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Balance and moderation

One of the sources in the Torah for avoiding excessive self-affliction is the commandment to not look the other way when encountering a donkey belonging to “your enemy” struggling under the weight of its load. In addition to the practical humane application of this commandment—don’t stand idly by while the animal is suffering—this can also be interpreted as a metaphor: The donkey represents the physical body, and the enemy describes the attitude a spiritually attuned person might have towards matters of physicality. The Torah commands us to help that donkey, help the body become more spiritually refined, rather than look the other way and focus only on spiritual pursuits.

Jewish tradition emphasizes the importance of balance and moderation, warning against extremes that may jeopardize physical or mental well-being. While fasting and other forms of self-denial can serve as expressions of devotion and repentance, there’s a caution against excessive or misguided practices that could lead to harm. 

Excessive self-affliction contradicts the Jewish principle of preserving life. Our tradition places a strong emphasis on the sanctity of the body as a vessel for the soul and advocates for responsible stewardship of one’s physical well-being. Engaging in extreme fasting or other forms of self-harm runs counter to this principle, as it risks causing harm to oneself and neglecting the duty to care for one’s body, which is considered a divine gift.

The body will not be helped by letting it suffer; instead we must do all that we can to channel our physical side to work in tandem with our spirituality. Sure, we can choose to run away from the donkey and avoid dealing with it, but as physical creatures with the bodies given to us by G-d to care for, we have a mandate to utilize all elements of our beings towards a greater purpose.

True repentance and spiritual growth stem from genuine transformation of the heart and mind, rather than outward displays of suffering. While acts of self-affliction can serve as outward expressions of inner remorse and sincerity, they aren’t a substitute for genuine repentance. Instead, Judaism emphasizes the importance of concrete actions aimed at rectifying wrongs. True spiritual growth in Judaism comes from cultivating a deep sense of moral integrity, compassion, and reverence for life, rather than from acts of self-inflicted suffering.

Today, tzedakah is seen as a concrete expression of repentance. Instead of fasting and harming ourselves physically, giving of ourselves in the form of helping others is the surest way of aligning our spiritual and physical sides. While in past generations, regular fasting and other forms of affliction may have been more feasible, nowadays, perhaps because of our spoiled nature and evolving societal norms, it simply isn’t something that most people can do. This change in our nature is dictated by G-d too. Therefore, our inability to fast as a regular form of repentance shouldn’t be viewed as a deficiency, but rather as G-d’s way of telling us that today the focus needs to be on tzedakah—on proactive acts of giving.

Through acts of tzedakah, we cultivate a spirit of humility, gratitude, and interconnectedness, which are central to the process of repentance and spiritual growth. This provides an additional advantage in giving tzedakah over self-affliction, since the focus is on helping others rather than afflicting ourselves, and that is something that can be done joyfully.

That’s where the true balance lies: living healthy spiritual and physical lives, caring for others, making the world a better place for all, and doing so with a joyful heart.

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