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Dieting and Yom Kippur

May 9, 2009 | by Riva Pomerantz

Dieting as a paradigm for spiritual elevation.

Every time the High Holy Days approach, I feel regretful. How did the year fly by so quickly? What happened to all the tearful resolutions I made just a short Rosh Hashana ago? And what shape do I find myself in, as the Days of Judgment near?

Regret, in this time period, is actually not a bad thing. After all, the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance are the prime time for regret and its productive offspring: repentance. In fact, we are encouraged to introspect and make deep, lasting spiritual changes in ourselves in the year ahead of us, as we leave behind our old, sin-spotted selves, and strive to become the people God wants us to be.

Yet what eludes me time and time again is the drive, the commitment, and the stick-to-it-ness so necessary in making sustainable spiritual changes within myself. How could I draw on my inner resources to forge a richer spiritual commitment this year?

Then it hit me: diet!

Whether it's low-carb, low-fat, Weight Watcher Points, calorie-counting, or cabbage soup, it seems like our society is truly obsessed with dieting. According to the Jewish perspective, nothing happens by chance. Therefore, there is no event, detail, or object that cannot be used to teach a lesson, provide an insight, or, at the very least, supply a good example of what not to do. There are lessons to be learned from everything in life, and there is nothing that escapes the prism of Jewish thought.

Enter: Dieting.

Besides its practical health benefits, what lesson could the all-consuming, excuse the pun, dieting craze hold from a Torah perspective?

If we could harness the willpower and devotion that we utilize for weight loss in order to advance ourselves spiritually, think about how much we could accomplish! The same "do it or die" philosophy that many of us embrace when we diet could be turned toward spiritual pursuits. Sounds crazy? Think about it for a moment.

Let's take anger as an example. Perhaps this Yom Kippur, as I contemplate who I am and who I want to be, I decide to work on not getting angry this year. In previous years, I would solemnly state my firm convictions to never get angry again, and I was serious about it. But just a few days -- or perhaps even minutes -- later, my child would spill Kool-Aid all over my white blouse, and all my convictions would go out the window!

Just as I firmly clamp my mouth shut when offered the donut, I could firmly clamp my mouth shut when the angry words threaten to escape.

In keeping with the dieting parallel, here's what my scenario would look like: Anger would become, in my mind, like fat/sugar/carbs, or any other "evil" that a diet plan eschews. Just as I steel myself when someone dangles a glazed donut worth 1000 calories in front of my nose, my getting angry carries the same consequences. If I can quell my strong desire to indulge in chocolate, donuts, or garlic bread, perhaps I can also stop myself from indulging in the anger reflex. Feeling angry is not the problem -- just like there's nothing wrong with feeling like I'd love to gobble up the whole box of donuts. But it's the action that I can refrain from. Just as I firmly clamp my mouth shut when offered the donut, I could firmly clamp my mouth shut when the angry words threaten to escape, and go somewhere else to cool off.

The same model would work for perfecting almost all character traits and embarking on uplifting spiritual pursuits.

When I broached this mildly wacky theory to my sister, she made an important point.

"What you say is all very well," she said. "But we can expend the time and energy on dieting because the results are so clear and so physical. You can willingly deprive yourself because you know it will pay off when you try on that dress. However, when you work on yourself spiritually, the results just aren't as black-and-white."

I was grateful to her for pointing this out because I think for many people, myself included, this argument rings somewhat true. But is it really?

Following through with the example above, when I set out to work on my anger, isn't there an appreciable, noticeable result? Don't my kids, my husband, my neighbors, and even the grocery-store clerk notice that I am yelling less, complimenting more, and looking rather serene, instead of grouchy?

Or how about a seemingly more esoteric area: prayer. Surely that pursuit won't have black-and-white results, right?

Wrong. When I take the time to focus on praying, and on my connection with God, there will be an immediate, measurable, physical change in me. I will trust more and worry less. I will accept, rather than complain. I will feel happier because spiritual connection brings a person true happiness since it nourishes one's soul. Talk about "clear and physical results" -- with spiritual work, you get much more than going down a dress size -- you get holistic, life-changing benefits.

It's difficult to change spiritually. It's hard to work on serving God, on defeating our baser inclinations, and devoting ourselves to a proscribed way of life. It takes a lot of time, energy, and courage. But tackling spiritual growth in the same way we tackle physical challenges may offer a breakthrough solution. The same theme underlies any all-consuming pursuit. Medical residents know the word "exhaustion," yet that does not deter them from reaching their goal. People risk life and limb to achieve their dreams, sacrificing all sorts of comforts in the pursuit for something greater. If we can do it for our material ambitions -- weight loss, financial futures, or personal aspirations -- surely we can do it for something greater than all that: for the very purpose of existence. Because when all is said and done, God created us so we can perfect ourselves and work on our connection with Him, the Source of all blessing and goodness.

If we believe in the "no pain, no gain" philosophy for the physical, we can apply it to the spiritual, spurring ourselves onto a path of inspiration. Of course, there's no billion-dollar industry backing up Torah learning, no chocolate-covered energy bars to boost a lagging prayer session, and certainly no magic pills that will turn you into a pious person overnight. But the change that will come about will do more than shrink your waist -- it will expand your soul.

Dedicated for the refuah shleima of Hodaya bat Batya

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