By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
A couple of weeks ago, as I prepared Lily’s morning latte and handed it to her, she shook her head and said that she was abstaining from having coffee for the month and would be unable to drink what was her former favorite frothy caffeine fix. I was naturally curious and asked her why she chose coffee of all things.
Lily has been my housekeeper for around two years now, and while I knew that she’s a devout Catholic, I didn’t know why she’d choose to go without something she relied on for energy in the mornings. Something that gave her true joy that she looked forward to before embarking on a physically demanding workday.
So when I asked her why coffee, why one of her favorites, she laughed and said, “Because I chose something that would test my self-control and faith. I intentionally chose something I love.”
She continued, “I knew it wouldn’t be easy to give up coffee, but I knew I’d feel better knowing I could control my choices in life in some ways. And that maybe I could appreciate the things I have all the more once the month is up and I’m able to resume my morning coffee.”
Nowadays, Lily drinks water and eats plain bread. Although it’s not the type of fast I’m currently practicing today, on this year’s Tishah B’Av, it’s something she’s taken on for the month, and instead of feeling annoyed about this commitment she’s made, she points out how much better she feels physically.
She chooses to focus on the positive aspects of her fast instead of the hunger pangs she feels at times or about how much she misses the foods she’s given up.
The Mishnah in Avos says: “This is the way of Torah: eat bread in salt and measured water, and sleep on the ground.”
It’s an interesting Mishnah because we don’t seem to have an actual mesorah of even the holiest rabbis deliberately depriving themselves to that extent.
Actually, on the contrary, when a nazir finishes his term of self-inflicted deprivation, he brings a korban chatas, a sacrifice of atonement, because, as the Gemara explains, someone who deliberately afflicts himself is called sinning.
So which is it?
Are we meant to give things up in the name of holiness, or not?
Like most concepts in Torah and in life, it’s about balance. A little of everything. Life is, overall, meant to be enjoyed. G-d blessed us with many gifts, and we bless Him as we enjoy them. But sometimes, we fast. Sometimes, we hold back. To mourn the fact that the world is not the way we want it to be yet. That we’re still grieving, that things are not complete.
There is a zecher l’churban, a bit of unfinished business in our lovely homes, our beautifully set tables, even our wardrobes, according to halachah—we don’t go all out until the world is healed.
It’s an awareness and it’s a self-discipline practice. It’s healthy to flex our self-control muscles from time to time, to show ourselves that we can do without. It can teach us things about ourselves and our capabilities and can also infuse newfound gratitude in things we might take for granted.
I think that we have such abundance in general in our lives, that it’s almost impossible to have gratitude for all of it. Sometimes, it’s healthy to step back and take notice of it all, hone in on one particular thing and see what life would be like without it.
We’re spoiled as a society, in a time where you can order just about anything and have it arrive less than a day later. We’re accustomed to instant gratification and get annoyed when things aren’t available immediately.
It can be an unhealthy way to expect things, to assume anything and everything is available at a moment’s notice, like a child who can’t cope with any form of adversity.
A fast day makes us scale back once in a while and see what life would be like without all the bells and whistles of constant indulgence. Those first sips and morsels of food after the 25 hours of hunger give us the chance to really appreciate the taste, the texture, the nourishment.
Stepping away from blessing gives us the opportunity to see what a second chance would feel like. I, for one, have been subject to life circumstances that have enabled me to yearn for a second chance in the right time.
It’s something I think about often. How I’d do things differently, appreciate things I didn’t realize needed proper attention.
Understand that nothing in life is a guarantee. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing my life’s path, but I do know that I now look at all the other blessings and loved ones in my life through the lens of a second chance, and this will yield a different response from me.
I know what it feels like to lose. To miss and yearn for something I once had. And might again. I know how different I’ll be a second time around. The amount of appreciation I’d have, the type of gratitude, and also my type of attitude. After all, you only fully appreciate the things you’ve had once they’re gone. To get another chance at it would be a gift worthy of the greatest thanks.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, a social media influencer, veteran real estate agent, and runs a patisserie in Woodmere.