Monday, December 26, 2011

Gone Kosher

As a Jew who doesn't particularly enjoy going to the movies or having hours of unstructured time, I tend to find Christmas Day to be somewhat challenging. It doesn't help that the day falls in the midst of the New England winter, making outdoor activities iffy at best. In the past, Christmas Day has often seemed interminable. This year, however, I had a plan: I kashered my kitchen.

This was not a spontaneous decision; rather, I'd worked my way up to it over a period of many weeks. I did some research; I consulted with my rabbis; I purchased necessary supplies. Being a vegetarian made the process somewhat easier. Also, I have a galley kitchen (fancy term for, "really small kitchen") so the amount of cleaning was less than it could have been. However, I still had to contend with all my pots, utensils, appliances, and countertops, so it took a solid four-and-a-half hours to complete the job. End result: my kitchen looks the same, albeit cleaner. What feels different is internal.

For most of my adult life, I'd tossed around the idea of "keeping kosher" but had never given it serious consideration, for the simple reason that I couldn't handle another set of food rules. I was too busy adhering to the rules dictated by my eating disorder. I made food choices based on nutrition information and my own set of fears, not based on whether or not the product in question had a hekhsher. My eating disorder called all the shots--what G-d wanted me to do was not even on my radar screen.

A lot of work has gone into my journey from that place of eating disordered tunnel vision, to my newly kashered kitchen. I am proud to say that now, when I go food shopping, my chief concern is kashrut--not calorie counting. I am able to see the distinction between the Jewish practice of being mindful of what I eat, and the eating disordered trap of being obsessed by it. Before, when (if) I ate with other people, what set me apart were all the rituals and regulations of anorexia. Now, I am making the choice to be set apart once more--this time, as a Jew who keeps kosher. The difference is that the former separation felt oppressive and driven by fear, while the latter feels like an opportunity to be closer to Hashem. It is up to me to keep my practice of kashrut one of pure intentions, and not let it morph into another way to restrict what I eat. The Jewish tradition is full of evidence that while certain foods are indeed prohibited, this by no means implies that we should deny ourselves any foods that are not--in fact, quite the opposite. For me, the truth is that I like keeping kosher in recovery--I like that I can eat with friends, bring food to share, and try new recipes...while still being mindful of my connection to Hashem and to this world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A New Spin on an Old Classic

In the most recent meeting of the Rosh Chodesh group at my shul, I learned a version of the dreidel game that is so fabulous, I absolutely have to share it here!

No coins needed! All that is required is a dreidel, comfortable company, and a healthy dose of honest self-reflection. For this game, the meaning of the letters on the dreidel is as follows:

נס -- נ -- "Nes" or "Miracle": What is a small (or big!) miracle in my life, from this past month or year? Recognize, and be thankful!

גבורה -- ג -- "Gevurah" or "Strength": What are my strengths? In what areas do I shine?

התחזקות -- ה -- "Hitchazkut" or "Strengthening": What are areas in my life in which I need more strength? What are things I need to work on?

שליחות -- ש -- "Shlichut" or "Mission": Where do my passions lie? To what do I want to be more dedicated?

Pretty spectacular, right? Here is how my personal dreidel would shape up:

נ -- My students are my daily miracles...watching them learn and being surprised by their wisdom and compassion. Also, walking across Israel this summer was truly miraculous--sharing the adventure and beauty of nature with amazing friends, and being healthy enough to enjoy it all!

ג -- One strength of mine is empathy. I think I am able to tune into others' feelings and "meet them where they're at," so to speak. Another strength is self-expression. Given time to think through my words, I am able to articulate myself clearly and firmly through writing and speaking.

ה -- One area in which I need a bit of a boost is my openness to other people. I am very guarded, and my default is "boundaries" instead of "sharing." This does serve a purpose, but it also prevents me from connecting with people at times. I also need to strengthen my self-confidence and self-appreciation. I want to be okay with myself, and not place so much power in the hands of others and their opinions.

ש -- I am passionate about my work...teaching children gives me such energy and joy, and I feel honored to be part of their development into curious, ethical, intellectual people! I am also passionate about recovery--pursuing it, experiencing it, and sharing it with those who may be in need of support.

So...that's my dreidel! What does yours look like this year??

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fight or Flight? Fight!

As parshiot go, last week's (Vayishlach) was one of my personal favorites. When I read a parasha, I usually have a section of my brain devoted to finding ways to relate the text to my own life--and to recovery. And, with that purpose in mind, I have to say that for me, it doesn't get much better than the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Quick recap for those unfamiliar with the text: Jacob stole his father's blessing from his twin brother, Esau, along with Esau's birthright. Fearing that his brother would kill him, Jacob fled from his family's home. After many years of being estranged from his brother, Jacob gets word that Esau, along with 400 men, is coming to meet him. Jacob is sure that his brother is still furious with him, so devises an elaborate plan to flee from Esau. One night during his escape, an angel attacks Jacob and wrestles with him until dawn. The angel can't defeat Jacob, so he dislocates Jacob's hip and then demands to be released. Jacob replies, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." At this point, the angel blesses Jacob with his new name, Israel, because "you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed."

