Year Of Change

Rabbi Paul Arberman

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about making this a change year — a year of growth and improvement.

I believe that one of the key elements of growth and change is recognizing if something is holding you back. And one of the issues I have been thinking about a lot this year is how much easier it is for me to make a black and white change as opposed to trying to be moderate.

The issue crystalized for me this past year when I had to change my diet because of gall stones. For a few weeks, I completely stopped eating any dairy, oil or meat. The first few days were difficult as you might imagine, but then it was like a switch flipped and suddenly it was quite easy!

I did some research into the issue of moderation vs. abstinence — and it can apply to food, or any addiction. It can apply to any sin in the machzor — so you can fill in the blank for yourself.

You’re a moderator if you…

  • find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve to not eat more.
  • get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something

You’re an abstainer if you…

  • have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
  • aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits

Do these categories ring true for you?

When dealing with temptation, I often see the advice, “Be moderate. Don’t have ice cream every night, but if you try to deny yourself altogether, you’ll fall off the wagon. Allow yourself to have the occasional treat, it will help you stick to your plan.”

I’ve come to believe that this is good advice for some people: the “moderators.” They do better when they avoid absolutes and strict rules.

For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation–and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson, who said, when someone offered him wine: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

Ah ha! Like Dr. Johnson, I’m an “abstainer.”

Again: I’m not saying it’s true for everyone. But I think it’s more true than people think.

But my friends, I am troubled. Doesn’t Judaism teach moderation?

This view is expressed in no uncertain terms by Rav in the Jerusalem Talmud:  “Man, in the life to come, will have to account for every enjoyment offered him that was refused — without sufficient cause.”

Accordingly, we find asceticism, or abstinence as a principle, condemned in the Talmud.   “Why must the Nazarite bring a sin-offering at the end of his term? (Num. vi. 13, 14).

Because he sinned against his own person by his vow of abstaining from wine,” says Eliezer ha-Kappar (Sifra, ad loc., and Ned. 10a),  —  drawing his conclusion from this Biblical passage: “Whosoever undergoes fasting and other penances for no special reason commits a wrong.” “

And this great quote by R. Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud:  “Is the number of things forbidden by the Law not enough that you venture to add of your own accord, by your inconsiderate vow?” says R. Isaac (Yer. Ned. ix. 41b).

Jewish opinion may be best represented by Maimonides, who advocates the “golden middle way” of moderation (Yad ha-Chazakah, Hilkot De’ot, i.-iii.) —  whether in regard to marriage or to eating of meat and drinking of wine, or to any other personal comfort, is most emphatically condemned as antagonistic to the spirit of Judaism.

Commenting on a verse in Ecclesiastes, “Be not overrighteous” (7:16), he wrote: “To avoid lust or envy, do not say I won’t eat good food, or marry. This is an evil way….One who follows that path is a sinner” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character Development and Ethical Ideas 3:1).

So when does abstinence have a place in Judaism?  Aren’t there examples of when Jewish law is black and white — and we are totally not allowed to try something?

The law: “Be holy!” was interpreted: Exercise abstinence in order to arrive at the state of purity and holiness (Ab. Zarah, 20b; SifraKedoshim, beginning).

All Jewish laws concerning diet are declared by Rav to have for their purpose — the purification of Israel (Lev. R. 13)—to train the Jew in self-discipline.

And it is necessary for those with an addiction. An addict, by definition, is someone who has lost control of his behavior. He is in servitude to his habit.

The ideal of human freedom from bondage is the central motif of the entire Torah. The Torah’s central narrative is of God freeing the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt; scores of commandments are described as commemorations of the slavery itself or of the liberation, or else as lessons learned from our experience as slaves.

An indentured servant who agrees to extend his servitude beyond the indenture period must have his ear bored as a symbol (Exodus 21:6); the Talmud tells us that this is meant as a visible sign of rebuke for a person who despised his freedom. “The ear which heard on Mount Sinai, ‘For the children of Israel are slaves to Me’, and not slaves to other slaves, and yet acquired a master for himself — let it be bored”.

