For months leading up to Pesach, I have watched countless (mostly) women begin to panic and become frazzled about the menu. I get it. We turn our kitchens upside down and want everyone to be fed and enjoy the food during the eight days when there are many restrictions on what we normally eat. We want to find delicious new recipes with tag lines like, “You won’t believe this is kosher for Pesach!” For some, cooking and preparing is also a type of love language, or a way of expressing care to others. For others, it is a sign that represents our ability, as a Jewish people, to be creative and cook up lavish meals when our ancestors had to do so in secrecy. And for others, it feels like a mere stress or obligation but one that gets done for the sake of not only the family but also the holiday.
I respect the time and effort that goes into brainstorming new recipes and preparing the food. More than that—I appreciate it and feel so incredibly grateful that we have access to this food, that family members pour their heart and soul into it (I need to provide a shout-out to my mother here specifically—thank you!), and I recognize that it is therefore important to take time to acknowledge this hard work.
What bothers me, instead, is the constant food and body talk that is already taking place. Statements like, “Pesach is coming and we’re going to the beach so I need my body to be bathing-suit ready.” Or, “I know I’ll end up over-eating during Yom Tov so I need to eat less now to compensate.” Or, “I’ll try to be ‘good’ this year and limit myself or exercise every day to burn it off.”
Can we stop making this the focus of the holidays?
Now some of you may be reading this and thinking that perhaps you do have these thoughts but it doesn’t “take over” the holiday. Or others may be shaking their heads, believing that this article is unnecessary, as people “should” be conscious about weight and food over the holidays. And yet, I have interacted with countless individuals—with and without disordered eating/eating disorders who revolve their holidays around the food and what the food will do to them. Sure, there is the religious experience and family time and even entertainment—but there is also an undertone of food/body focus to which the person returns.
I am all for engaging in mindful eating and moving one’s body. But not as a means of compensation, not in a manipulative manner. Pesach is about so much more than weight gain or worrying about over-eating. It is about “transporting” ourselves to Egypt and recognizing that without God’s taking us out of Egypt we would still be slaves. It is about liberation, about recognition of our place in the world. It is about gratitude. It is about balance—we have koreich when we eat the matzah and marror sandwich during the seder and we blend two ideas—one that recognizes our liberation and the other that represents the bitterness of our slavery. We balance the importance of looking back on our slavery with the celebration of the freedom that then allowed us to form together as a nation and receive the Torah.
The holiday is about joy. It is about reflecting on how our lives would be so incredibly different had we not been saved. I personally think back to leaving eating disorder treatment the weekend before Pesach all those years ago and reflect on my personal liberation from the chains of my mental illness.
Pesach is about all of this and more: community, family, creativity, education and reflection. This year, as we approach Pesach and all the stress and excitement it brings, remember what this holiday is truly about. It is not about weight of the body, but rather about weighty ideas; it is not about food itself, but rather about food for thought; it is not even about all the stress that leads up to the beginning of bedikat chametz. It is about something greater—and getting lost or distracted will take away from the ability to truly celebrate.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, is the assistant clinical director at Monte Nido Manhattan, a day treatment program for those struggling with eating disorders. She is also a national speaker and has a private practice in NYC and over telemedicine for those living in New York. She lives in Teaneck with her husband and newborn daughter. For more information, visit www.temimah.com.