By Rabbi Chaim Bruk

It’s not my forte, nor do I claim any super knowledge on this topic, but the editors told me that Sukkos is a health issue, so I’m following orders and sharing my thoughts on health from my personal experience.

My entire life, from the time I can remember until a few years ago, I’ve been involved, connected, and engaged with the dieting world. From the age of thirteen, I began struggling with being overweight, a touch of obesity here and there, and never really understood anything other than pounds = unhealthy, and thinness = health. Growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, we didn’t know much about trans fats, fried food, breakfast cereals, dairy, MSG, vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners; all we knew was “Oh Chaim, you gained a few pounds?” or “Nice Chaim, you dropped a few pounds, well done.”

Our family dabbled in every diet known to Crown Heightsers. Fit for Life, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Start Fresh, Herbalife, and others whose names I don’t remember. The cycle of dieting never stopped, exercise was rare (though we always owned a treadmill for the laundry), I was fifteen when my doctor gave me Lipitor for high cholesterol (though we stopped it two days later due to joint pain which is evidently a side effect), I entertained getting one of the many surgeries to lose weight (though I, Baruch Hashem, never went through with them), took pills for gout for a few years, and really always felt that slimming down was key to health.

I married Chavie in 2006 and boy was I exposed to another world. She never bought into the dieting obsession that I was used to; she was always focused on health. In the first year of our marriage I didn’t understand, or care to understand, her way of thinking. She bakes and never fries, she enjoys tofu and broccoli sprouts, she exercises religiously, she utilizes essential oils and Bach flowers, she won’t eat after certain hours in the evening, she doesn’t like sugary snacks—she was very different than this Brooklyn boy. I never minded her choices, but still enjoyed the “logical” combination of Mike & Ike’s and Diet Coke, Pringles and Diet 7UP. It took many years for me to realize that Chavie is right (I am a slow learner) and the hundreds of books she reads from experts with MDs after their names and those with “Eastern Medicine” titles after their names, are saying something so important and I need to listen.

As you may recall I turned forty in Kislev (December) of last year and it really got me thinking about my health. At the time, post Covid, I weighed about 239 pounds (nothing close to my pre marriage peak of 271 or so) and didn’t feel like this is the way to live if I plan on living past fifty. I knew that if I don’t get a handle on my body soon, it would get harder and harder as I age. So, I started focusing more on what I put into my body. I’ve removed all soda from my consumption, I look at ingredients all the time (making sure to follow Dr. Mark Hyman’s two rules: Don’t eat anything if you can’t pronounce the ingredients and don’t eat anything that lists more than four ingredients), I really try to refrain from eating if I am not hungry, I drink more water and less seltzer (though I still consider myself a seltzer addict), I try to focus more on plant-based foods (like those who live in the Blue Zones) and, I don’t see it as diet, but rather as health, which is why though I don’t eat many carbs and almost zero sugar, I don’t agonize if I have a little carbs here or there or even some blue tortilla chips.

The Rambam, Maimonides, writes in the laws Dei’os (character”) “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d—for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill—therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger.” It’s as straightforward and simple as that. This is something my dear Rebbe of blessed memory would always emphasize quoting from the Mezritcher Magid, Rav Dovber, “a small hole in the body creates a big hole in the soul.” Being healthy is something Hashem wants of us because a Jewish body is holy and was chosen at Sinai to be a living being as part of the Am HaNivchar and it’s vital if we are going to have the stamina to serve Hashem and do so for as long as possible.

Personally, I am not losing weight as quickly as I would like as my focus has been on the health, not the weight, but after 4.5 months I am down to 208 and hope to continue downward and I am doing so with decisions that are about bodily wellbeing and not looks with the hopes of being the next model in GQ. Portion control is very hard for me, because when in the dieting world, if the food is on the “clear list,” we are permitted to eat seven plates of it. Yet, this isn’t healthy, as our organs were not created to handle that type of consumption, but dieting does that to us. So, I am trying to learn new tricks in this very challenging trade.

Above my constant learning curve with food, the one thing that has truly changed my life isn’t related to eating. My entire life I’ve been allergic to exercise, and even the mention of the word itself made me uncomfortable. Even in Bozeman, where I take hikes with the family and enjoy the natural beauty of said hikes, I don’t do enough hikes and I don’t do it in a way that builds muscle and supports cardio health. I’ve bought three Peloton’s in my life (I currently own one) and it never did the job. I would do it for a day or a week and that was it. I’ve signed up for online classes and it has never worked, and gyms were never my go to place due to tzniyus issues, so I stayed away. I never believed that this would change.

Then one day in May, I walked up to a personal trainer who was training two individuals just outside the building that houses our Chabad Center and asked him if he was still taking new clients. Aaron has now been my trainer for almost five months. I’ve grown to love my two weekly training sessions. I’ve grown a lot with muscle strength, cardio ability, balance control, stretching capacity; it has been an incredible change and I haven’t missed a session, unless I’m out of town, since we started. I have learned to enjoy working out and it’s been life altering for me. I never believed this was possible for me and I was wrong; I was underestimating myself and how good it would feel.

Health is now at the focal point of my daily decisions. I am not a fanatic and I don’t harass people about their choices, but as 5TJT made this about health, I want my loyal readers to know that I am working hard on sustaining my health so that I can keep writing for many years to come and want you all to know that it’s never too late to start a journey that will, G-d willing, keep us away from all the regular Jewish issues of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, gout, and the rest of them.

Sukkos is a time when we reflect on the idea that Hashem embraces us with His protection in the sukkah, yet He still asks us to do our part and build an actual sukkah. Hashem is the ultimate One who blesses us with longevity and health, but He also demands that we do our part to make ourselves a worthy vessel of those berachos. The Zera Kodesh writes that the daled minim, the four species, we are obliged to celebrate with on Sukkos are connected to four important body parts. The lulav (palm frond) represents the spine and its leafy top represents the brain, the esrog (citron) represents the heart, the hadasim (myrtles) represents the eyes, and the aravos (the willows) represent the lips. On Sukkos we are taught that the mitzvah helps us rectify our past sins connected to our brain, heart, eyes, and mouth.

As I was reading this teaching in the Sefer Nitei Gavriel from Harav Gavriel Tzinner, shlita, I couldn’t help but think of my health journey. It’s so important to care for our brains through meditation, taking good vitamins, lessening our screen time, and through intellectual stimulation. Our hearts need the cardio to keep that blood flow sailing smoothly through our arteries. Our eyes need a healthy amount of sleep, so we aren’t awake due to artificial stimuli but rather rest our bodies properly both quantitatively in hours of sleep and qualitatively with undisturbed sleep, and our lips/mouths need to be healthy by refraining from toxic gossiping and watching what food we consume. I feel like I was being reminded that in order to merit Hashem’s protection in the sukkah, I need to take my daled minim seriously, focusing not only on the holy/spiritual aspects of this incredible mitzvah, but also on sustaining good health and being a solid vessel for Hashem’s berachah.

I don’t know how this health journey will end for me. Part of me is scared that I will drop the ball like a trained cat who loses it when seeing a mouse and will go back to eating foods that contain the poison of High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yellow #5, Polysorbate 60, Monosodium Glutamate, Enriched Flour, and Soybean Oil, but I really hope that I won’t. I owe it to Hashem, as do all of us, to treat the body that He’s given to me with tenderness and protectiveness and do our part to ensure our triceps, biceps, and hamstrings are supporting our wellbeing, not hindering it. n

Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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