What can we learn from ritual temperance?
A few weeks ago, I spent my first Passover away from home and family. Observing the holiday, which commemorates the story of Exodus and the Israelites’ escape from slavery, involves abstaining from certain foods. For eight days, wheat, bread, and other types of chametz are rendered un-kosher—as my father jokingly explains it: “if you like it, you can’t eat it.”
At home, keeping Passover was relatively easy. Per tradition, we always get rid of all of our chametz, so I could open the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator and eat anything that was there without giving it much thought. I was also surrounded by family and friends who also kept Passover. Unless I went out with non-Jewish friends, I barely even had to think about it.
That all changed in college.
After the Seder dinner in the Hillel house (Jewish center) on the first night, I was thrust back into the secular world. While I got rid of all of my own chametz, my (mostly non-Jewish) friends, clubs, and the dining halls offered constant opportunities to slip up. I had to think hard about everything I was putting into my body for the first time in a while. For a college kid who usually just tries to choke down a few vegetables a day to keep his mother happy, this was a big change.
Even so, keeping Passover was not a big deal. While I got tired of the grilled chicken and poorly made salads that dominated my diet for the week, my observance did not drastically affect my life. One morning, though, my hectic routine left me barely enough time to grab a smoothie before economics. I bought my go-to flavor, paid, ran across the street, and slid into my seat just as class started. A minute later, hungry, I opened the smoothie, excited to finally “eat” for the first time that day. Since it was Passover, I read the label as a formality. I was surprised to find that it did not check out—apparently Odwalla puts wheat in their smoothies. Who knew? I screwed the top back on and sat through the next couple of hours of class hungry.
Sitting there, stomach growling, a realization struck me: I was, in a sense, choosing to suffer, even though I had the resources at my disposal to make it stop. (I am aware that my “suffering” pales in comparison to what many people regularly endure, and I will address that in a minute). In my backpack was a perfectly good smoothie that would satisfy my hunger. The only thing stopping me from drinking that smoothie was my commitment to the ritual self-deprivation that accompanies the Passover holiday. As I chewed this concept over in my mind (pun intended) I began to think of other examples of ritual self-depravation. The holiday of Yom Kippur, where Jews fast to atone for their sins, was the first to come to mind. Lent quickly followed, since a number of my Catholic friends had given up various indulgences for their observance. My mental list continued to grow: Muslims fast during Ramadan, Christian clergy don’t marry, monks of many faiths take vows of poverty, and so on.
Clearly, ritual deprivation is a widespread spiritual practice. The question is why? What do we learn from it?
Through this reflection and discussions with people who I trust and respect, I have gleaned two main lessons from my yearly practices of abstaining from bread on Passover and fasting on Yom Kippur. The first is a lesson is in temperance. On each occasion, but especially while fasting, I have to work to override my instinctual, animalistic urges to eat and drink when my body demands it. This is the remarkable difference between humans and other animals—we can override our wants. It is a hard, but worthwhile skill to practice.
Practicing temperance builds up willpower and self-control, virtues that I find inordinately helpful and that Franklin touted indirectly.
A second equally important lesson I have learned from ritual temperance is a lesson in perspective. The cliché that you have to walk a mile in another man’s shoes holds true here. Only through ritual deprivation can I even begin to understand and approximate the lives of the people who are less fortunate than I am. I am lucky enough that I rarely have to want for anything, and never experience true hunger or thirst. Ritual temperance allows me to better sympathize with (feel for) those who are less fortunate than I am by allowing me to empathize with them (put myself in their place). Being regularly reminded how fortunate I am, and that I am responsible for helping those who are not, is equally important.
In many ways, my Passover was very uneventful. Little changed in my life: I went to class, spent time with friends, and generally went about my daily schedule. In another sense, my Passover experience this year was something profound.
By incorporating temperance into my life for a week, I not only strengthened my willpower, but also gained a better understanding of my place in the world.