So with these texts in mind — that I have some support within Judaism for abstaining instead of moderating — I want to say that  I’ve learned that I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately.

When I admitted to myself that I was eating my favorite treat — chocolate very often–two and even three times a day–I had to give it up cold turkey — well, for a while at least.

That was far easier for me to do than to eat it twice a week. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today and tomorrow will be my twice a week?”  “Does this time ‘count’?”  “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.

Abstaining feels to me like I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety. That candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…if I know that it is off limits — they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: I give myself limits — to give myself freedom. As in “I’m free from cookies…” free from FB checking, video games, gambling, alcohol…

People say, “You won’t live longer eating this way. It will only feel like that.” And you know what? I used to say that, too — until I tried it. I’m richly rewarded for passing up those decadent meals.  I feel so much better.

I find so much more pleasure in my other senses now. Humans need sensory fulfillment — and when one sense is turned down — others compensate. Music can compensate for sight.

I will share with you my thought that in my experience, most people assume they’re moderators. If you consider yourself a moderator, I’d gently suggest giving abstaining a try   –   especially if you’ve unsuccessfully tried moderation in the past. It might be easier than you think.

Abstaining sounds demanding and rigid so people assume that it’s easier to be moderate. But in fact, abstaining is easier. At least, for lots of people. From what I’ve seen, many people who try abstaining are surprised to find out that it’s easier than being moderate.

Ultimately though — there’s no right way or wrong way–it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of precious energy justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.

I’ll tell you something interesting — and I’m not sure exactly why it happens. In my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team. A nutritionist once told me, “I tell my clients to follow the 80/20 rule.  Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason, 20% of the time.”   She wouldn’t consider my point of view–that a 100% rule might be easier for someone like me to follow.

People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take. As an abstainer, I often get disapproving comments like, “It’s not healthy to take such a severe approach” or “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “You should be able to have a brownie.”

On the other hand, I want to tell moderators, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?” But different approaches work for different people. Actually, with a real addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.

Another thing I’ve noticed that it can seem friendly to urge people to break their regimen — whatever it is — to urge people to break a promise they’ve made to themselves  — to break a diet, to indulge in an extra glass of wine, or to treat themselves to a purchase.

“I can’t believe you’re not going to try this dessert, I made it myself!” “Just one won’t hurt!” “This is a party, live a little!” Consider for a moment that the truly kind thing to do, in almost every situation, is to try to help people stick to their resolutions.

So,  going forward. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866), the first Gerer Rebbe, (a Hasidic sect popular in Poland) spent a lot of time contemplating the battle of good over evil. He warned his followers: “There will be many and grave temptations, and he who has not prepared himself for them will be lost.”

So let’s  prepare for this coming year.

Decide if you’re a moderator or an abstainer — and decide what temptation you’d like to resist, and to what degree.

If you want to indulge, plan ahead. This helps you feel in control and also to decide where you’ll get the most bang for your temptation buck. For moderators: it’s one thing to indulge on the day of a holiday or at a single meal. It’s another thing to indulge during the holiday season. It’s a holiDAY.

As you approach your tempting situation, imagine yourself living up to your rule. Imagine yourself not gossiping in the social situation; or imagine yourself taking just two cookies. Think about how pleased you’ll be that you stuck to your guidelines for yourself.

Remember the argument of the growing heap —  the “does one coin make a person rich?” question.  Of course, one cookie is no big deal. That’s absolutely true. But be very wary of that argument.

Your willpower is like a muscle, it can tire easily — but it can also get stronger and retain muscle memory. It gets easier.

Temptation is overcome by forming good habits and repeating them. That’s true when it comes to speaking well of others, praying, giving charity, studying, exercising, visiting the sick, and spending time with our families.

A trouble-maker I went to school with had a yearbook quote that read: “Lead us not into temptation. Just leave us alone. We’ll find it.”

Whether you need to moderate or abstain — this year, when temptation knocks — I hope that with some good strategies  — you send it to knock on someone else’s door.

Shabbat Shalom and Gut Yontif.