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Teshuvah and weight loss

Parshat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)


by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

September 24, 2008 | 10:59 pm

Let me begin with an important disclaimer: it is wrong to equate physical fitness with spiritual fitness. (I personally was at the peak of my spiritual strength during my last pregnancy when I gained 70 pounds and had muscle atrophy from bed rest.) I attribute no virtue to slenderness and no vice to heaviness. But the process of losing weight -- in which I have been engaged for some time (perhaps a few Jews can relate) -- has instructive parallels to teshuvah (returning to God and our best selves).

Years ago, I heard a medical show on the radio that stuck with me. A caller needed and wanted to lose weight, but felt thwarted because of thyroid disease, poorly controlled diabetes, high blood pressure and bad knees. What advice could the doctor offer?

The doctor replied starkly: "There is a basic biological fact: if one moves more and eats less, one will lose weight. You are no exception."

Wow! Initially, I felt that the answer was harsh, even uncompassionate. But the caller seemed to appreciate it. As I mulled it over, I found the reply comforting. Simple, predictable laws are at work, and I am no exception (Deuteronomy 29:18-20).

This truth of the physical realm applies to the meta-physical, as well. It is not always easy to live by the Torah and uphold its principles, but we often magnify our confusion and the difficulty of the task (partly as an excuse to bow out of it). As our Torah portion, Nitzavim, states: "This commandment which I command you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it far off.... The thing is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

The laws and stages of repentance -- far more than the $36-billion diet industry! -- offer helpful guidance and nuances. But the essence of teshuvah is simple, if not easy. Just as the doctor prescribed, "move more, eat less," a rabbi might say, "love more, sin less." Truly, "the rest is commentary. Go and learn" (Shabbat 31a). The purpose and path of teshuvah are close to us and known to us. You already know how to repent and forgive. It is "in your mouth and in your heart." You know just where to begin, with whom you need to talk, and what qualities and habits you must cultivate. Even if you are in denial, however, the principles of teshuvah, like the rules governing weight loss and like the covenant itself, apply universally -- for women and men, for political leaders and wood cutters, "for those who are standing here today [aware and awakened] and for those who are not present here today" (Deuteronomy 29:10, 29:14).

The following are basic principles that will, I hope, prove useful for teshvuah -- and perhaps for weight management, too.

Take Responsibility

With rare exceptions, your level of physical or spiritual fitness today is based on what you did in the past. Nitzavim puts it this way: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Outside influences notwithstanding, we have chosen.

Understanding and insight can be essential precursors to change, but they do not in and of themselves cause transformation. If you want a different result, you will have to make new choices.

Love and Care for Your Body

Rabbi A.I. Kook taught that the first stage of teshuvah is physical self-care. How can you accept rebuke, examine your motivations, or ask for forgiveness in a state of exhaustion or, worse, physical abuse? We need to make peace with our bodies and be kind to them, in order to effectively carry out the work it takes -- physically and spiritually -- to maintain our fitness.

Give Some Things Up

This is not news on the weight-loss front. You may have to give up desserts, trans-fats, large portions. You may even need to stop stocking junk food in your pantry.

Ditto for all kinds of temptation we renounce yet keep accessible. Also, to become spiritually "lighter," you will need to give up grudges, cast off sin, forsake false gods (Deuteronomy 29:25) and, in the image of Nitzavim, remove the foreskin from around your heart (Deuteronomy 30:6 and 10:16).

Despite what they know intellectually, people often believe that extra weight is "keeping them safe" from sexuality, accountability or their own power. Similarly, many folks operate from the belief that they protect their honor by refusing to forgive. Setting that boundary keeps justice alive and prevents them from being betrayed again. Or does it?

Take Some Things On

Healthy eating and teshuvah are undermined when we confuse them with deprivation. Both are enhanced when we consider not just what we are renouncing, but what we are gaining. What is your best intention and vision? Nitzavim foresees "abounding prosperity in all your undertakings," even after severe missteps (Deuteronomy 30:9).

What antioxidant super-foods can you add to your diet to give you better energy? What "mega-mitzvot" can you engage in, to remove spiritual "rust" and give you new vibrancy? With what positive habit might you replace destructive patterns? Don't settle for what satisfies right now but does no good in the long run.

Keep At It: Small Changes Make a Big Difference

The Song of Songs says, "the little foxes spoil the vineyards" (2:15). Sometimes, it is the seemingly trivial negative habits that undermine success. A small tweak, over time, can yield powerful results.

Bear in mind, too, that with teshvuah and eating habits, results are not immediate. You don't practice patience once, or eat well for a day, and see dramatic changes. Persist, and you will.

May you be blessed with a truly new year -- for body, mind and spirit.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her new Web site (www.rabbidebra.com) offers teaching CDs and other resources for spiritual work in anticipation of the High Holy Days and year-round.

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