Physical and Mental Health during the High Holy Days
Thank you Rabbi Ruth Adar, aka the Coffee Shop Rabbi, for this powerful piece and challenging us to think differently around the Jewish High Holidays.
Before I learned to read Hebrew, the High Holy Days could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair. Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression. Even the relatively lighter “hit” of Rosh Hashanah was hard.
I have several students who are diabetics. Each has a highly personal way of managing their blood sugar, and it is critical to their well-being. Allowing the blood sugar to get out of whack isn’t just uncomfortable, it can be life-threatening.
I know a woman who struggles with eating disorders. For her, the talk about fasting for Yom Kippur has a siren edge to it. The Rosh Hashana table, laden with sweet dishes seems to her like a giant honey trap.
For those with a physical or mental illness, the High Holy Days can be a difficult time. The basic and most important rule is that we must choose life: in other words, do what we need to do to survive. Without life, there is no holiness.
Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them:
PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, or call your therapist, DO IT. Don’t wait to collapse, or for permission – just do whatever it is you need to do for your health.
FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (They should not be quizzing you, anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!
The Yom Kippur fast is not a weight-loss opportunity. The point of Yom Kippur fasting is holiness; we can seek that holiness in the discipline and humility required to follow medical directions.
MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them as your doctor has directed. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, take what you should take. Messing around with medications is sinful: take them the way the doctor says to take them. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, including Yom Kippur, and I say a blessing when I take them.
LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.
If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. One is to schedule some time with your rabbi or another teacher to talk about Jewish approaches to “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations. This doesn’t require full fluency in Hebrew, just enough to let you say and understand the prayers.
DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.
Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.