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Eating in Elul: A Mindfulness Practice

By finding the truth in one aspect of your life, larger truths will emerge.

This summer, I embarked on the process of applying to rabbinical school. Though the prospect of being accepted was exciting, I was also apprehensive when I considered the amount of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth I felt I needed to do before assuming the many responsibilities of a rabbi. Around the same time, we landed on the holiday of Tisha B’Av. I didn’t know much about Tisha B’Av, so I decided to research this holiday that had somehow escaped my experiences. I learned that Tisha B’Av is sometimes considered the beginning of the process of making teshuvah. I had never approached Elul or the concept of making teshuvah intentionally before; I felt like this would be the perfect way for me to engage in this meaningful tradition and also work on spurring my inner growth.

I began perusing books that would aid me on this journey. This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew was recommended online by a rabbi whom I admire. This book taught me that Tisha B’Av can be seen as the “moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives — in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and others.” In addition to using prayer and meditation as ways to focus on chesbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul), he suggested committing oneself to being totally conscious of and honest about a simple and fundamental part of one’s life for the 30 days of Elul. Be it spending habits, respecting one’s parents, or housekeeping, the idea is that by focusing on one thing and finding the truth in that aspect of your life, larger truths will emerge.

I decided to focus on eating. In Parshat Re’eh, the Israelites were bidden to eat a sacrifice that they had offered, but “only all that your soul desires.” I began eating only when I truly felt hungry. At first, this was more difficult than I had imagined. As I went  through my day at work, I realized how often I eat snacks and junk food. I often bring multiple snacks (some healthy and some not) to work with me every day, and other people often leave food out for the purpose of sharing. Instead of eating only when I was really hungry, I would eat muffins or candy that someone had left in the kitchen as a way to give my brain a break from repetitive tasks or as an afternoon “pick me up.” At home, I was consistently tempted by the moose tracks ice cream I knew was residing in my freezer. Not only was I eating in excess; I also wasn’t making healthy choices when it came to what I ate.

In order to make a change in this aspect of my life, I began to examine the reasons for my specific eating habits. I thought about how food was always what my family turned to in times of distress (and joy) when I was growing up. My many memories of eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings made it difficult to resist that specific carbohydrate. I realized that when I’m completely engrossed in a task, I’m less likely to crave unhealthy food. Realizing during which tasks I’m either engaged or distracted helped me determine which areas of my life are more meaningful, and which require more focus. I came to understand that boredom and stress cause me to engage in these eating behaviors, and that food provides comforting moments that my daily life my lack. In the words of Rabbi Lew, eating is “a fast palliative for the stress that overwhelms us, a surrogate for the emotional and spiritual nourishment we need and never receive, a way of feeling our physicality in a world that all too rarely permits us to do so.”

By cultivating a mindfulness practice around food, I gained so much insight into my behaviors and daily rituals. I devoted more of my attention to my body and its needs, and as a result, I feel more in control of my habits and more understanding of the areas of my life that need awareness and care. This process was challenging; I often found myself slipping into old habits or eating absentmindedly. However, I am content to have begun making teshuvah to myself — by gaining truth about my choices through introspection and making healthier decisions.

Madeleine Fortney is the Innovation & Impact Assistant at Reconstructing Judaism, and a Drexel student studying Communication and minoring in Judaic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies.

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