What is my intention with fasting on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is threatening to smash open the Gates of Heaven and let them crash loudly behind us before we’re even ready. For many of us, there’s a lot of important work that we’ve done to get ready for this moment. Personally, I spent the month of Elul preparing for the High Holidays. I coordinated events and rituals for my community and did some really necessary self-work and reflection in anticipation of the Jewish new year – Rosh Hashana.

For example, I wrote several kavanot, intentions, for myself and my community this past month as I reflected on where I’ve been and what I need. When I started writing, I used the phrase “May you…” as the stem for each line. I tried to separate the “you” from “me” (I felt a little preachy honestly) and then, about halfway through the “you” felt more like I was writing to myself rather than writing to create distance from myself. I started feeling “May you…” a lot during these reflective days both in the imperative sense and in the sense of allowing myself to do what’s best for me.  Through daily writing, I discovered themes in my own ways of being that are holding me back in or advancing my personal growth and relationships. I agreed to let go of things that were weighing me down and make space for moments or experiences where I can be fully present. It was a pretty palpable area of growth!

Even so, as we get closer and closer to Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe dwindle, it undoubtedly feels like there’s never enough time to reconcile all I’ve done that’s been misguided and all the self-work I wanted to accomplish in the last several weeks.

Speaking of which, in some communities that I’m a part of we’re having one specific conversation related to teshuva, repentance, and self-work. Many folks are asking, “What do you do when your grievances with yourself (the things you cast away during Tashlich) are around disordered eating and exercise?” This is because on Yom Kippur, one of the customary rituals for the holiest day of the year, the act of fasting often conceptualized as your last chance to repent, may be misaligned with the important self-work folks who are recovering from eating disorders prioritize daily.

If you Google “Yom Kippur and eating disorders” you will come up with 43,100 results in 0.52 seconds. You can read a lot of interesting articles and personal narratives about how fasting isn’t teshuva when you have an eating disorder, the strange correlation between Orthodox Jewish women and the prevalence of eating disorders, and how you cannot fast (even for religious reasons) if it will threaten your life. One widely-referenced article says, ” For individuals who suffer, or are in recovery from, an eating disorder, eating on Yom Kippur is a holy act. Rather than finding “purity” or “spiritual growth” through denying themselves food, the act of eating itself is an act of teshuva.” And regardless of Google’s consensus or what a rabbi tells you, every person needs to make their own decision about what’s best for their body and their recovery – ideally, with the help of a team of medical and mental health professionals.

I will be fasting this year. One thing that I found that was particularly helpful for me in making this decision was intention setting. Many articles suggest that people who have a history of disordered eating might find it helpful to ask themselves, “What is my intention with fasting on Yom Kippur and can it be achieved some other way?” You could also ask, “What part of me is making the decision if I’m choosing to fast?” Examining your intentions is a good way to judge if it’s a responsible idea to fast and if your rationale is guided by spiritual motivation or disordered eating.

If you’re struggling with food I encourage you to take some time to revisit and evaluate your intentions around fasting on Yom Kippur. For some people “because it’s what we do” isn’t safe or enough of a justification to condone fasting on Yom Kippur.

This year, I’ve done this work for myself and I’d like to offer two intentions that I am holding with me as I anticipate and participate in the Yom Kippur Fast:

Tisha B’Av:

Tisha B’Av is one of the saddest days of the year. It’s the day that we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonian Talmud tells us,

To not mourn at all is impossible, as the decree was already issued and the Temple has been destroyed. But to mourn excessively as you are doing is also impossible, as the Sages do not issue a decree upon the public unless a majority of the public is able to abide by it.” (Tractate Bava Batra 60b). 

