Trigger warning: this post contains important, personal references to eating disorders. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association for information and referrals.
There are times when I sense within me a power of greater magnitude than any in this world. I feel grounded by an impenetrable core impervious to damage or decay. I am fused with infinity and armored by a certainty in all we cannot see. And yet, there are other times when I sense nothing beneath my feet. I fall through the sizzling crack between hello and goodbye, and wait terrified for loss to find me. Loss of love. Loss of self. Loss of meaning.
Trepidation and anxiety threaten to engulf me. For twenty years, my strategy for survival has proven simple, effective, and disastrous. Whenever I find myself gripped by anxiety, I restrict food. I play games with myself. What is the least amount of calories I need to make it through the day? What’s the maximum intensity I can reach during a workout having fasted for over 24 hours? I win when I achieve a new personal record lifting weights, while fueled solely by caffeine. I make commitments to myself. I will consume 700 calories today. I will enjoy three protein bars and nothing else. It gives me something on which to fix eagle eyed focus. It pushes the anxiety to the background and offers certainty in an uncertain world. It also sabotages my health, my relationships, and my sense of self.
The opening lines of Parsha Matot delineate the very gendered rules governing vows and obligations. At first reading, it’s another example of the lack of autonomy afforded women in our Torah. But I prefer to read it differently, omitting gender entirely (sort of like a Reform siddur).
My reimagined parsha reads, “If a person makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation while still in the parents’ household by reason of youth, and that person’s parent learns of the vow or the self-imposed obligation and offers no objection, all the vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if the person’s parent restrains the person on the day the vow is found out, none of the vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord will forgive the person, since the parent restrained the person. If the person should marry while the vow or the commitment to which they have been bound is still in force, and the person’s partner learns of it and offers no objection on the day they find out, the person’s vows shall stand and the self-imposed obligations shall stand. But if the person’s partner restrains the person on the day the vow is found out, the partner thereby annuls the vow which was in force or the commitment to which the person was bound; and the Lord will forgive the person” (based on Numbers 30:4 – 10).
Recently, I found myself besieged by anxiety. Mixed up in that beast was a boatload of insecurity, the sting of past wounds, and a fear of loss so dense as to be suffocating. After a breakfast of oatmeal and a protein shake, I committed to consuming nothing else for the duration of the day. Immediately, I felt the anxiety recede. I floated through two parties bedecked with food. Hamburgers, hot dogs, onion rings, cupcakes, macaroni-and-cheese, cookies, fruit, beer. Despite my growing hunger, I was never tempted. The comfort I experienced each time I reminded myself of the vow to restrict calories was far too valuable to sacrifice. It was my secret weapon against the world. It was so easy.
Admittedly, I felt my thinking cloud and my mood descend. I grew extremely fatigued. My partner kept asking, “Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you want something?” What I want is to feel loved, valued and secure. I can write these words, but I cannot say them. What I shared instead was my rock solid commitment to caloric restriction. I attempted to articulate my finely-tuned and reliable strategy for managing anxiety. My partner responded, “That doesn’t seem healthy.”
Eventually, buoyed by my partner’s gentle guidance, I found my way to a balanced meal. I do not always struggle in this way, but when I do I need support and assistance. The vows I make must be broken because they do not serve my wellbeing. I am grateful for someone in my life who can intervene with compassion and sensitivity.
Parsha Matot references vows we make to God. I am certain more than a few of us attempt to bargain with the divine towards ends that are not always in our best interests. I am also certain we all make decisions harmful to ourselves. Food, alcohol, sex, exercise, shopping… We all have our go-to methods for eliminating anxiety, numbing pain, and distracting us from truths we’d rather not acknowledge. How fortunate we are when we have a loving and supportive parent or partner to help us break those cycles.
Relationship are challenging not because love is difficult. Honest, substantive relationships to which we bring ourselves fully are hard because they force us to confront the darkness in ourselves. Parsha Matot reminds us that sometimes we all need an ally to investigate the shadows. We all need a comrade to conquer the demons. This is love in action and no small measure of what commitment entails.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.