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Eliyahu Federman Headshot

Olympics Of Body and Spirit

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My grandfather Reuven Helman was born in Israel-Palestine in 1927. He was an Olympian recognized as a weightlifting champion, distinguished athlete in track and field, the decathlon and for his career as an athletic instructor. His ability to handily hoist 330 pounds wasn't enough to keep him healthy. He needed a sense of purpose, peace of mind.

That moment of synergizing his physical health with his spirit came in the early 1950s when the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994) handed him a Sefer Torah, a handwritten scroll of the five books of Moses, on the Holiday of Simchat Torah -- telling him to "dance with the Torah like a true champion." The message was that you need purpose, spirit and soul to be a champion not just a good physique.

Bodily health alone is not enough. One needs a healthy body in conjunction with a healthy mind. Obsessing over body image can lead to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, malnourishment, depression and compulsive overeating. Neglecting the body by entirely focusing on the mind is also not the answer. We need a balance of fit mind and fit body.

The Rebbe often admonished that it is incumbent to maintain optimal health because a healthy body is a healthy spirit. Studies demonstrate that exercise helps reduce anxiety, promotes better sleep, combats disease, improves mood and even chemically alleviates depression by releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters.

Pirkei Avos, a book on Jewish ethics, teaches that the hallmark of true strength is self-discipline. Not conquering others, but conquering ones self. Working cooperatively with others is what civilization is based on, not exerting brute force over others.

Several Olympians this year made racially hateful remarks toward their fellow competitors. The Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou tweeted: "With so many Africans in Greece at least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat homemade food"; and Swiss soccer defender Michel Morganella tweeted after Switzerland lost to South Korea: "I'm going to beat up every Korean. Go on -- burn yourselves!"

There is nothing wrong with competition and testing the limits of the body, when it is coupled with mutual respect and ethical sportsmanship. But the Olympics' focus on physical prowess places brawl over brain, and body over spirit, in the hierarchy of importance. This paradigm needs to be shifted. Fitness comes from feeding both soul and body and strength is not only about defeating others but cooperating with others. The Olympics is about uniting nations not dividing them.