I’m interpreting this to mean that we mourn the destruction of the Temple at certain time periods that are designated for mourning, such as Tisha B’Av. The sorrow we feel on Tisha B’av must necessarily be time-limited – temporary.  However, if we don’t make space to feel the weight of this sadness, our persistent, always present joy risks feeling false or inauthentic. Similarly, an article from Aish mentions, “The point of the [Tisha B’Av] is not to wallow in pointless grief or melancholy. Judaism guides us to always live with a sense of purpose. Take the sadness and use it as a catalyst to rebuild. Replace destructive emotions with constructive actions. Resolve that today will bring us [the] opportunity to realize our spiritual potential.”

Just as we cannot bear the weight of immense sorrow every day, so too we cannot sustain ourselves by fasting interminably. The spiritual intention of fasting on Yom Kippur is time-limited and can be used as a tool to guide our choices in the year ahead. And, since one day of atonement doesn’t feel like nearly enough to rectify all our wrongdoings, we make time each day (e.g., through daily prayer or though apologizing) to be aware of our actions and how others experience us. This one day, Yom Kippur, is symbolic. This one practice, fasting, isn’t meant to be interminable just as the sadness we feel on Tisha B’Av isn’t always weighing us down.

Fully inhabiting your body:

I recently learned with Rabbi Jane Kanarek, PhD at a Sleichot service. Her teaching followed a series of Jewish texts which narrated all the ways (financial and otherwise) that our bodies matter and have worth. With this sentiment at the forefront, she proposed that we reimagine fasting on Yom Kippur in this way: fasting allows us to, momentarily, fully inhabit our body and experience all that it can do in its most depleted state and all that it needs to be its strongest. Only when we’ve understood the full worth of our bodies and realized that we can do so much more if we are dedicated to taking care of them can we do the work of teshuva.  She implied that you must mentally inhabit your empty (uninhabited) body to bring enlightenment and awareness to all that you need to feel strong and whole. This theme of wholeness and returning inward is essential to the High Holidays rhetoric, but in terms of fasting, the wholeness comes from when the fast is broken and you do what’s essential, replenish and fill yourself, to put your best self forward in the year ahead. Your intimate awareness with yourself and your needs demonstrates why this fast is time-limited and why the real teshuva occurs when we move beyond the symbolism of fasting and emerge from behind the Gates of Heaven prepared for whatever our bodies encounter next.

I wonder if any of you can relate to the difficulty of prioritizing this necessary self-work and awareness during the High Holidays when there’s so much to hold and coordinate on behalf of your community, work, family, and friends too. This tension, or rather sentiment, has me thinking a lot about Pirkei Avot 2:16, “you are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.” That’s how I’m approaching teshuva this year. That’s how I’m facing the seemingly insurmountable task of introspection and yearning for wholeness. It’s also how I’m approaching the necessity to do both community and self-work. They’re inextricably linked and neither can be completed or thrive in isolation – we need our whole self and our whole community now, through the High Holidays, and beyond to be our strongest and to even have a shot at achieving our goals. In fact, the responsibilities are too big for one person to expect to complete on their own. What do you think?

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How Do You Measure a Year?

Content Warning: disordered eating, excessive exercise, and self-harm


I’ve been working on this post since December 30, 2016. It’s time to share this aspect of my story even if it’s making me shake as I write. There will be more time to unpack and reorganize my thoughts later. The beauty is in the imperfections. The beauty is in naming my lived experience even if I’m scared. Thank you for reading.


2016 was a remarkable year – literally.

As I was reflecting, I realized that for someone who isn’t very good at math, I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics and complex calculations in 2016. I measured nearly everything – even when I didn’t realize I was doing it.

So, in that spirit, to reflect on 2016, I’m asking, “how do you measure a year?

Really though, what’s going to make a difference when you look back? What matters for days, weeks, months later? What’s memorable enough? What’s quantifiable? What’s not quantifiable that’s still important?

