional rabbinical lists. I have resigned from my addiction to news and anesthesia and will use the time instead for study and exercise: Torah of the mind, Torah of the body.

I share my teshuvah with you because I know that many of you are in constant distress over the news, too. I invite you to join me in taking a break from it on Shabbat and YomTov. I invite you to notice patterns in your news consumption, and to allow yourself new patterns of news consumption if the old patterns are destructive.

For all of us, I wish energy for good in the New Year of 5776. I wish all of us joy and refreshment as we dwell in our sukkot or sit with our friends. May we rise from the holiday refreshed and renewed, ready to do what needs to be done in this world!

Jewish Self-Care for December: 12 Tips

For Jews in North America, December can a challenging month. Here are some tips for maintaining your Jewish equilibrium in the midst of Jingle Bells and Silent Nights:

DO keep Shabbat. “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” said Ahad HaAm, one of the wisest of the early Zionists. If you don’t know what he’s talking about, try tasting Shabbat for a month and see what happens in your life.

DO celebrate Chanukah. Yes, it is a minor feast, but it is a celebration of dedication to Jewishness, exactly what we need in the Christmas season.

DO make your home a sanctuary. Home can be Jewish space where other traditions don’t intrude. Read 10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home for ideas on how to do that.

DO have clear and loving  boundaries in your interfaith home. Exactly what those boundaries are is up to you and your beloved, but clear communication about them can save a lot of pain. If you are already in a place of pain about it, get a counselor to help you sort things out.

DO reach out to and support other Jews. December is a challenge for most of us. Invite people for Shabbat, or for a little Chanukah gathering. Set up a movie date for Dec 25.

DO be proactive with your children’s school. Make sure your child’s teacher knows that he or she is Jewish, and what your boundaries are on Christmas-themed activities, ideally before these things become an issue. Combine with other Jewish parents if there are any to offer to bring a Chanukah lesson to school, etc.

DON’T feel guilty that your children “don’t get Christmas.” Use these tips (especially Shabbat!) to give them the rich and sustaining tradition that is their birthright. Christmas is once a year. A strong Jewish identity is a treasure year-round and for life.

DO keep consumption under control.  This is the season for marketing and partying. Don’t overbuy, overeat, or over-consume, no matter what the culture at large is pushing you to do. If you have children and the grandparents are going overboard with presents, share A Tale of Two Grandmothers with them. 

DO give yourself permission to enjoy. Christmas isn’t our holiday, but perhaps you enjoy the decorations, or the lights, or the music. I love my neighbors’ light displays. Enjoying them as I drive by doesn’t make me a traitor to Judaism. They can enjoy the light of my menorah, too.

DON’T spend time in retail space unless it’s required. Cocoon at home. Add a new mitzvah to your life. Watch Jewish movies. Find a new Jewish blog or two. Enjoy a hobby. Exercise. Enjoy your family. If you work in retail, you have my sympathy.

DO have a reply ready for “Merry Christmas.” My favorite reply is, “I’ll take a happy Chanukah and wish YOU a Merry Christmas.” If you have a stock reply on hand, then you can deal with it “on automatic.”

DON’T take every mention of Christmas personally. A great deal of of the “Merry Christmas” we get is highly IM-personal, which is irritating, but if I got mad every time I heard it, I would have to double my blood pressure meds. Good self care sometimes means “let it go.”