When a rabbi struggles with food…

When rabbis and clergy share vulnerably about their own struggles and courage they model that for others and empower them to do the same. Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein shares her own struggles with weight and food. I haven’t met someone yet who doesn’t….

Weight Watcher Rabbi
When I was 15, I began to take control of my relationship with food through Weight Watchers. I have lost and maintained 40 pounds since then and attended meetings all throughout college and rabbinical school. And now I am a rabbi and the lessons and mantras that I have learned through my studies and my meetings have always swirled inside me in complimentary ways. So here I am, sharing my swirl with you. Stay tuned for Torah, food, and the human experience.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015

If I’m not for Myself…
“If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If I’m only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?”
-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Sages) 1:14

This teaching has followed me all week long, including at my weigh in. I went down 1.2 this week, and this is one of those times when I feel like I earned it. Sometimes, when I lose weight, I chalk it up to a good BM or some other reason that doesn’t actually give me any credit, you know…the one who actually did the work. We all need to own our successes more. But, this week I didn’t even try to make excuses. I knew I earned it and I’ll tell you why.

I stopped worrying about how my food choices would make others feel, and I focussed on how they would make me feel. This is easier said than done because everyone has something to say about what what we’re eating.

Do you remember what your mother used to say if you ever complained that your brother or sister didn’t finish their broccoli? “Keep your eyes on your own plate!” Unfortunately, people generally don’t do that, and what we eat seems to worry the people around us. Plug that natural human tendency into overt social settings, and everyone is a critic or a concerned party.

My work, like a lot of other folks, comes with a whole slew of free food including cookies, cake, challah, bagels, and sometimes even eggplant parm. Add a conference into the mix and I would have expected a weight gain this week. Conferences mean that I am sitting all day and survive at the whim of someone else’s menu. On top of that, there are tons of people around which means that either I am having a great time, which makes me want to eat, or I’m feeling very anxious, which also makes me want to eat.

But I remembered my teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I’ll give you an example of this in action- When I realized that there were no vegetarian options that would make me feel satisfied, instead of eating what was put in front of me, I went over to the cafeteria and bought a meal that would fill me up and make me smile. I wanted to enjoy my food. And when I got back to the table, my colleagues and friends nudged me and poked fun about being a picky eater (being a vegetarian wasn’t bad enough?). It was all good natured, but that kind of things stops us from making good choices.

I have come to learn that I cannot wait for someone to make healthy choices for me and if the options are not there, then I’ll forge them myself. Occasionally, that doesn’t sit well with others.

Let’s take family gatherings like Thanksgiving. Does Great Aunt Mildred (fictional family member) get upset if you don’t eat her famous pumpkin pie and say, “not even a sliver?” Do you ever feel the pressure to eat seconds of something so that your host/ess knows that the meal was delicious? How about when you’re out to dinner and you’re the only one who doesn’t want to share the wine or the appetizer? Last one, I promise: During my Passover shopping I came across those sour cream and onion chips that my father likes. I thought, “he’ll be disappointed if I don’t by them.” Guess what… he barely touched them and I almost finished half the bag before I threw them out.

I may ruffle some feathers, I may disappoint people, and I may make people uncomfortable with their own choices (or I may make that all up in my head), but if I am not for myself, no one will be for me! That is not to say that I go out of my way to make people squirm. Remember, the 2nd line of the teachings is: “If I am only for myself, what I am?” But there are other ways to connect with people and show our gratitude and love other than with food.

This principle applies to every corner of our lives, including our professions, and even within our families. Just a note on professions, there is a great book that I have been meaning to read called: Women Don’t Ask The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation.” We tend not to negotiate promotions and we tend not to negotiate eating or time to take care of ourselves.

It’s time to be our own best advocates because: “If not now, when?”

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