I could measure 2016 by the number of Tweets I posted, the number of good things that happened, the number of bad things that happened, the number of times I didn’t feel guilty about the food I was eating, the number of amazing conversations I had, the number of trips to the ER, the number of friends I lost, the number of friends I gained, the number of pounds I lost, the number of miles I ran, the number of times I dropped everything because someone needed me, the number of dollars I spent on therapy, the number of hours I spent in therapy, the number of articles I wrote, the number of “accomplishments” I earned, the number of days I over-scheduled to occupy my mind for every single waking minute, the number of fights I had, the number of moments I actually felt present, the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.

The truth is, it’s a miracle I made it through this year, and I’m not sure how I did it. I was crazed and compulsive, and my brain NEVER shut off! I mean it. I woke up exhausted from how many ideas and conversations my brain entertained while I was “sleeping”.

Control

In 2016 I was out of control; even though the one thing I felt like I could count on was control.

Control for me is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Striving for control manifested in a lot of ways for me in 2016. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm.  Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.

Running

I started measuring 2016 by counting calories and miles – obsessively [Thank you Under Armour You Vs Year Challenge] . I ended the year the same way. I ended 2016 weighing myself twice a day, working out 6 days a week, eating one full meal a day, and purging when I felt too full or overwhelmed. I spent 2016 calculating how many miles I’d need to track to erase every indulgence, and every slip of self-control. I ended 2016 feeling “okay” if I ate the same thing every day, and being both proud and fearful every time I lost more weight. It was never about weight, size, or body image; it was always about control. I ended 2016 convinced that these behaviors were typical and not disordered.

In 2016 my identity was contingent on my accomplishments; my identity was consumed by how far I could push myself [read: attempting to run a half marathon while being malnourished and completing an intensive one year Master’s degree while working four jobs]. I tracked my the miles I ran (see below), and if you ask me I can tell you how my mileage totals correlates directly with the chaos in my life.  When I felt most out of control, I ran more. It was so simple.

capture

Side note: Melissa A. Fabello suggest it’s bests to “Never, Ever  Use Numbers” when talking about fitness on social media. While I tend to agree and realize it can be triggering, I’m using numbers right now. I’m using numbers to illustrate and own my experience. I’m using numbers as literal data to tell my story.

I once described my feelings about running like this,

 “pounding the pavement, counting each step, each throbbing step. Endure, push through, don’t stop. Determination.  Thud, pound, pound, breath, keep going, don’t stop, sigh, sigh…”

I’ve also described running like this,

“I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant.

I channeled my mileage into training for two half marathons. The first race, I ended up in the hospital. I said I didn’t care, but I cared a lot! I was convinced I could push through anything but, my body had a different reality. If I was healthier, stronger, and had better intentions, I would have finished.There was a disconnect between my mind and my body. [Side note: There still is.]

So, the second time I trained for a half marathon, I trained smarter. I decided to think about food as fuel. The second time, I did finish! That was an accomplishment in 2016! In 2016 I  ran more than 1000K! I ran nearly the distance of 24 marathons, and with each crazed, obsessive step I gained clarity, pain, agony, energy, and strength – depending on the day.

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At the finish line of the Cambridge Half Marathon  – 11/13/2016

I ended 2016 both in denial and with a plan to tackle these perfectionist driven behaviors, and dangerous habits. I ended 2016 with a plan to be stronger – both physically and mentally.

I should mention here that living with OCD and overcoming compulsions or obsessions is not a linear process. I’ve had several bouts of compulsions in my life, and even if I’ve resolved one, it’s likely another will reveal itself or I’ll relapse – this is super context dependent (I learned this in 2016). Acknowledging this is a really important step.

Education

In 2016 I graduated with my Master’s degree. Now I have two degrees – count that! I am among the nearly 9-12% (depending on the source) of people in the U.S. who hold an advanced degree. That’s pretty cool.

I also got a job! I love my job, and I love getting to say that I’m a researcher! My team is an amazing group of nerdy, collaborative, intelligent people. Each day my strengths are recognized. I’m trusted and respected. Our work is important. I feel productive and valuable. I feel empowered and supported. I’m appropriately challenged, and I’m always learning new skills. I feel happy at my job every day (even when it’s stressful)- that’s a relief. I am so lucky!

