A weight-loss competition at my office got me wondering who might be the Biblical exemplar for diet and exercise. I don’t know whether or not I should be surprised that none immediately sprang to mind. Avraham is the Biblical role model for hospitality. Moshe is the paradigm of humility. Who in the Torah teaches us to eat low-fat and drink eight glasses of water a day?
Some non-Jewish groups have attributed Biblical lessons in healthy eating to Ezekiel and Daniel, but I believe these approaches are not only inaccurate, they are the opposite of the messages those Biblical chapters are trying to impart.
“Ezekiel bread,” for example, is based on a recipe, such as it is, given by G-d to the prophet Yechezkel in Ezekiel 4:9. The idea is that the Bible tells us how to eat healthy. I’m not saying that a bread made from wheat, barley, millet, beans, lentils and spelt isn’t healthy – for all I know it’s the healthiest thing in the world! But I do know that the reason G-d gave Yechezkel that recipe was because it was supposed to be disgusting. Originally, G-d instructed Yechezkel to bake this mixture using human excrement. When Yechezkel balked, saying that he had always been careful only to eat kosher, G-d substituted cattle dung. (You can read more about this in my book, The Nach Yomi Companion vol. 1.) Ezekiel bread may be an excellent product, but I don’t think the intention of that chapter is necessarily for us to emulate that recipe.
Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church has promoted a diet called “The Daniel Plan.” The diet gets its name from Daniel 1:8, “But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank….” Daniel, however, was concerned with keeping kosher, not weight loss. Instead of the king’s non-kosher meat and wine, he and his friends subsisted on raw vegetables and water. In fact, the king’s steward was concerned that Daniel’s party would lose weight on this diet and he would be in trouble! In the end, there was a miracle involved: Daniel and his friends managed to bulk up even on this diet! So weight-loss appears not to be the Bible’s intention. (I would not be devastated if you chose to read more about this in my book, The Nach Yomi Companion vol. 2. Just saying.)
The best Biblical role model I could come up with for weight loss is Eglon, king of Moab. Okay, he’s not exactly a role model for weight loss, he’s more a case study in “don’t let this happen to you.” You see, Eglon is the only person whom the Tanach describes as morbidly obese. I quote from the book of Judges (3:17, 20-22):
Eglon was a very fat man… Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting by himself alone in his cool upper chamber. And Ehud said: ‘I have a message from G-d unto thee.’ And he arose out of his seat. And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, for he drew not the sword out of his belly; and it came out behind.
Lovely. Not a lot there we’d want to emulate. Except for one thing: “And Ehud said: ‘I have a message from G-d unto thee.’ And he arose out of his seat.”
Eglon was a huge, lazy man. It wasn’t easy getting that fat in Biblical times. People burned plenty of calories herding sheep, climbing mountains, fighting battles and splitting seas. Clearly, Eglon was a person used to having other people doing things for him. (I visualize him as something like Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.) So here he was, morbidly obese, sitting in his cool upper chamber on a hot day. Along comes Ehud ben Gera, who says, “I have a message for you from G-d” and what does Eglon do? He gets up.
Think about that. This huge man, the king of a foreign nation, and he gets up off his big, fat – let’s say “throne” – in order to honor G-d. That’s no small thing. And Eglon was rewarded for it with a righteous descendant. You may have heard of her; her name was Ruth. That’s right, Dovid, Shlomo, Reb Yehuda HaNasi, Rashi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Moshiach, among many others, all have the blood of Eglon in their veins, all because he rose to honor G-d.
We are all kings in one way or another. We may not all be as fat as Eglon (I am), but we are a spoiled, complacent people living in an overly-comfortable, materialistic day and age. We don’t have to climb mountains or herd sheep, we just sit in our cool upper chambers on our fat, overstuffed… let’s say “thrones” again. This the Torah warns us about. I refer you to Deuteronomy 32:15: “Yeshurun waxed fat and kicked. You grew fat, thick and heavy. He forsook G-d, Who made him, and had contempt for the Rock of his salvation.”
“Yeshurun” is another name for Israel. It means “the upright people.” This pasuk tells us that when we get too comfortable – physically or metaphorically “fat” – we have a tendency to get complacent and forget about G-d. We actually rebel against Him. We can’t afford to let that happen.
Whether we “wax fat” physically or metaphorically, we must make sure we don’t “kick” at G-d. We have to take a page from Eglon’s book and overcome our comfort and complacency in order to get up for G-d.
That’s a much better lesson for us than cooking with dung.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.