A few days away from our first of 82 weekly meetings in the Kaiser program. I have been very enthusiastic about starting this program even as I approach it with some fear and trembling. The irony lies in my very conscious yet dubious “farewell tour” of my favorite foods. It is unfortunate that I have had as long as I have had to anticipate the start of the program. I have been sowing wild oats for weeks since I committed to do the program. As a result I have truly been over the top trying to assure myself that I won’t have any regrets for not having tasted something that for the next four to six months, if not forever, will be entirely verboten. (The doc assured me that I would not have to give up eating tacos for life, that I just might have to cut down on the quantity.) I have been eating like there is literally no tomorrow.
Another irony lies in the yet unspoken admission that engaging in these food fests is not entirely all that satisfying (notable exception: linguine puttanesca at Amici’s last week, but even that would have been even more satisfying had I eaten less of it). There seems to be a disconnect between the mental state that leads to this...hmmmm... I almost said “food worship”—I’ll have to come back to that, let’s just say the anticipation—and the physical act of eating, tasting, digesting the stuff. Without having attended a single Kaiser lecture I already feel a small distance opening between the desire and the reality. Understanding and expanding that gap should be a good thing.
During the intake examination the doc asked a battery of questions, including, “Do you worship food.” I had to hesitate on that one. “An odd question,” I thought. “I’m Jewish. I don’t worship food. Do I?” I said, “No,” and we moved on. Now I’m forced to ask myself if I answered that honestly. Moreover, I am forced to ask if food hasn’t become some sort of idolatry. If I admit that there is at least an emotional altar upon which I have placed tacos and slices of New York pizza, hot pastrami sandwiches on rye, fried chicken, malted milk shakes, potato chips, French fries, Ben & Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, See’s Candy...okay you get the idea. If, for a minute, I accept the ascendancy these have reached, that there is a higher power in my life and it’s questionable whether it is God or Food—then I may indeed have an idolatry as much as a diet problem.
When my machatonim (Yiddish for the parents of, in this case, my son-in-law) visited for Passover, they gave us a beautiful book entitled Mitzvah Stories—Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. As the title suggests, the theme of the stories is the performance of mitzvot (pl)—usually translated from the Hebrew as “commandments” or more freely as “good deeds.” I like that the book casts mitzvot in a few different lights. One is “obligations” which sounds a little heavy, but Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University says in the foreword “Once we realize that that the divine obligations of the Torah enrich our very being, we then have the potential to succeed.” Goldie Milgram, the editor, adds in the introduction “Each mitzvah constitutes a category of Jewish spiritual practice that provides us ways of texturing our lives with meaningful actions.” These statements lingered as backdrop when I read more of the book’s introductory material including a list of Forty-Five Mitzvah-Centered Practices. The one that jumped off the page was, “Sh’mirat ha-guf—Live Healthy (literally, take care of the body)!”
Yesterday I attended a Talmud study session with the world-renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He chose—perhaps for me alone—the topic of demons! Regardless of the view some hold that these entities are pure superstition, he acknowledged that the presence of demons proliferate in our lives. There is evil. There are many attractions that deplete rather than enrich our existence. Whether we see these distractions and disturbances as mystical entities or psychological defects or whatever ever construct we use, we are better off acknowledging their existence than denying them. I am writing this as a reminder to myself to recognize my demons, to learn from the repetitive mistakes I have made in pursuing them, and that the outcome will not change as long as they have the upper hand. (This is a little reminiscent of Charlie Brown thinking that Lucy won’t yank the football away as he runs to kick it, no?)
Each year at Rosh Hashanah we speak of making teshuva, turning aside from past actions that have proved to be harmful to ourselves, to others, to the world. Even in the secular world, we approach each January with fresh resolutions that are often forgotten by February. What does it take to truly make the turn? Last year’s dashed hopes sit on my shoulder amplifying the voices of the demons. Why do their arguments seems so much more cogent than the quiet whispers of past successes? Screw ‘em! I’m moving ahead, knowing the sages said that just as one misdeed leads to another, so does one mitzvah lead to another. The month-long food orgy has actually gotten boring! It has highlighted the folly of praying at the food altar. I know the choir exalting food has been singing in my soul for a lifetime. It is time to sing a new song!