One year ago, I looked in the mirror and decided I wasn’t the weight I wanted to be. It wasn’t the first time I had come to this realization. With each baby, there were another few pounds that just wouldn’t go away. I would get frustrated, start a diet that consisted of diet ice cream bars for lunch and would end up wolfing down a big dinner. Within days, it was back to Oreos. Since I was already far from my ideal weight, I would reason, another cookie didn’t make much difference.
But it was around that time, thirteen months ago that I faced facts. I had just turned 35. I knew that my metabolism was starting to slow and that it would just get harder to lose the weight. I knew that if I didn’t start now, I was going to be really heavy in another ten years. My brother had lost a lot of weight; I was inspired to follow in his footsteps.
In the past, I had told myself I should exercise but as a working mother whose husband is often not home and the difficulty in finding a baby-sitter, spending money on a gym and baby-sitter, just so I could cycle to nowhere wasn’t very compelling.
I decided that it was time to put excuses aside. It was true, I did not have time to work out. But I decided to make time. Which is how I started to wake up at 5:10am every work day and walk at least 4 miles.
Thirteen months and thirteen pounds lighter, I am still walking every day. To my husband’s shock, I quit my sixteen-year addiction to diet Coke and switched to water. I try to be more cognizant of what I put in my mouth. I didn’t make any drastic changes. I will try not to eat the most fattening foods at the table on Shabbos, but I do not deprive myself of cholent, one piece of dessert (not two!) and challah (although I try not to eat eight).
I never thought I would be the kind of person who would wake up before dawn to exercise. And yet here I am. I have proven to myself that I can change.
We arrive at Rosh Hashana every year, wanting to be different, knowing we should be better but not knowing how to do it. And even wondering to ourselves, who are we fooling? We are never going to get to Yom Kippur and be innocent of every sin for which we hit our chest.
But seeing dieting as a paradigm for change has allowed me to realize that teshuva can actually be tangible; as the Torah says, it’s not far, it’s within our grasp.
So here are the twelve pieces of dieting advice that I have decided to apply to my Teshuva efforts this year:
- Don’t wait until you’re very overweight to make healthy lifestyle changes: Often we reason that we don’t really have to diet, we’re not that heavy. But if we manage our weight when we are a few pounds over, that keeps our weight in check. Same with Teshuva: often we tell ourselves that we really aren’t that bad, we are mostly good, we just have a few bad traits. Let’s not wait for our lack of patience, or need to be in control, get worse and ruin our home life. Better to work on bad traits now.
- You have to want it enough: It’s not easy to resist a tray of delicious brownies after a long and stressful day. The only way to really set our diets on the right track is to want it badly enough. Same with Teshuva. Ask yourself: why are you setting yourself on this path to self-improvement? Sometimes the answer is simply: I want to stand before G-d and like who I am. Which is really not so different from wanting to stand before the mirror and like what we see.
- Reality Check: When we eat those cookies, we know they are swarming with calories. So why do we do it? Because Oreos hire the best defense attorneys in the world who infiltrate our heads and give us a thousand reason why it’s logical to eat one.
That some defense attorney works for lashon hara. We know every heter or reason in the book for why one is allowed to speak lashon hara, why it’s good for our emotional/psychological health, why it’s even a mitzvah!
The first step to Teshuva is Vidui, confession; being honest with ourselves about what we are doing. Only from there, can we move forward to correcting our ways.
- Crash Diets Aren’t Sustainable: We all wish we could drop ten pounds in a week. There are diets that accomplish that but they aren’t usually sustainable. We also wish we could tackle our laundry list of bad traits before Rosh Hashana. Drastic changes generally don’t work and we come to the next year frustrated that the changes we hoped to implement didn’t stay. Choose one or two traits or mitzvot to work on and focus on those.
- Don’t aim for Barbie Doll: If you start your diet hoping to be perfectly skinny by the end, it’s probably not realistic. Instead, envision yourself to be a more fit and healthier version of yourself. Same with Teshuva. The goal is to be better this year than we were the year before. It’s about moving ahead.
- Eating one dessert when your friend eats two doesn’t make you skinny- Don’t compare yourself to your friend. Just like we all start at different weights and everyone’s metabolism is different, so too, everyone’s path to Teshuva is different. Being more or less religious than your friend doesn’t indicate anything about how much Teshuva you personally have to do. We are measured against ourselves and how much we personally grow, we are not judged in comparison to anyone else.
- Preparation: You are a lot more likely to be successful with healthy eating if you spend a night cutting carrots and preparing healthy foods to grab to stave off stress eating. Same with Teshuva. The more time you spend thinking, introspecting and planning, the better the chance you will be successful in implementing change.
- Write down your food: Write down the food you eat so you can become aware of your successes and be accountable for your shortcomings.
This works with Teshuva, as well. Make a chesbon ha’nefesh every day. If your goal is to daven every day- write down the times you pushed off davening to do six errands and then found it was too late. And then write down when you were successful in making time.
- When you fall off the horse, get back on: When you eat that cookie, don’t eat six since you already messed up: stay on the bandwagon!
Same with Teshuva. When you mess up, don’t say it’s too hard and give up. Accept that you’re human and keep trying.
- Find a diet partner and don’t go to your favorite cookie store as an outing: Find a partner with whom you can discuss your accomplishments and frustrations. If it’s a time of day that you usually speak lashon hara, take that time to read a book. Stay away from that party where you inevitably end up gossiping.
- Friends get jealous of skinny friends- There are always people who will mock you and ask you why you are doing this and when did you get so religious? Keep in mind, they’re probably feeling insecure and possibly even jealous at your determination to change and your will power. Don’t let their words get to you.
- The older you get, the harder it is to diet, but start today because it’s always harder tomorrow: No matter how old or set in our ways, it is never too late to make changes and set our lives in the right direction.
Wishing you all a successful Elul and hope we are all spiritually fit for Rosh Hashana!
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.