The theme of freedom is one that permeates the story and observance of Pesach. We recount being liberated by God, with Moshe as our leader, as Egypt underwent the various plagues. We experienced the crossing of the Red Sea toward the desert as we prepared for the acceptance of the Torah. This journey reached its climax in the eventual passage into Israel where we could revel in—and relish—the accepted yoke of the 613 commandments.
In doing so, we celebrate not only our liberation and freedom from slavery, but also our adoption of a new identification as a unified people. These themes of identity and freedom resonate to me as an eating disorder therapist and survivor. I see in them reminders of my personal history as well as the experiences of my current clients. The idea of liberating oneself from the slavery of the disorder, as well as discovering oneself beyond the eating disorder and even recovery, is prevalent in the healing process.
In discussing these themes with my father, we began to delve into the deeper ideas around freedom and liberation as related to Pesach. Typically, when I speak publicly or work with individuals, the idea of liberation—and using it to connect to the particularly difficult endeavor of experiencing the holiday of Pesach while in recovery—is something to which people can relate; an eating disorder can easily feel like the master to which one is enslaved. The recovery process usually involves letting go of the worship that one directs toward the eating disorder, and instead connecting to other ideas or forms of meaning such as religion, social connection, passion, etc.
We received the gift of freedom when we were taken out of Egypt and then were given an identity as a nation when receiving the Torah. The Torah tells us that Moshe brought down the luchot, and that the luchot were carved. The term used is “חרות” (“charut”). This Hebrew word has the same letters as cherut, which means freedom. Our Sages noted this connection, and taught that only those who are engaged in Torah are truly free. The explanation given is that without the benefit of Torah, one can easily be a slave to his or her yetzer hara, evil inclination. This sounds wonderful; however, one can easily be bothered by the following question: isn’t it true that those who are engaged in Torah also become slaves—to their yetzer hatov, good inclination? In both cases, one is subservient to one inclination or the other!
The answer lies in a determination of “who is the real, essential ‘me’?” After all, slavery means that I am serving a master that is external to me. I cannot be a slave to my own self, only to someone or something that is not me. So who is the real me?
The soul of a human being, deep down, is really defined as the yetzer hatov, the tendency toward good. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol says that a human being is a hybrid of angel and animal—but in a specific relationship—where the yetzer hatov is the captain being served by the yetzer hara. When one lives that way—the goal of engagement in Torah—one is free, as the true, real self is in control.
How does this relate to eating disorder recovery—this idea of mastery, slavery and the inclination for good or bad, beyond the obvious themes already mentioned?
When an individual struggles with an eating disorder, there is a relationship between the eating disorder self and healthy self, which can also be called the yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. Recovery includes constantly challenging oneself and pushing oneself beyond what s/he is accustomed to, which is typically the eating disorder self calling the shots. Throughout recovery, one’s eating disorder voice is not exorcised; rather, one learns how to use liabilities as assets and the voice becomes fainter, being replaced by adaptive coping mechanisms and communication. The eating disorder had been the master and through recovery it loses its power.
The true soul of the individual in recovery is not the eating disorder; it is the healthy self. Just as the true nature of man is the yetzer hatov. It can feel as if there is no identity beyond the disorder, that every aspect of life is subservient to the disorder—where to go, what to eat, with whom to speak, etc. There are some individuals who say that in reality they have thriving interests beyond the disorder and it does not define them. And yet, when challenged, decisions about this lifestyle typically are made only in accordance with the disorder calling the shots.
When someone is liberated or freed in the context of the disorder, it means that his/her healthy self is the master, and the identity beyond the disorder is the one being honored and celebrated. A life in the shadow of the disorder is a life of slavery. This is not the authentic self. The authentic self is the one that is nourished and fed according to passions and values, not a menacing voice.
The theme of liberation is one that can be taken at face value to link Pesach and recovery. And yet, when we dig beyond the obvious, we see the support of freedom as a concept that relates not simply to freeing oneself, but toward a life of authenticity—of good, that includes the healthy self and the yetzer hatov as the master. As we approach Pesach, let us encourage one another, whatever the situation or struggle, toward a life of mastery, of living a life according to Torah where we honor our soul-selves, and note the journey that this requires, supporting one another through the process.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, is the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan and also works in private practice in NYC focusing primarily on issues related to mental health and eating disorders with a specialization in the Jewish community. Temimah is also a national speaker on the subjects of eating disorders, body image and self-esteem. To learn more or for inquiries, visit www.temimah.com.