About four weeks ago I took the plunge and joined Weight Watchers. I had joined once before, back in 2004 (when we lived in Indianapolis) and had lost twenty pounds. Since then I had done a fairly good job of keeping fourteen of those off, but since my father a’h has passed away (just over a year and a half ago) I have put on that weight back on and finally got sick of it. I’ve been slowly losing weight every week and have also changed what I’ve been eating, such as introducing these weird things people refer to as fruits and vegetables. I attempt to be the kind of guy who extracts as many lessons as I can from things I experience and here are a few thoughts regarding Weight Watchers and mussar.
- Tracking- With Weight Watchers, all food/beverages have point values (now it’s called Point Plus). Having a written or digital record or what you eat helps you see your habits offers accountability. As a person who as practiced the technique of Cheshbon HaNefesh (making an accounting of your soul and daily activities, struggles, and successes) on and off for almost 20 years this isn’t new to me, which is why I don’t mind “tracking” (many in Weight Watchers can’t stand tracking). Seeing where you spend your points, what difficulties you have during the day, or even what food victories you’ve had helps give you a feeling of accomplishment. Being able to go back and look at what was difficult in previous weeks helps you learn and focus on future goals.
- Everything counts- Foods and beverages have values (as mentioned above). Water is zero points, so are pears, apples, cauliflower, carrots, etc. I am allocated a specific number of points per day. How I choose to gain those points, is my choice. This has allowed me to understand that there are trade-offs. For example, if I want to use four points, do I get more energy and nutrition from a 4 point shot of bourbon or a four point granola bar? I haven’t given up a l’chaim after kiddush on Shabbos morning, but I understand it’s spending points and there is a trade off. This got me thinking about mitzvos. We are taught not to ascribe a value/reward for a mitzvah against another mitzvah, because we don’t know its value. Conversely, when it comes to those actions that move us away from Kedusha (holiness) and our Creator we don’t know what the negative value is. Things are not always what they seem. A small piece of candy might have four points, while a large apples is still zero points. The apple is, by far, a healthier choice and give one more energy. A seemingly trivial mitzvah in our eyes might have a huge value to our creator, even it the “point value” is zero.
- Ratzon- I have found that being more watchful of what I eat and drink has helped me focus on what I want vs. what I need. Just this past Monday I was in a grocery store and went through a moral battle regarding if I really wanted a piece of fried chicken. I had already cheshboned the point value and I knew, based on what I was planning to eat for dinner, that I had the extra points available to “spend” on that perfectly crispy fried little chicken leg. I bought it. It sat in my car for the ride home and it’s currently in the fridge. I didn’t need it. I wanted it, but didn’t need it. Had I been the better man, I wouldn’t have spent the $1.29 for it. However, I’m realizing that it’s a choice. This is real free will. Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt’l has a whole teaching about something called the “bechira-point”, which explains that there are specific challenges that allow us to truly exercise the God-given gift of free will. His example is in regard to observing Shabbos. If you have been keeping the laws of Shabbos for a number of years (or your whole life) then you really have no urge to flick on a light if it’s dark in a room. Your soul understands that this isn’t what Hashem wants you to do, so there’s really no showing of free will with this. You might have had to struggle with this in the past, but as time moved on your bechira (free will) moved from being a choice, to being a habit. As such, your bechira-point has moved. I knew that my habits were changing two weeks ago, when I opted to buy an apple for a snack instead of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup (my all time favorite candy) because the candy was 6 points and I accepted that at the time I didn’t need it. In the sefer Da Es Nafshecha, Rabbi Itmar Shwartz has a whole chapter on ratzon and actually give the example of the desire to eat come chicken. As it turns out, I didn’t read this until two days my incident with the fried chicken.
- Getting on the scale- Every week, as part of Weight Watchers, you weigh in. This is your official weight for the week. Now I’ve observed that people weigh in differently. Some take off their shoes, empty their pockets, take off eye glasses, etc. I get it, they want to be the lightest they can be, because the scale doesn’t lie, it’s fairly final for that week. Rabbi Akiva Tatz mentions in LIVING INSPIRED the idea (based on teaching of Rav Dessler zt’l) when you start Shabbos Kodesh and also when you are niftar (pass away) that whatever madrega (level) you are in terms of holiness and perfections is frozen during that time period. If you are on level 6 (based on a scale of 1-10) when Shabbos starts or when you go to the next word, then that’s your level for that period. You can’t change it. Sort of like the weight that’s reported on the scale. This is why it’s suggested to weigh around the same time each week. Your weekly weight is the point of reference for either gaining or losing for the next week.
- Influencing others- I find it fascinating that slowly, thanks to my wife, our family is adapting to my new eating habits. There are basically two ways to be mash’piah (influence) others, actively or passively. It’s recommended that I eat five servings of fruit day. Four weeks ago I started with one (going from one serving a week, on a good week) and I’m currently up to three servings. By the time I come home from work (or a Weight Watchers meeting) my kids are home from camp they are starving. Immediately after joining Weight Watchers I attempted to actively influence them by suggesting that if they are hungry they should have some fruit or drink a glass of water (or Crystal Light). Their basic response was, “You packed us an apple for our lunch already. We want a real snack.” I decided then and there not to suggest fruit and use the passive approach. Instead, when I felt hungry, I would mention it and then proceed to grab some fruit to snack on and make sure my kids saw me do it. After doing this for exactly a week, I noticed that my son also started “snacking” on an apple at home when he was hungry. Children are much more observant than we give them credit for. They notice everything and sometimes just being a good example can influence them.
- You can’t do it alone- OK, some people probably can, but getting reinforcement from discussions with leaders and peers can’t hurt. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter knew this over 150 years ago. He and his students (and their students) innovated such revolutionary ideas like a Beis HaMussar (a small dwelling or room where one can practice mussar techniques and discuss ideas in privacy) and mussar vaadim (a group or chabura that would get together on a regular basis to work on a specific character trait or mussar teaching). They would chant, discuss text regarding the subject of the day and share their feelings and report on their success and challenges during the previous week. This is pretty much what happens at a Weight Watchers meeting (and any “fill in the blank” Anonymous meeting).
For me, the similarities between what is part and parcel of Weight Watchers and what I’ve learned from Mussar seem to fit together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (which has a Points Plus value of nine).