Our lives are on a scale – except this scale has three parts to it. On one plate of the scale is our mind, on another our body and on the third our soul. The question is: are those three parts of us in balance? This scale must be in balance for us to find physical and spiritual wellness.
According to a national study by the American Psychological Association (2007), “One-third of Americans are living with extreme stress and nearly half of Americans (48 percent) believe that their stress has increased over the past five years. The study found stress is taking a toll on people—contributing to health problems, poor relationships and lost productivity at work.” We, as a society, and many of us individually, are way out of balance.
On the other hand, there are those who are having great success at life. Dr. Charles Garfield, professor of medicine at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, studied 1,500 outstanding achievers in all walks of life—business, athletics, education, every area of life. He was looking for common denominators of peak performance people.
The number one characteristic of the top achievers in the world is that they lead a balanced life. High achievers, we often think, are extremists. We assume they spend all their time on one thing. Garfield says that’s a misconception. High performers, actually, are extremely well-balanced because they set strict limits at work. For them, work is not everything. When Garfield interviewed top executives in ten major industries he found that they knew how to relax, they could leave their work at the office, they prized close friends and family life and they spent a healthy amount of time with their children and intimates. They are balanced.
A balanced person is one who uses his mind to learn and expand his knowledge of the world in which he lives. Secondly, a balanced person is one who treats his or her body as the house of G-d which gives home to the mind and soul. And finally, a well-balanced individual has a spiritual depth by which they are true to their best self. Judaism implores us to focus our energy on each aspect of mind, body and soul individually and then together as a collective.
Mind – expand the mind by taking a Jewish class on any subject. The Torah often speaks of the “wise-hearted.” That wisdom doesn’t happen by itself… it comes from learning, from growing and from using one’s mind to comprehend the world in which we live. Judaism provides us eyes through which to view our universe. Use Judaism as your vehicle to stimulate your mind. Take a class and you will be changed and appreciate the context in which you are living.
Body – Many of us take our bodies for granted. Just like Judaism is a gift, more so our bodies are miraculous gifts from G-d to be protected and tended. Many of us don’t exercise enough. And many of us don’t eat well enough. And we pay the price for it in our poor health. We have to do something about our health. The greatest and most important mitzvah in Judaism, overriding every other mitzvah, is Pikuach Nefesh—the saving of another life. Let’s start with our own, for when our bodies are not in shape; we are out of balance.
Now there are many whose health is failing them in one way or another, and through no fault of their own, they have had to redouble their efforts to strengthen their mind and soul to balance out the deficit of their illness. It is hard to stay in balance when the body is out of sync. It is frustrating when the mind is sharp and the soul is filled with passion, but he or she cannot live out their potential because their physical health won’t allow. All that being said, those of us who are of good health could do a lot better than we do. Our balance is dependent on the way we take care of our bodies and our health. Our bodies house the mind and soul. G-d breathed life into us—we must cherish it.
Soul – The Hebrew word for breath and soul are the same—Neshamah. You may be familiar with the Yiddish phrase a gut neshamah—a “good soul.” The age old question—“what is the soul?” is an important question. For this discussion, the soul is our emotions, our ability to distinguish between right and wrong, our passion, our sense of the spiritual—our very essence.
Three men were talking one day about the frailties of people. The conversation was lively, with each of the three men giving his interpretation.
Said the first man, “The trouble with most people is they eat too much.”
The second man objected, and said, “It isn’t how much you eat, but what you eat that counts.”
The third man, a very wise person, commented, “It’s neither what you eat nor how much you eat. It’s what’s eating you that is important.”
Our soul is filled with emotion. It allows us to understand life in a completely different way than our mind with reason or our body with touch. The feelings we experience in our soul are the core of what makes us human. A friend was asked what the definition of being a well-balanced person was. He quipped, “It is when you have a chip on both shoulders.” Soul work is about removing the chips and filling the spirit with meaning. It tells us we have to heal from our hurts. We have to grow from our experiences. We need to deal with what was, so we can handle what is, and dream about what could be.
The phrase “soul searching” always interests me because we need not search for our soul – it is there. We need “soul accessing.” When we open our hearts and let love, wisdom and care in, we develop as human beings and are the richer for it. Accessing our souls can be scary. It can be daunting to be vulnerable. Sometimes we would rather settle for unhappy, because we know what that feels like, instead of risking satisfaction and fulfillment, because we are afraid of the process it takes to get there. Our lives are sacred and our souls are the receptacle of that holiness.
The Talmud, the ancient Jewish writings, contains this most beautiful passage about the soul (Berachot 10a).
“Just as the Holy One fills the whole world, so the soul fills the whole body.
Just as the Holy One, sees but is not seen, so the soul sees but is not itself seen.
Just as the Holy One feeds the whole world, so the soul feeds the whole body.
Just as the Holy One is pure, so the soul is pure.
Just as the Holy One dwells in the innermost chamber of chambers, so the soul dwells in the innermost sanctum of the human being.”
We need to ask ourselves each day, “are we balanced?” A balanced person is one who uses his mind to learn in order to see everything in its proper perspective. A balanced person is one who treats his or her body as the house of G-d, which gives home to the mind and soul. A well-balanced individual has a spiritual depth by which they are true to their best self.
RABBI RICHARD STEINBERG is the Senior rabbi at Congregation shir Ha’malot and a contributing writer to jlife magazine.