Lessons from Weight Loss

By Vicky O'Brien, Albany, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


Apathy and obesity are large problems in a modern society. Apathy is compared in Chassidus to Amalek, the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people who attacked from behind.  The Torah tells us to wipe out Amalek, just as we must wipe out apathy.  However, it is hard to stay motivated and focused on a daily basis.  My goal is to use the tools of both Chassidus and weight loss to explore staying motivated.

The Jewish ideas that will be explored in this essay are 1.the Neshama (soul) being like a diamond,  2.the Jewish people being a treasured nation,  3. Kabbalat Ol (accepting the yoke of G-d), 4. “This thing is very close to you to do it”, 5. “turn from evil and do good”, 6. ”choose life”,   7. “build for me a Mishkan (sanctuary) and I will dwell in THEM” and 8.   “man does not live by bread alone.”  These are all important ideas from Torah that are developed by Chassidus.

It is my hope that I will successfully tie together my motivation for physical health with my motivation for spiritual health, including motivating others to take care of their health both physically and spiritually.  When the physical and spiritual can come together in the service of G-d, we have the strongest motivation.  We eat many times a day which  can be a good arena to practice our Jewish values. When we focus on the meaning of Brachos (blessings),  we feel the greatness of  G-d.  Thinking about the eight Chassidic ideas (listed above) while we are eating will reinforce our focus on spiritual and physical health and thus increase our motivation.

Weight loss is a journey that requires motivation and discipline.  The major components of weight loss are diet, exercise and psychological factors.  Some of the psychological tools of weight loss are self nurturing, staying positive, mindfulness, identifying why one  wants to lose weight, not giving up on dieting because of a “slip up”, and tracking what is eaten.  These tools can parallel and complement some Jewish spiritual tools.

Our Neshama (soul) is the G-dly energy within us.  G -d breathed life into man as described in Bereishis (Genesis).  The Hebrew word for breath is Ruach, which also translates as wind and spirituality.  Breathing gives us a strong connection to spirituality and G-d, if we choose to focus on it.  Meditation and mindfulness are tools to incorporate this idea.

1 & 2 Our Neshama is compared to a diamond and the Jewish people are called a treasured nation (Am Segula).  When diamonds are in the ground, they are covered with dirt and unpolished.  Similarly, our souls could be spiritually covered with dirt, Klipa, and very unpolished and unrefined.  It is the spiritual work of Mitzvos (commandments) and meditating on G-d that helps polish and refine our soul.  With weight loss, when we diet and exercise, we are refining our G-dly body.  The motivation to do Mitzvos is compared to the uncovering of the diamond from the dirt.

The soul is clothed in three garments: thought, speech and action.  Speech, which comes from the mouth, can parallel diet, which is what goes into the mouth.  Action, which uses the body, can be compared to exercise.  We can use action to do Mitzvos.  Thought directs speech and action, so it can be compared to G-d and the Torah.  G-d wrote the Torah to tell us what He wants from the Jewish people.  Rebbeim are diamond experts.  They see G-dly Neshamas in Jews and help reveal them.  Life experience and trials can also be tools to polish our souls, our spiritual diamonds, when we follow our Jewish ideals.

3 It is our job in this world to do the will of G-d, Kabbalat Ol. Kabbalot Ol translates as accepting the yoke of G-d and is the highest level of connection to G-d. With Kabbalat Ol, we do Mitzvos purely for the sake of uniting our will with G-d’s will.  This parallels an animal pulling the plow through a yoke and harness according to its master’s will.  According to Chassidus, we have an animal soul, Nefesh Habihamos, and a G-dly soul, Nefesh  Elokis, battling within us.  The more we align ourselves with our G-dly soul, learn Torah and meditate on G -d, the more we align ourselves with G-d’s will.  A Tzadik (righteous person), is completely aligned with G-d’s will.  A Rasha (evil person), is completely aligned with his animal soul. Most Jews fall somewhere in between these extremes.  The struggle to do G-d’s will parallels the struggle of a dieter.  As a Jew aligns his will with G -d’s will, he becomes more spiritually healthy.   As a dieter aligns his will with what is physically healthy, he feels less struggle and more motivated on his weight loss journey. The struggles of the G-dly and animal soul are elaborated on in the Tanya.

