My Body Is Not Chametz
An enhanced perspective on medications on Pesach and Yom Tov
One of the things that really drew me back to Judaism and out of our Christian-secular world, here in the USA, is Judaism’s regard for human life. We honor HASHEM by living, not by seeking pain or martyrdom, and we seek to explore all of HASHEM’S world, this garden HASHEM has blessed us with, and how maintaining health is honoring HASHEM, not damaging ourselves in the course of observance. This is very much the opposite of the world around us, as is encapsulated in this book review I just finished on a Christian family that endangered their children in a standoff that lasted almost a decade, while also rejecting the “spiritual” ideals of self-negation and asceticism in favor of savoring HASHEM’S gifts.
One gift HASHEM gave me, however, was a body that requires manual maintenance. My brain’s got some faulty wiring that means lightning goes through it unchecked; I’m missing whatever keeps bones in place; my thyroid doesn’t thyroid and is hosting a guest I didn’t invite; and my body has made it a personal mission to develop catastrophic allergies to various foods and every new medicine under the sun. But HASHEM has also given me these upgrade parts in the form of medications. Without them, I die.
For over a decade, I tried not to look at it that way, but society is simply wrong on a number of fronts regarding this topic. I’m not going to be cured by yoga or thinking positive and I’m also not being punished by the Christian “god,” so being a moral Christian isn’t going to make the problems go away. Because they’re not problems: they’re parts of me that function differently, and that does not make my body any less a gift from HASHEM’S than the body of an athletically inclined Olympian. I don’t need to get “better.” (If you’d like to wish me or someone else with chronic conditions well, “I hope you find some relief.” is a compassionate route).
Whereas most Olympians focus on keeping their bodies in peak physical condition for very specific activities, I focus on keeping my body alive, and the only way that happens is with medication, which for me includes certain foods — some of which aren’t kosher for Pesach.
That sounds scary, and for years it felt like a defeat, but it’s not. It’s just my body. HASHEM has brought us so far that someone like me, who could have easily died by now even in the 20th century, might not only survive, but engage society when society makes it possible via having appropriate structures and not discriminating against me. There’s this trope of the “[insert condition] warrior” that conceptualizes Disability as a war or a struggle. While it’s certainly not navigating life on easy-mode, I’m not going to war against my body; I love my body. That includes loving the days I feel pain instead of my legs, days I can’t hear, days I have no energy at all, and days I haven’t slept-times-three. I don’t want a “fixed” or a changed body: I was given this one, and I’m not mad about it.
When the pandemic hit and we went into quarantine a year ago, the Jewish world scrambled to figure out how to do things at home. I didn’t at all. Why? Because HASHEM gave me a body that doesn’t allow me to take mobility for granted. I’ve been praying on my own with a Siddur or a Machzor for years whether I do or don’t have access to a community. Yom Tov doesn’t wait for my hip to go back in place or my ribs to slip back in or my kneecap to stop touring the wrong side of my leg. In those moments, it’s “You can sit there and be miserable you’re not with everyone on Yom Tov or you can get your Siddur out and make it happen yourself. Pick.” It’s as easy as following the instructions, and I’m still shocked people are finding it so difficult. I think it comes down to having an option: if you think you have the option to go out and gather with others handling things, that removes the urgency of having to do it yourself. I was annoyed at all of the complaining at first, but now I say, “You really do have to lose your legs to learn how to do everything alone in Judaism.”
“Everything alone” includes dietary restrictions and one of the things I’ve come to realize is that my medication is not my “diet,” even when it appears to be food. It’s the parts of me HASHEM has me maintain manually. I have to manually wire my brain with extreme care with medication and sleep; I have to add iron because my body doesn’t add enough itself regardless of what I eat; I have to slow myself down manually when I’m lying down and my body decides to act like it’s running away from a lion (sometimes without the courtesy of a flashback, how rude). Without these things, I can wind up several ways. Once I didn’t sleep for about 3 weeks and turned into Golem from “Lord of the Rings,” hunched over in a corner, eyes sunken, hissing at my mother. Once I didn’t eat for almost a week and I turned into a zombie with the infinite power — when it came to choosing to take a single step or go to bed with or without the intention of waking up the next day. For a long time I had not medication, and I don’t remember most of it, though I wrote thousands and thousands of pages by hand. I was not able to observe during any of these times. I was hanging on to life by a thread, but it wasn’t me. I was outside myself, a shell, just existing on the sheer will of HASHEM.
When my body isn’t working, I risk leaving it, and abandoning the body HASHEM gave me is far from glorifying HASHEM. It would be a tragedy as there aren’t any others like mine. I can’t throw away the spiritual work HASHEM has made it possible for me to do only by gifting me a body that is different. Likewise, I’ve been given the opportunity to do a mitzvah on Yom Tov that’s easier for most others to achieve: the mitzvah to take care of one’s health. That’s a challenge over Yom Tov when there’s pressure to compromise manual maintenance for ritual observance.
One of my favorite stories from shul is the story of two Chasidic brothers who were imprisoned. There was a waste pale in the room for prisoners to do their business in, and it smelled. One brother started to get nervous that they wouldn’t be able to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, prevented by something with such a horrible smell, and the other said, “Wait! Don’t you realize that this is the mitzvah?!” and the two started rejoicing, singing and dancing around the pale. The guard overheard these Chasidim, was not thrilled with them being so happy, and took the pale away. The brother then said, “And now we may daven.”
Upholding a prohibition is a mitzvah!
In a way, I see it parallel to the blessing Jewish men pray daily, thanking HASHEM they are not women; they are thanking HASHEM for giving them the more rewarding role before Mashiach comes and the private, feminine dimension will be fully expressed. I don’t get the reward now of ritual observance with all its bells and whistles those without my body get. Rather, I get the reward of being itself, which is a reward few ever truly get a moment to appreciate.