We have all heard the advice: if you want to be healthy, eat right and exercise. If you are like me and have struggled with your weight most of your life, this is very frustrating advice. Eat right? What does eat right mean? What kind of exercise? How much exercise? What about sleep?
Now there are some folks who just seem to naturally make the right choices in food, stay reasonably active and, thus, are able to keep themselves healthy. For other folks, myself included, it is not so easy. We can resolve to eat right and exercise all we want, but without guidance, specifics, and support we tend to fail.
My own experience has been partially successful. I have mostly managed the exercise part. If you knew me six years ago, you will see that I have lost about 50 of the 100 pounds that I was supposed to lose. I did it by following a disciplined program and setting external goals. I train for particular races. Without the knowledge that if I slack off on training I will not complete my next marathon, I would probably sleep in more often. Furthermore, I have a community of other runners who support and encourage me.
On the other hand, the eating right part does not always work out so well. Even though I know several different eating approaches, some quite detailed, I do not always have the will or discipline to follow them. Thus, I am not as healthy as I would like to be.
In this week’s Haftarah reading is one of my favorite lines of the tradition that was, in fact, my father’s favorite line.
It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d. (Micah 6.8)
I love this verse. It tells us the bottom line of divine expectation. Importantly, it tells us that if we feel compelled to judge another, it is to measure them by the way they treat other people, are they just and kind? Do the interact with others as equals or are they arrogant?
The problem with the verse is it does not tell us how to get to the place of doing justly, loving mercy, and walking with humility. As with the naturally healthy, there seem to be spiritual ringers who radiate a sense of fairness and kindness and who tread gently through the world, not feeling the need to clomp about loudly, announcing their presence.
Unfortunately, for many of us, trying to meet the standard that Micah gives us leads us to the spiritual and ethical equivalent of sitting on the couch, eating ice cream, watching the latest p-90x infomercial thinking; I really should get in better shape. That is, regardless of intention, without a guide to right conduct, a way of judging our actions, discipline, and a community of support, we have little hope of reaching Micah’s ideal.
This does not have to be a religious practice and community-I know many avowed atheists who meet the Micah standard, though they would fervently deny even the smallest religious impulse, better than many an avowed religious person and communities of support do not have to be religious ones. However, having a religious tradition and ethical system to draw upon and a community for support is helpful. It was not only for the integrity of the community that Hillel advised, “do not separate yourself from the community.” (Avot 2.5). He knew that we often require the support of our community of friends and like minded people to be the kind of people we want to be.
I want to be very clear here. I am not talking about coercive community standards or of uncritically taking on the full panoply of Jewish or other practice. Rather, I am saying that if you find Micah’s standard to be attractive, having a tradition to draw upon and a support system is helpful.
Even with a tradition, a community, and a resolve to meet a standard, it can be very difficult to be the kind of people we wish to be. Finding the discipline to take advantage of what you already know can be extremely hard, especially in our world of endless choices, pervading culture of materialism, and uncertainty about what it might mean to act justly or kindly in particular situations.
The fastest growing self description in the United States today is “spiritual but not religious” If this is one’s orientation but one still wishes to meet the Micah standard, it is important to note that this standard is mostly outward directed. Other than the acknowledgement of G-D in how we move through the world, what is required? One must be a force for justice in the world. One must love chesed, what is translated above, inadequately, as mercy, but implies a life of kindness and love. And one must be humble, which has a whole range of implications for how one lives in the world. Just trying to find cosmic connection and going on one’s merry way does not meet the Micah standard. Meeting the Micah standard implies action. In short, it requires that one, like my father was, be a mensch-a word that implies the fullest expression of honor, kindness, and gentleness expected of a Jew.
Just as your physician says as you leave your annual physical that you should eat right and exercise, I, too, will give you a general prescription. However, as your physician’s words imply much more than they seem and are considerably more difficult to follow than one might think, so to are my closing words, no more original than your physician’s. To fulfill them is the work of a lifetime.
It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d.
From a sermon given by Seth F. Oppenheimer, student Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Starkville, MS.