The Tanya was written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch.  The Tanya documents the struggles of a Jewish soul to come close to G-d.  The Tanya  is a great tool for one’s spiritual journey, as it documents the struggles of the Alter Rebbe and his Chassidim (students) to come close to G -d.  “I desire to unite my Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama (three terms for soul) with G-d through investing them in His garments, namely, action, speech and thought dedicated to G -d, His Torah and His commandments.  Out of the love of G-d that is surely hidden in my heart, as in the heart of all Jews” (chapter 14) .  Tanya is like a dieting manual or weight loss program to a dieter.

4 “This thing is very close to you to do it” is from Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:14. The entire book of Tanya is based on this powerful and motivating quote.  It tells us that we can do it, get closer to G-d and anything else we set our minds and souls to attain.  Also with dieting, we can do it! We need tools and motivation to accomplish our goals. Thank G-d that there are many tools available to us.

One tool is “turn from evil and do good” which is from King David’s psalm 34. Spiritually this means that we should not do Averas (sins) as elaborated by the Torah. Stay away from bad influences that distract from true goals, especially the ultimate goal of being closer to G-d.   With dieting, this means stay away from sugar, fat, salt and high caloric foods. Stay away from situations where unhealthy food is being served.  If you can’t stay away, then be prepared. Have healthy alternatives available to you.

Aseh Tov (do good), actually means that we should make healthy choices. “Choose life” is written in the Torah. Parshat Nitzavim. “I call heaven and earth to witness you today.  I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse- therefore choose life(Deuteronomy  30:19).”  Choose things that are healthy for you spiritually and physically. Choose to follow Torah.  With diet, this means choose healthy foods that are high in vitamins, nutrients and protein. The tools are there to lead a happy, purposeful, healthy life. The choice is ours!

“Build for me a Mishkan (sanctuary) and I will dwell in THEM” is also directly from the Torah, (Exodus). Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak of Lubavitch, the Freerdika Rebbe, develops this idea in the maamar (discourse), “Come to My Garden, Basi Lagani”.  The language use of plural, THEM instead of single IT, is interpreted to mean that G-d dwells in each Jew.  Each Jew is like a Temple where G-d can dwell.  The Neshama is the G-dly spark in each of us that we can polish and shine with our spiritual efforts.

Since each Jew is holy, it is our obligation to take care of our bodies.  Taking care of our bodies coincides with the goal of taking care of our physical health.   G-d gave us the gift of our bodies.  We may have wronged our bodies by cumulatively eating the wrong foods.  We can correct this through diet.  The Jewish ideas of Teshuva (repentance) and Tikkun (repair) allow for correcting mistakes.  Today is a new day to focus on health. This is further proof that our spiritual and physical goals can combine and coincide.

“Man does not live by bread alone” is another important Jewish idea explored by Chassidus. The quote is “Man does not live by bread alone, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of G-d does man live” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The Alter Rebbe in Likutei Torah explores this idea.  Man does not live only from food but from the divine sparks in the food.  Brachos and proper intention on G-d and words of Torah at a meal help to elevate the holy sparks both in food and in man.  A Jewish person should eat to live, and live to have energy to do mitzvos.  A base person lives to eat.

Eating combines both physical and spiritual elements.  The body is nourished by the physical elements in the food while the soul is nourished by the G-dly sparks in the food.  Brachos gets one to focus on G-d and His gift of food to us.  If we think of these ideas while we are eating food, the food and neshama are further elevated.  When we digest our food, we can also digest these Jewish ideas.  Thus, eating and food are a great opportunity for meditation on G-d.  We can also be thinking about health.  Is this food worthy of us? Is it kosher? Is it healthy?

I am very excited about combining spiritual and physical health.  Over the years when I dieted, I kept dieting and exercise separate from my Jewish life.  I was able to experience weight loss, but my life felt fragmented.   Meditating on getting closer to Hashem, G-d, through Chassidic tools offers a fuller picture of health.  The “why?” or motivation for diet and exercise now combine both physical and spiritual health.  Our bodies and Neshamas are gifts that G-d gave to us with love.  It is our Avoda (service) to take care of these gifts through diet, exercise and thought.

Meditating on the eight Chassidic ideas presented here will help us explore what health is.  These Chassidic ideas can motivate us to take care of our health.  Today we can start taking better care of our health .  Perkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), says “if not now, when?”  We can start thinking about these ideas and how they affect our health every time we eat.  L’chaim, to life directs us also when we drink to choose life.  Choosing life is choosing Hashem, Torah and health!   May we all stay motivated to choose life and take care of the bodies and souls that Hashem gave us.  When we take care of our body which houses our soul, we are better able to do good deeds and serve others and G-d.