Many people have asked me if I think that graduate school was worth it especially because I love my job and learned so much, and most often my response is overpowered by  my own ambivalence. Usually I don’t even want to be entertaining such a question. However, if I’m being honest, I hated graduate school. I have been working through a lot of issues such as complex traumaimpostor syndrome, and anxiety because of it. I do not think that it was worth it. Merely surviving should never be the objective. Although, it’s always an accomplishment. As much as I try to convince myself it wasn’t “that bad” the more I listen to my friends and recall several of the worst nights of my life it’s tough to deny how severe it was. I wouldn’t say that struggling for a year, being suicidal at times, and acquiring an eating disorder as a result of my unrelenting OCD was worth it no matter how amazing my job is now. In 2016, I learned how academia doesn’t take mental health and self-care seriously, and that it’s too easy to pretend you’re “fine” even when you’re struggling immensely.

Writing

In 2016, I also found and joined feminist writing spaces. In first publication on Ravishly.com I came out as asexual. I recognized my values and my identities were reflected in the topics other people were writing about.  These writers and activists exemplified for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. My queerness is not the most prominent aspect of my identity, but being queer and owning it afforded me both a sense of connection and exclusion. The connectedness was electrifying. The exclusion made me feel enraged and small. And so, I wrote!

I was enamored with the connection and the energy! I became addicted to saying things, and having them matter to someone. I wanted to be seen, and to belong. I wanted people to recognize my identities, relate to me, and engage with me! My feminism burst out of me once I gained knowledge and started writing, and allowed myself the privilege of being recognized for and confident about who I am, and how my life works. In 2016, I became a writer, and found my voice – which I still think is really cool!

Awareness, Acceptance, and Action – Next Steps

I measured 2016 in events, logistics, and numbers. I allowed my emotions to be in charge when they made sense and they were manageable. Otherwise I silenced them. I convinced myself most feelings were too big, and too intrusive. I learned to retreat instead of express myself. In 2016 I mostly felt complacent – which felt good. Conversely, I often felt out-of-control happy, out-of-control sad, out-of-control angry… and those feelings didn’t feel good. I learned that numbness can be an everyday, acceptable feeling, and that being numb can carry you for a really long time.

I’m still doing the work to recognize, respond to, and feel – literally – what emotions feel like. Sometimes that means getting on a soap box ranting about how frustrated I feel when women at my office complain about the actual, never-ending supply of candy, and the perpetual body shaming and food shaming. Sometimes that means saying when someone hurts me, and calling them out even if it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes that means, recognizing when I’m happy, and sharing that joy with others!

The point is, once I started allowing myself to feel, I allowed my opinions to be valid, and spent time cultivating self-awareness – including learning about myself and my opinions about feminism. I realized there were so many injustices that made me absolutely livid inside, and I charged toward advocating for justice and equity. I also gained some personal insight into what emotions mean for me – which is definitely a work in progress.

I rounded out 2016 by signing a lease for an apartment in Cambridge, MA. I found a wonderful, accepting community of social justice minded, Jewish, young professionals to share Shabbat with. I am in love with the intellectual capital and the culture of Cambridge. I’ve enjoyed sharing the camaraderie of running in this compact city! When I’m feeling really good, I’ll even admit there are a lot of incredible restaurants to try too! I’m excited for the opportunity to thrive in a new, invigorating space.

I could measure 2016 SO many ways. I did measure 2016 SO many ways. Now, in hindsight, I’m finding it most helpful and fulfilling to measure 2016 by recognizing all the opportunities for growth and all the potential for the coming years. I’m happy. Really. I’ve got a good thing going for me right now, and I have an incredible amount of hard, hard work ahead of me.

2017 will be about embracing being simultaneously a masterpiece and a work in progress! I’m ready!


If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

If you struggle with self-harm, the you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.