Spiritual Poundage


Well, the unthinkable – though not the unexpected – happened. I have gained some weight.

The last time I started on a serious diet, in January 2013, I told myself that THIS IS IT! I will go through the dieting process one more time, and then maintain my weight, with possible small perturbations. And this is what happened for a while. I lost about 30 pounds on Medifast over the course of a year or so, and gained back only a few pounds, and this was my status until around May of this year. Then, all of a sudden, like a hurricane, I gained more weight, leaving me 15 pounds over the level at which I’d like to stabilize: a weight at which I felt good about myself, though still higher than my “ideal weight.”

I feel like screaming, “Not again!” On the one hand, I have proven myself able to lose weight, and this knowledge should make it easier to contemplate doing it again. On the other hand, I can’t stand the thought of entering into yet another phase of feeling deprived, even if the deprivation is relatively short-lived. After all, how long will it take to lose 15 pounds, right? I have always hated seeing my friends and acquaintances put on weight after their long struggle to get it off. Sometimes I felt like going up to them and begging them not to do this to themselves. Now I am in the same boat!

Another thing: For a good 20 years before 2013, among the thoughts I would have about Rosh Hashanah was that, next year, I would weigh x number of pounds less than I do now. I used to hate thinking about my weight while preparing for Rosh Hashanah; there are so many more important things to think about and daven for, so many more ways to straighten out my deeds for the coming year. Yet I feel horrible that I will likely be entering Rosh Hashanah more than 10 pounds heavier than last year. And that the extra weight impacts so strongly how I feel about myself. This year, however, I have been thinking about the relationship between controlling compulsive eating and Rosh Hashanah a little differently, in two respects.

First, I have been trying to think about a person doing aveiros (sins) in the same way that I think about compulsive eating and excess weight. (Please note that I am not comparing non-compulsive eating or going off a diet to sinning. Compulsive eating, the inability to control one’s cravings, is the aspect that relates most closely to yielding to the yetzer hara.) Imagine that there were a means of weighing one’s aveiros in “spiritual pounds” – that one might come to Rosh Hashanah being 10 pounds “overweight spiritually” – and instead of reviewing individual sins, one would judge the year by this total spiritual weight gain. Such a view would mean that, rather than coming to Rosh Hashanah not only with sins “weighing you down,” the sins would have created a whole new body image. Would this way of thinking make it more difficult or easier to do teshuva? I think that both answers are correct. But for this essay, I would argue that it makes teshuva more difficult, because if a person really felt that he had become spiritually less fit in an overall sense, he might despair, thinking that he might never be able to change himself – whereas if he only focused on individual sins, he might be able to see a way out and repent more easily. If I can still see myself as fundamentally good, I can look at the sins as occasional weaknesses and strengthen myself.

If we apply the same reasoning to weight loss, we could argue that, if one has gained a lot of weight, the new reality makes it more difficult for a person to convince herself that she can lose, even though she knows that she did so in the past. To apply this insight,, I’ve decided that, for the next month, I am going to try to go without weighing myself. I don’t have to define myself by what I weigh at the moment; Rather, I can concentrate on not eating compulsively and making good choices, moment by moment.

Second, I used to belittle myself for thinking so much about compulsive eating with regard to teshuva, when there are so many other aspects of myself to think about and work on. But no less a gadol than Rav Dessler views the cravings for various foods as a situation set up as a test for us, to help in improving our midos. In Michtav Me’Eliyahu, translated as Sanctuaries in Time , in the section on the month of Elul (p. 75), a story is brought from a 1952 talk about someone close to leaders of the mussar movement:

He had picked up the methodology of mussar thinking and decided to devote some time to reflecting on the value of self-denial. He thought to himself: Why do human beings have cravings over and above their physical needs? …Cravings…desires for unnecessary or even harmful pleasures…what is the point of these? Then a true mussar insight dawned on him. It must be, he mused, that G-d has implanted in us these unnecessary cravings as a challenge. They give us an opportunity to exercise self-control, which is what enables us to rise to the highest spiritual levels. He thought at that moment that he had gained a clear perception of the nature of morality and the supreme value of self-denial.

  But at the same moment his eyes fell on a box of chocolates lying open on the table. He was partial to chocolates, but unfortunately he suffered from diabetes. But he craved that chocolate…At that moment he wanted the chocolate more than anything in the world…All his insights and reflections were to no avail. Even while he said to himself, “You see how ridiculous a craving is; it’s only there to be resisted. Go on, resist it,” his craving answered him, “You’re quite right but…I want…that chocolate…” And obediently he went and took a piece of chocolate and another and another.…

Someone can know with the utmost clarity what is right, and yet he will do the opposite. One can knowingly choose evil.

What can be done to strengthen ourselves before we get to the point of being tested to choose the good? Rav Dessler suggests that the answer is action: good and frequent deeds done with vigor and enthusiasm, that can slowly become a habit and a defense when we get to a point of difficulty. He points out that the Shulchan Aruch states that, during the Ten Days of Teshuva, we should be more stringent in things than we customarily are not so careful about (for example, not eating pas palter, bread that is kosher but baked in a non-Jewish bakery), even if we know we will not keep these stringencies after Yom Kippur. The strengthening gained fortifies us in our daily struggles the rest of the year. I am going to try to apply this suggestion during Elul and the Ten Days of Teshuva to my issues regarding food. I am going to try to find ways to make good food decisions more routine for myself, and hope that this will help me in the year to come.

 I will keep you posted on how this worked out.


© Janet Sunness, 2015


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