Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Morning After

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day when Jews come out of the woodwork, flock to synagogue in droves, bang their chests to confess their sins and pray for the year ahead, all the while forgoing any and all food and beverage for a 25 hour fast. But why fast? Often in Jewish tradition, fasting is demanded at times of heightened spiritual reflection. The idea is to deny - or perhaps more accurately, transcend - one's physical needs and turn inward to recognize what is really important. The prophet Isaiah eloquently expresses the purpose of the fast in the portion read on Yom Kippur (58:5-7):
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Fasting, then is intended to encourage social justice, to arouse one to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless. But from my own experience and that of others I've spoken to, this lesson of Yom Kippur is often obscured as we sit in services with dry mouths and rumbling stomachs. My goal is often to simply make it through the day, since I am unaccustomed to skipping a meal. In fact, you could say that I am fastidious about eating healthful, well balanced meals at fairly regular intervals. And while I find that fasting gets easier as I get older, I find it harder and harder to recover from long periods of hunger. Studying nutrition has taught me that biochemically there are major shifts in metabolism that occur over periods of time without food. Fasting has taught me that psychologically there are major shifts as well.

Last night as Yom Kippur ended, a sense of relief washed over everyone who had made it through the day. Where I was attending services, rather than race for food, many of us sang and danced and wished each other a happy new year. We then proceeded to drink some water and eat a modest break fast meal.

Then I woke up this morning. I can't quite describe my level of hunger - it was not quite ravenous but certainly insatiable. Instead of my usual oatmeal I dug out leftover quinoa with lentils, carrots, apples, and almond butter. I drank cup after cup of tea and, feeling full, left the house for an hour. When I returned I was again drawn to the kitchen - not from hunger, but from some other need to eat, to know that I had food, to feel the sensation of chewing, of swallowing, of being full and satiated and nourished, even if it was overly so. This was not a physical need but a psychological one. I had experienced only one day without eating and drinking and this had triggered survival mode food hoarding behavior. It gave me just the tiniest insight into what it means to really be hungry, to think about food in this way, without even regard for taste or satiety but as a more base desire and basic human need.

Last week I watched Ellen Gustafson's TED Talk linking obesity and hunger and was struck by one of her leading statements: "...when I'm hungry I'm really pissed off and I'm assuming that the rest of the world is too." I have certainly felt this way - my family will tell you that I'm not the most pleasant person when I haven't eaten - but more than that, when I'm hungry I think about food in an entirely different way. So while Gustafson takes a macro approach and links hunger and obesity to problems with global agricultural policies (which is true), I think there is also a more micro level relationship at play. I know, for example, that when I shop hungry I buy far more food than I need. I eat far more than I need. More broadly, skipping meals or eating irregularly triggers an altered relationship with food, leads to binges, to overeating, to obesity.

Yom Kippur may have ended last night, and traditionally that means that the heavenly gates have closed and my fate and the world's have been sealed for the coming year. But the lesson of Yom Kippur, of what it means to really fast, did not kick in until today. I may have eaten and bathed, but the food did not satiate my hunger, the shower did not wash away the empathy Yom Kippur generated for those who do not know what, when and where their next meal will be.

No comments:

Post a Comment