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Restriction and Liberation: Food at Pesach

‘Is this the fast I desire: a day for people to starve their bodies?’ Isaiah 58:5

Crosby Beach, Antony Gormley sculpture,

Photo by Rabbi Robyn: 'Will I ever leave Egypt?'

Since the age of 16 I was in and out of diet spaces – weekly weigh ins, calorie counting, new, low-fat cookbooks. Countless hours spent in front of mirrors wondering whether I ‘looked fat’. Months, years obsessing over whether to finish or start a diet. What should be my goal weight? Should I try and accept my body as it is? Is an avocado ‘good or bad’? The pain of a failed diet, the euphoria on losing a couple of pounds.

In my early 30s I began to have a healthier relationship with my body and with food. But, like an alcoholic, I am a recovering yo-yo dieter and disordered eater. Even now I have a dieting app on my phone ready and waiting. Like the generations of the women in my family, food and diets will always be something I struggle with. It is my narrow place – my place of constriction, quite literally. Restriction and constriction and then everything all at once.

Mitzraim, we know, as well as the country, ‘Egypt’, means ‘narrow places’. At Pesach we seek out our own liberation so that we can ensure all be free. But what if the practices of Pesach take us deeper into our narrow places?

I know, for me, food restrictions can trigger my dieting head – where every food item is ‘good or bad’, when each meal becomes an internal fight of ‘how much’ or ‘how little’. So then Pesach comes and everything becomes stricter and restricted. My food is out of routine for a full week. Being an Ashkenazi vegan means it’s a particular struggle. I feel permanently hungry with a bad tummy. My Mitzraim gets more pronounced. Instead of being able to reflect on the systems of oppression which keep us bound and enslaved I can only look inwards at my food and my body. I am enslaved through the rituals that are meant to help me set free. And I know the system is designed this way. If I am forever focused on my body and food I can’t notice the more vicious ways I am enslaved by the systems around me.

Will I ever leave Egypt?

Can Pesach become a time when I give myself permission to eat in a way that I can experience freedom – not bound, tied up in the strict kashrut of the festival? Can I live by the principle of Pikuach Nefesh (saving a soul) rather than the strictures of the festival? Can I find a way to live the festival in its entirety, through its spirit, without sinking into an abyss? I’m sure I/we can.

‘How can you celebrate when my children are drowning?’ God asks in one Midrash?’ [Talmud, Megillah 10b]. The point of the festival is not to drown. To be Jewish is to struggle but I live Jewishly so that I may live, not so that I die (metaphorically) [Deuteronomy 30:19].

My Pesach challenge to myself is to care for myself, created in the image of G!d as I am, so that I can live the challenge of the festival – to work for liberation – not to be bound so tightly in enslavement that I cannot move or work for other people’s liberation. This is the permission I am granted this festival – to live a wild, free, vast life – ‘To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.’ [Isaiah 58:6]

Chag Pesach Sameach. To Your/Our Liberation.

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