What would it take for us to stop what we are doing?
Eikev, the name of this Sidra means: since or because, but it also means heel, the part of our bodies that connects us to earth, the component upon which everything else stands. Tonight, originally, I wanted to talk about foundational – core values as a general concept. However “eikev” because of one of those core values, I realized that I needed to shift the focus of our conversation for this time.
So, let me ask you again, what would it take for us to stop what we are doing?What would it take for us to deviate from something that is really important to us?
Pikuach Nefesh, Judaism has a very straight forward answer to this question! Pikuach Nefesh is the commandment to preserve life. Allow me to contextualize this and say that in the Rabbinical tradition the public observance of Shabbat is one of the pillars of the social contract. Nonetheless the Rabbis clearly articulate: “Behold, you have learned that a risk to life takes precedence over the Sabbath”. (Tosefta Shabbat 16:13)
Pikuach nefesh is the Jewish antithesis to the idea that “The Show Must Go On”!
In our last Torah portion we read: Deuteronomy 4:9רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד But take utmost care and watch yourselves exceedingly.
Explains the “Kli Yakar” (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz 1550-1619):Look out for yourself and guard your life exceedingly. “Guard yourself” means look after your physical body. It does not add “exceedingly” as it does after the second part of the verse which refers to guarding one’s soul, because one must be even more careful to protect one’s soul than one’s body.Now, protecting one’s soul isn’t an easy task. Both, on an individual level and on a social one we struggle to acknowledge the existence of things that we can’t see. With that said, our lack of perspective doesn’t make these things less real or less dangerous, it is rather quite the opposite, because it can lead to personal and social disregard.
This week, the waves of Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Gymnastics team competition in the Olympic Games have made it for us a moral imperative to talk about mental health!
So, let’s distinguish between the self and the waves as two moral imperatives.
The First Moral Imperative, The Self: Simone Biles. The Rabbis teach us (Yoma 85b) that the meaning of חיית בהם you shall live by them (lev 18:5), referring to the mitzvot, is literally that you shall live as opposed to die by them. In other words: life and well-being precede any kind of performance.The kind of self-care that Simone Biles took is called in our tradition “Pikuach Nefesh” and it precedes the most sacred things, yes shabbat and even the olympics.
The Second Moral Imperative, The Waves: All of Us.Following the repercussions of Biles’ decision, Social Psychology Professor Adam Grant tweeted:“Judging other people’s coping decisions is the lowest form of arrogance. We don’t know what’s going on in their heads. It’s not our place to say they should handle their struggles differently. Self-care isn’t selfish. No one should have to sacrifice well-being for performance”.
Grant is defending the principle of Self-Care and Pikuach Nefesh above performance and by that, refuting the idea that the show must go on! It is of utmost importance that we re-emphasize, re-sound the centrality of emotional well being and the legitimacy of pain and struggles that can’t be physically seen. For our own sake we need to internalize this message and at the same time repeat it out loud so we work the soil and plant the seeds of this life-saving idea so it would grow stronger in our society.
Our engagement in this conversation is equal to creating a safety net for those who are knowingly or unknowingly standing at the edge of the abyss. So, once again, what would it take for us to stop what we are doing? We know that in our society, at any given moment there are many standing at the edge… So whether we might see them or not, whether they see themselves or not, we must stop everything we are doing in order to set up a net that will allow them to land safely and bounce back. And we say as loud as we can that there is nothing, not a thing in this world more important than our wellbeing.
May we hold ourselves to that aspiration and may we become that safety net.
-Rabbi Nico Socolovsky