The author Vicki Weber imagines a famous Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) about the first century sage, Rabbi Hillel.* His students would not simply learn from him in the classroom, but would also follow him around town, to glean all his wisdom. One day as his students walked with him down the street, he whisked a cloth off his shoulder and snapped it in the air. Brandishing the large linen cloth, Hillel announced he would use it to do a mitzvah and invited the students to guess what mitzvah he would perform.
The students suggested possible mitzvot to their teacher: giving the cloth as tzedakah, using it as a Shabbat tablecloth, or shading their parents with it. To demonstrate his lesson, Hillel showed the students workers cleaning the Roman king’s statue. The king’s image should be respected, but his students must understand something more important: that they “are made in God’s image” (Genesis 9:6). He says, “When we keep ourselves clean, we honor God. And that is why taking a bath is an important mitzvah.” Taking care of our bodies, working to keep our bodies healthy is a way for us to recognize that we “are made in God’s image.”
In another famous teaching from the time of Rabbi Hillel, Rabbi Shimon HaTzaddik declares that “the world stands on three things: Torah (study), avodah (worship) and g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) (Pirkei Avot 1:2). In the time of our Temple in Jerusalem, worship meant sacrifice of animals and grain. After the destruction of our Temple in the Rabbinic period, physical avodah was replaced by our prayers and worship service. Inspired by the Midrash of Hillel and the bathhouse, I like to think of selfcare as a form of avodah, service to God. Avodah as exercise also resonates with me because avodah literally means ‘work’ in Hebrew.
For some of us, exercise is easy to prioritize. For others, like myself, I have to put effort into my healthy habits. Some of you know that I have a neuromuscular disease called Charcot Marie Tooth Disease (CMT) that causes muscle atrophy in my feet, legs, and hands. Up until two years ago, CMT felt more like a nuisance than a disability. When I lived in California, I regularly enjoyed a perfect walking loop near my house with spectacular views and stairs to get my heartrate up and I was pretty fit. But years of pounding the pavement with feet and legs weak with muscle atrophy caused debilitating arthritis in my ankles.
After a year of living in denial and another year getting set up with the right leg braces and a lot of PT, I’m finally able to walk and I have an exercise bike and most days my ankle pain isn’t too bad. These past High Holy Days, my t’shuvah was to lean into the mitzvah of self-care. I’ve been able to hold myself accountable. Five to six days a week, I do my prescribed PT and 30 minutes of cardio and mark my achievement with one of our ‘blessings for daily miracles’ in our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah: Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who made me in the image of God.
I want to personally invite you to participate with me and our congregation in our upcoming Move-A-Thon (March 13-27). Not only is it a way to get moving and fundraise for the Temple, according to our sage, Rabbi Hillel, self-care is a mitzvah.
* Vicki L. Weber, Hillel Takes a Bath. Apples and Honey Press, 2019.