This Shabbos is Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
It’s a good thing that Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t weigh as much as I did two summers ago. Or Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank would likely not have survived to tell the story.
Baruch HaShem, my eating habits have changed a lot in the past two years. But for a long time, it didn’t seem possible.
The Shulchan Aruch (או"ח קפ:ה) records the custom of putting away the knife before beginning Birkas HaMazon. As to the reason for this minhag, there are a number of approaches in classical sources. But Rabbi Avraham of Stratyn would explain that the Zohar tell us that שעת אכילה שעת מלחמה - “Meal time is time of Battle”. And when we put the knife away, we’re declaring that the battle is over... for now.
This article is the beginning of a conversation long overdue in our shuls, schools and communities. It’s a conversation about engaging in this battle.
For anyone who is struggling with overeating and being overweight, you are already skeptical of anything am I going to say. You have already read, attempted and failed at an uncountable host of weight loss programs. You have ridden the weight-loss/weight-gain rollercoaster more times than you care to count, and most likely you have, at least at some point, concluded that this will be your life forever.
We all know and understand that book stores and blogs are filled with diet and weigh loss advice and information, precisely because there is no easy solution to this problem. And of course, the judgements that our society (and ourselves!) place on overweight people makes flip-flopping and failure far more than an issue of food. The number on the scale has become a measure of self worth; with the steepest of inverse proportions. As the number rises, our self esteem plummets.
And all of this is communal and personal fat-shaming is starkly contrasted with the abundance of indulgent food available at kiddushes, simchas, and Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. This is an issue for adults who are struggling, and perhaps even more so for children and teens who we are conditioning from the earliest of ages to associate Shul and Yiddishkeit with candy.
(We should also take note of the devastating truth that we are currently in the midst of pandemic which is far more dangerous and deadly for people struggling with obesity.)
So what might a Rabbi have to add to this conversation? I am neither a doctor, nor a dietician. I’m a not a fitness guru. But I’m not trying to sell you anything either. And in the past two years I have lost almost 100lbs. I’ve run a few half marathons, and a full marathon as well. All of this, comes after spending three decades of my life making some very poor choices.
Today, I feel pretty good about my accomplishments in these areas. But not totally, and not completely. Which should inform you of the harsh truth that you already know: We’re never completely out of the woods. I am fitter, skinnier, faster and healthier than I have ever been. But staying this way means constantly re-engaging in that battle.
So how did I do it? And how I am keeping it up? Of course, there are dieting tricks, meal prep hacks, and exercises that I have learned along the way. But tricks, hacks and exercises are not the reason for sustainable life changes. I suspect you share similar sentiments and cynicism.
My success has come from different kind a diet. Not of food (or lack thereof), but of ideas. It’s a diet of Ruchniyus, Mussar, Chassidus and Torah that exist in the empty, unspoken space between the fat-shaming we suffer and the indulgences we’re supposed to enjoy, endure and sponsor. This is the conversation that I’d like to begin.
In a very real and palpable way the first major breakthrough I experienced was framing this challenge as an Avoda in Teshuva. It stopped being about carbs or pounds or clothing. It was a simple realization: I Don’t Want to Be a Ba’al Ta’ava Any More.
This simple thought felt like a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions. It was the day I decided I didn’t want to loose weight anymore. I didn’t want to be skinny anymore. Sure, I didn’t want my belly to jiggle when I brushed my teeth, but that wasn’t the goal any longer. I had a new goal. I wanted to enjoy sitting at the Shabbos table, and feel like I was in control.
It dawned on me in that moment, that a piece of me really didn’t enjoy the Shabbos table. I enjoyed the food, every sushi roll, every chicken nugget, and every bowl of cholent (which, as I typed this, just got autocorrected to cholesterol?!). But I dreaded Shabbos meals. Because I knew how I would feel at the end.
The moment I realized that I was in a battle for control with my Yetzer Hara - that Avoda became the main course.
That basic idea is step one. That was the spark. Since then, I have expanded my palette of thoughts, Torah’s, and emotions. I return to them over and over again, as I have worked to incorporate these changes into my life. In the deepest way, nothing I have gained would have been possible without constant review of these ideas.
These are the ideas that I’m inviting you to learn and review with me starting this Thursday night at 8:30pm, as Chodesh Elul begins. Each week we’re going to learn a little together, in a simple and straight forward way, on a mutual quest to experience a kind a Teshuva that we have been attempting for years. Of course, none of this limmud is limited to food/eating exclusively. These ideas can and will provide insight and inspiration for all of our battle with the Yetzer Hara.
Our Parsha begins with Moshe Rabbeinu telling us: רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה - “See, I am putting before you today a blessing and a curse.” The Chiddushei HaRim explains this presentation was not a once-off occurrence. The same choices exist for each of us every day. And each day Hashem gives us the ability to make the right choices. Indeed, in gratitude for our God-given capacity to make the right decisions, we make a Bracha every morning: הַנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה - You, Hashem give me the ability to discern between day and night.
Hashem should help us, our children and our communities to choose between light and darkness today and everyday. I’m looking forward to learning together.