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Beating Kevin

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Impulses and Appetites

A friend once asked me why I still go to weight watchers meetings if I have lost the weight already and have kept it off. I tried to explain that those deeper places inside of me that want to soothe pain, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessnesswith food still exist and will likely always exist. I still make mistakes and fall in ruts. Weight loss surely brings higher self esteem, but I am who I am and I haven't white washed my inner canvas with weight watchers e-tools. The impulses and appetites still exist and this got me thinking about the Jewish concept of our primal inclinations, the yetzer hara. 

We normally translate the yetzer hara as evil inclination. I'm having a hard time with this, and I believe that our sages do too. 

The rabbis teach that "if it were not for the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, no man would build a house, marry a wife, or beget children." What are these inclinations? Competition? Self aggrandizement? Sexual desire? The need to be seen? There most certainly is a place for the yetzer hara inside of us and within our communities. City planning, scientific advances, and the survival of humankind would be at risk if we did not have these impulses. Our yetzer hara is integral to life. 

I believe it is my yetzer hara that helped me "beat Kevin," my friend who told me he thought I would be unable to reach a weight loss goal I set. That competition, the need to prove myself, and my own superficiality all played roles in my stubborn determination. I thank him for activating this in me. 

And now, KEVIN has started his own challenge, to lose 12 pounds by Labor Day. His focus... BEAT THE RABBI. The yetzer hara can be an incredible driving force. 

There is an interesting midrash, rabbinic folktale, that demonstrates this point further. It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!” The rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

We're not ready to destroy those impulses and appetites. It can be dangerous to be too righteous. My new favorite teacher, Ruth Calderon, likens this to holding a beach ball under water until the pressure makes the ball uncontrollably crash through the water surface. In the Weight Watchers world, this looks like such strict denial of cravings that you end up binge eating on an entire challah when you could have just eaten one rugelach. 

I'm also not interested in shaming myself. Even God in Bereishit metaphorically feels the rush of endorphins that comes with creating or achieving something that you deem "good." Perhaps this is the point. If we want to diffuse the impulse, take note of it, label it, and perhaps find a healthy outlet. 

We're multifaceted so the same impulses that might make me want to eat destructively may also make me an empathic listener, and the impulses that cause me to achieve and strive can also make me trample over someone else's needs.  We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. 

It's when these impulses lead us to hurt ourselves or those we love when they become evil inclinations. To be human is to be flawed. Now it makes sense to me why we strive for the time of the Mashiach. All is this grey area will be much more discernible. 

In the meantime, trying for extremes, even righteousness, backfires. So we strive for moderation and we learn from mistakes. We don't let ourselves off of the hook, but we also forgive ourselves and sometimes each other. We go to meetings, we pounds our chests, and we reflect honestly, all to breathe air into our humanity, not to be stifled by it. 

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