This past Shabbat there was knock at my door. It was one of my students, a 27-year old attorney who frequents Manhattan Jewish Experience and is an important part of our community of young professionals. He came over to share the news that he decided to quit vaping. He had this look of total pride and accomplishment on his face, having broken a habit with which he had been struggling for years.
What gave him the strength? How did he do it?
Although I couldn’t invite my student (he prefers to remain anonymous) into my home – social distancing and all – I gave him a chair in the hallway so we could speak. He told me he had just been for a walk in Central Park where he saw numerous other young people, smoking and vaping. New data released by the CDC warned that young people may be more impacted by COVID-19 than was initially thought. Up to 20% of people hospitalized with the virus have been between the ages of 20 and 44. In China, smokers were 14 times more likely to develop severe cases of the virus than those who do not smoke. When my student saw those stats, he went into his bedroom and did something he said he hasn’t been able to do for years: he threw out all his vaping materials. “Rabbi, I feel so free and if I get Corona, now I can fight it.”
I told my student that his decision to quit vaping, especially now, was in keeping with the highest of Jewish values and principles. As the Torah explicitly tells us: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The classic commentator Kli Yakar explains: “Guard yourself’ means taking care of the body.” Bodily health is necessary for observing the Torah’s mitzvot (commandments) since in most cases they require physical action of some kind. When the body is unfit or unhealthy, it detracts from our ability to the properly fulfill the mitzvot. In the words of the great Maimonides: “Bodily health and well-being are part of the path to God, for it is impossible to understand or have any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick. Therefore, one must avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits” (Rambam, Hilchot De’ot 4:1).
Even more fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of life, a spiritual path that celebrates human life, virtually above everything else. Life trumps keeping kosher. Life trumps Shabbat and – as my student shared – it should also trump the mental discomfort that comes from quitting nicotine. I do not want to oversimplify the addictive nature of vaping and smoking. I know from friends and others it is not easy to stop. But maybe now, knowing the increased dangers these bad habits now pose to young people in defeating this deadly virus, we will have the fortitude to make some real and lasting changes.
In light of the above sentiment expressed by Maimonides, that good health is a means for greater spiritual perfection, we should endeavor to use this time to break other bad habits as well. Texting while driving, eating unhealthily and other substance abuses are the cause of much illness and death. Or what seems as a less harmful, but just as dangerous of a bad habit as speaking ill of our neighbors and colleagues. If our social distancing inspires us to now better appreciate our family and friends, we can express that newfound appreciation by trying to refrain from saying anything negative about them.
If the data shared above can freak out enough people to stop smoking or vaping, then at least COVID-19 will have served some positive function. Let us use our new awareness regarding the fragility and preciousness of human life to become stronger, wiser, and more prudent. Pressure can break a person, but it can also make diamonds. Maybe, just maybe, this terrible virus can help us end some bad habits once and for all.
Riding off the inspiration from his personal triumph, my student decided to create a page to inspire others to do the same. You can follow him on social media at daily_inspirational_wisdom.
The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.