In Parshat Hazinu, we read in the song of Moses, “He fed him honey…and oil,cheese of cattle and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs, and rams… and he-goats; with the very finest wheat; and foaming grape-blood was your drink. So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked: you are waxen fat, you are grown thick, you are covered with fatness.”
This unflattering description of obesity in the Torah serves as a warning to future generations. Obesity is currently such an epidemic that it has just been classified as a disease. Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic knee, back, and foot pain.The incidence of sleep apnea also increases with weight.Nearly one-third of American adults are obese, and the problem is getting worse. As of 2010, every state had at least a 20 percent obesity rate. The rates in children are rapidly increasing as well.
Israel reported a high risk of obesity in the Orthodox community with hareidim seven times more likely to be obese than the rest of Israelis. The poverty of many within this community, which leads to consumption of cheaper foods, mirrors the American experience.
A major problem in obesity is many people do not recognize they are severely overweight. University of Illinois researchers found an alarming 58 percent of overweight individuals incorrectly categorized themselves as of a normal weight.
While the many risks of obesity are apparent, the sense of urgency seems lost as the Jewish population “grows thick.” In Judaism, our health is a religious concern. Maimonides notes that a sound mind requires a sound body, and as such it is a religious obligation to take care of one’s health (Deot 4:1). Hillel explained that we must take care of our bodies, since we are created in the image of God (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).
While eating is a normal activity and the aversion to hunger is great [as our ancestors showed in the desert with continual complaining to Moses about the menu] our society is currently drowning in calories. While exercise is extremely important, we must also be attentive to the Jewish prohibition of achilah gasah (over-eating). Through moderation, improving our diets through better food choices, and taking care of our bodies with exercise, we care for our bodies created in the “image of God” and prolong healthy lives. We also set an example of a balanced, divinely inspired approach to life.
By Scott David Lippe, M.D.