Spiritual fitness: A Jewish perspective

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- The term "spiritual fitness" can mean something different for everyone, depending on a person's background and spiritual beliefs. For Jews, this term fits nicely with some of the words that Airmen hear every day: integrity, wingmanship and balance.

Growing up in a Jewish home, I was encouraged to "do the right thing." Although this article addresses my personal experiences, I know that this is not unique to my home or to Judaism. The theme of moral integrity, however, is pervasive throughout Jewish scripture and writings. My parents made sure I understood that.

As a child, family discussions frequently focused on everyday mitzvot (singular form is mitzvah), or "good deeds." Mitzvah literally means "commandment" in Hebrew.

Technically, there are 613 unchangeable commandments given to the Jewish people in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Some are strict commandments, like saying prayers upon waking and sleeping. However, many mitzvot derive from ancient practices and are left open to modern interpretation.

When thinking about mitzvot, I think about life's everyday miracles and good deeds. A few months ago, as I walked into a local synagogue for High Holiday services, so did an elderly woman. She shuffled alone down the sidewalk, so I waited for her and held the door. I introduced myself and it turned out that she was also alone for these important holidays. I sat with her for the next few hours, getting to know her. After the service, she hugged me and cried because she was so thankful to have someone to sit next to and talk to after the death of her husband.

As soon as I got into my car, I called my parents and told them that I had done a mitzvah and was moved to tears. Although not every good deed ends with a dramatic display of gratitude, many can be just as impactful; do not be afraid to reach out to those around you, even strangers.

In addition to mitzvot, Judaism teaches the idea of pikuach nefesh, which is the obligation to save a life in jeopardy, as long as it does not endanger one's own life. This principle comes directly from the text of the Torah: "Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbor" (Lev. 19:16), and it is central to Jewish ethical discussions. I discussed this at length in my Confirmation classes and it has stuck with me. When you see someone in trouble, you need to help.

The concepts of mitzvot and pikuach nefesh go alongside the Air Force idea of wingmanship: looking out for each other and, in a dire situation, doing everything one can to save the life of a fellow Airman. This is one of the reasons I joined the Air Force as a health care provider. When I can help a patient understand their medicine or health care, my day has been worthwhile. I make a point to know the personnel I work with too and routinely ask personal questions and really listen to their answers.

Sometimes all a person needs is someone to listen and it is important to me that those around me know that I support them. Serving others gives me a sense of accomplishment. It comforts me to know that I have helped make the world a better place, even if only for one person.

One of the most important aspects of spiritual fitness is maintaining balance in one's life. Part of the point of Shabbat (translation: Sabbath) is to rest and to focus on one's faith, family and impact on the world, rather than the distractions of everyday life.
Many Jews completely refrain from using social media and electronic communications on Shabbat, although for many of us, turning off our cellular phones is not an option. Instead, I take Saturday mornings to practice yoga and spend time with people who enrich my life.

Because so much of Judaism focuses on family and community, I also look forward to twice-monthly Shabbat services. As Airmen far from home and family, these services help us achieve a sense of community and spiritual balance. After all, no matter your faith background, there is something wonderful about a community coming together for common beliefs.

I encourage each of you to reflect upon what makes you feel connected to your community and how you can better achieve the balance between self-preservation and giving to others, whether through service, faith groups or simply being kind to others.