Self-forgiveness, healing and the High Holy Days

Julie Levitt and her two children, Tiara and Colin.

By Julie Levitt Roberts

Forgiveness is never easy. It’s even harder if you’re suffering from a debilitating illness. 

In 2004, life as I knew it was brought to a halt when I was diagnosed with autoimmune neuromuscular disease. Some doctors thought it was multiple sclerosis; others said myasthenia gravis. No matter the name, I was having difficulty holding up my head, swallowing, and I had double vision. 

I went from working at a job I loved and raising two children as a single mom in our beautiful new house, to needing a walker to get anywhere and then a tilt recline wheelchair. Eventually, I became dependent on oxygen 24/7. 

So, there I was, a highly educated (two master’s degrees, an MBA and a master’s in technology) young woman, headhunted by the best technology companies in the world, to not being able to work or even take care of myself and my children. 

During the next four years, my health went from bad to worse.  My doctors told me to get my affairs in order. My daughter Tiara was turning 13; my son Colin was not even 2. 

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My family didn’t understand what was happening. Some even blamed me for getting ill. My anxiety was overwhelming. 

In 2008, I was looking forward to the High Holy Days, hoping to find solace. On Yom Kippur, I sat in temple listening to the rabbi at the Temple of the High Country in Boone, N.C., talk about atonement and the power of forgiveness. I realized that the person I really needed to forgive was me. 

During the meditation, I thought about my bitterness, guilt and, at times, self-hatred over my body failing me. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t my fault. But I realized that until I forgave myself, nothing would change. 

In a sermon about forgiveness, Rabbi Aaron Levitt, Judaic principal at Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston, said, “We can’t move forward if we’re still stuck in the past.”

Right after the High Holidays that year, I set out on a journey to become closer to G-d. When I moved to New York, my family joined Chabad of the Five Towns in Cedarhurst.

I began following a type of holistic healing called the Wahls Protocol, as detailed in the book “How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine” by Dr. Terry Wahls (find more information online at terrywahls.com). 

The Wahls Protocol uses a modified paleo and ancestral-based diet of eating foods our ancestors probably had access to, eating only unrefined and unprocessed foods and avoiding dairy and gluten. The diet is nutrient-rich plant-based and accommodates my food sensitivities.  

I also incorporated prayer, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, sunlight and socialization. My goal was to reduce my symptoms to as close to zero as possible. As a recent baal teshuva (newly observant), I found that yoga’s focus on the breath helped me find meaning in the spiritual side of Judaism. It also enhanced my understanding and respect of Judaic practices. 

But I learned it wasn’t black and white, I am sick and now I am well. Instead, there are gradients of wellness. It is a journey of ups and downs that continues today. I also learned that Western medicine alone doesn’t address chronic and complicated illness.  

Over the next seven years, my MRIs and neurological exams became more stable, eventually almost normal. My body was healing from the most debilitating symptoms. I no longer needed oxygen, and I could walk on my own. By last year, I was walking three to five miles a day. 

At my next exam, my doctor kept smiling, looking up to the sky and shaking his head, knowing where I had been. And just this week I was notified by my productivity app, Fitbit, that I have walked 500 miles.

During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we fast and pray in an effort to alter our behavior and seek forgiveness. The dictionary defines forgiveness as giving up resentment against something or someone. We do teshuva (return to G-d) for all those we feel we have wronged. 

Forgiveness is at the center of our Yom Kippur prayers, which we recite throughout the day. The steps of forgiveness include awareness of our wrongdoing, communicating remorse, asking forgiveness, fixing what we can, not repeating the misdeed in the future. 

This year, the High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown Sunday, Oct.  2. I will renew my vows to forgive myself. I will use the tools to be at peace with my body and stop being held captive by anger. 

The High Holy days are a time to be cherished, revered and honored. It’s a time for peace. It is a period of reconciliation, renewal and recovery. 

This year, especially, I hold high hope for the future. Amazing things can happen. 

We are reminded as we say yizkor (the memorial prayer) that “as long as the candle is still burning, it is possible to mend.” 

Julie Levitt Roberts is the daughter of longtime contributor, food journalist and screenwriter Beverly Levitt.