SALT - Tuesday, 12 Av 5779 - August 13, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Vaetchanan Moshe’s exhortation to Benei Yisrael that they must never forget the event of the Revelation at Sinai: “But be careful, and guard your souls exceedingly, lest your forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they leave your heart, all the days of your life…the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Choreiv [Sinai]…” (4:9-10).
            The Rambam, in Hilkhot Rotzei’ach U-shmirat Ha-guf (11:4), surprisingly cites this warning as a command to care for one’s physical wellbeing, and to remove any hazards and refrain from dangerous activities.  When the Torah here commands us to “be careful” and “guard” our “souls,” this means that we must act safely and avoid danger. 
Later writers (for example, Minchat Chinukh, 546:11) noted two Talmudic sources for this interpretation.  First, the Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (32b) tells of a gentile nobleman who approached a certain Jew as the Jew prayed, and was startled by the fact that the Jew ignored him and kept praying.  The nobleman reprimanded the Jew for endangering his life by ignoring him, and noted that the Torah requires protecting one’s physical wellbeing, citing this verse from Parashat Vaetchanan.  The Rambam, apparently, felt that the Gemara brought this story because the nobleman was correct – this verse indeed establishes an obligation to care for one’s physical safety.  Secondly, the Gemara in Masekhet Shavuot (36a) cites this verse as a source of the prohibition against cursing oneself – indicating that the Torah here commands us to avoid danger, including the danger that could potentially result from a curse.
            Of course, as many have noted, it seems difficult to understand how this command can be viewed as introducing an obligation to care for one’s physical wellbeing.  It is very clear that the warning of “hishamer lekha u-shmor nafshekha me’od” – “be careful, and guard your souls exceedingly” – is referring to forgetting the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai (the Revelation at Sinai).  How, then, can the Gemara (or the Roman nobleman…) infer from this verse an obligation to care for one’s health and safety?  Indeed, some writers concluded that this verse is not the actual source of the obligation to care for one’s wellbeing, and that this verse is cited as an “asmakhta” – a subtle allusion in the text (see Be’er Ha-gola, C.M. 427:70).
            Regardless, we might suggest a possible connection between the command to remember the event of the Revelation and the obligation to care for one’s wellbeing.  If a person neglects his health or his personal safety – and certainly if he denigrates himself through a curse – this bespeaks inadequate appreciation of his own worth, value and greatness.  If we truly understood and recognized just how precious our lives are, and how vitally important a role we have on God’s earth, we would then hold ourselves in such high esteem that we would never consider doing anything to harm or endanger ourselves, and we would likewise never curse ourselves.  We all have people in our lives who are very important and dear to us, whom we would never think to cause harm or endanger, and whom we would always want to protect and keep safe.  We must view ourselves the same way.  After all, if we are alive, this means that God Himself wants us alive, that our presence in His world is very important to Him, as it were.  As such, we have no right to cause ourselves any sort of harm, or to engage in any sort of self-deprecation, such as placing on ourselves a curse.
            The Revelation at Sinai, when God appeared to and spoke to all Am Yisrael, is the clearest demonstration of our worth, our importance, and our potential.  If God made a point of revealing Himself and speaking to human beings, this is because He considers us important and He believes in us.  He gave us His Torah because He values our service and our commitment, because He recognizes our potential and deems us capable of making a significant contribution to His world.
            Therefore, Moshe’s warning to exercise extreme care not to forget the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai may perhaps include a warning to never forget our worth and our potential.  We must consider ourselves important – because God Himself considered us important enough for Him to reveal Himself and give us His law.  And for this reason, perhaps, the obligation to care for our wellbeing is associated with the command to remember Ma’amad Har Sinai.  We must never forget how much we are loved and esteemed by God – and this constant realization must motivate us to take very good care of ourselves so we can fulfill the indispensable role that we are to serve on the Almighty’s earth.
            Each morning, right when we awaken, we recite, “Modeh ani,” thanking God for “restoring” our souls after a night’s sleep.  We conclude, “…rabba emunatekha” – “great is Your faith.”  This has been explained to mean that God has great faith in us, as evidenced by our having woken up in the morning.  The very fact that we are alive for yet another day proves that God believes in us, that He believes we have something valuable to contribute, that our lives are valuable and meaningful.  We make this pronouncement each morning as we begin our day to remind ourselves of our obligation to protect our lives and our wellbeing, and to work towards ensuring that we fulfill our potential and live up to God’s high expectations of us.