Why do I love this story? Because it carries the message that when it comes to facing our most daunting fears, we have to do it head-on--the only way out is to wrestle, to not back down, and ultimately to come out stronger. The angel prevented Jacob from fleeing from Esau, and forced him to stand his ground and fight. And, after all his efforts, Jacob had the presence of mind to demand a blessing from his challenger.

To me, recovery from an eating disorder has been a bit like wrestling with my own personal angel. At no point have I succeeded in finding a shortcut or an easy escape from my problems. Instead, I've had to buckle down and do the "dirty work" of recovery, no matter how scary or overwhelming it has been. In recovery, I've had to stop running (both literally and figuratively!)...I've had to look honestly at my personal demons and fight the battles that needed winning. The story of Jacob and the angel reminds me that I must "dig deep" and summon the bravery and strength within me--escaping is not an option. The eating disorder was my attempt at an escape, but ultimately I had to admit that it was not getting me where I needed--or wanted--to go.

I like to think that, like Jacob, I've extracted a blessing from this process. Recovery has never been easy, but it has always been worth it. I am emerging from this process more intuitive, compassionate, insightful, and grounded than was when I began it. The lessons I've learned have been hard won, but I say with certainty that I would not give a single one back. Though it didn't always feel this way when I was deeply "in it," with the perspective I now have I can see how the work of recovery has enriched my life. I stood my ground, fought for myself, and came away blessed. If you are still wrestling, don't give up--and before you let that eating disorder go for good, make sure you've demanded your blessing!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Gift of Sadness

I am usually a pretty even-keeled person, emotionally speaking. Not that I always feel positive, but my emotional pendulum simply doesn't often swing too far toward either extreme. I find intense feelings of any kind to be uncomfortable, so I do my best to keep myself in some sort of intermediate equilibrium. This often works...until, it doesn't. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, my mood plummets fast and furious.

Last week was one of those weeks. I felt disconnected and lonely, painfully aware of my relative lack of close local friends, and missing the intimate friendships that I've always craved but have seldom experienced. When I feel it intensely, loneliness grips my heart like a vise and sends me tumbling into emotional bleakness. Last week was no exception--low energy, depressed mood, and a short fuse made getting through each day feel like a tremendous feat. As I struggled to pull myself out of this slump, I found myself wondering what the "Jewish approach" to sadness is. As I read one article, a section of text jumped out at me:

"Judaism is not about being happy; it's about being whole. Wholeness, however, is actually the only true path to real happiness because then you experience an inner happiness even when you are sad. You take pleasure in your ability to feel pain. You embrace and celebrate the totality of your humanness. To be whole we must be willing to immerse ourselves in the complete drama of being alive and human."

How fabulous a philosophy is that?! I so often forget, when I am in the thick of negative emotions, how miraculous it is that I experience any emotions at all. For so many years, my feelings were locked away somewhere unaccessible--anger and elation, joy and sadness, all were numbed by my eating disorder. Although this was easier in many ways, it was also so dull...and empty. After all, the positive and negative emotions are flip sides of the same coin--we can't have happiness without also experiencing sadness at times. The difficult moments are what help us to realize what treasures the joyful times are. If I never felt disconnected from my friends, would I be able to fully appreciate the warmth I enjoy from our relationships? Probably not. In order to experience the joy, I have to be willing to open myself to the pain. No one gets to enjoy the former without the latter--that's not how the human experience works.

For so long, I was so intent on never being hurt that I also prevented myself from ever being happy. Now, I realize what a blessing it is that I am able to feel the full spectrum of human emotions...and, not only can I feel them, but I can also survive them. The next time I am in one of those dark emotional places (because there will surely be a next time!), I will try to remember that although sadness is in many ways unpleasant, it is also a gift, and a testament to the fact that I have the ability to feel. Hopefully we can all carry this perspective with us as we encounter the emotional ups and downs of recovered life.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"If the world is night...shine my life like a light."

One of my favorite Hassidic stories is the one about the lamplighter. If you have never read it, you can find it here...I recommend reading it before reading this whole post, but if time prevents this, I will give a VERY brief summary:

A Hasidic man once asked a Rebbe, "What is a Hassid?" The Rebbe explained that a Hassid is a lamplighter--a person who walks the streets carrying a flame and, knowing the flame is not his, goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight. A Hassid will go to great lengths to light a lamp, even if the lamp is in the desert or in the ocean. He has worked hard to improve himself, and now his task is to bring the light of self-improvement to others.

I could go on and on about all the elements of this story that I love, but what strikes me the most is how extremely fortunate I have been to have had so many lamplighters in my life. Developing an eating disorder was like plunging full-force into darkness--no connection, no inspiration, no joy. After living this way for years, I grew accustomed to the darkness--to the point that I had adapted my day-to-day existence so that I could function without light; to the point that I had forgotten what living in the light felt like. At some point, the weight of my misery finally registered with me, and I began to give up anorexia a bit at a time...but in its absence, I was left with a whole other kind of darkness--the darkness of loneliness, fear, uncertainty, and self-criticism that the eating disorder had masked.

There to guide me gently out of both levels of darkness have been my lamplighters. Some have been treatment professionals, dedicated clinicians who have helped me repair my relationships with myself, my body, and food. They have answered countless questions with endless patience, even when I asked the same question over and over again. They have given me space to cry, to get angry, and then have shown me how to weather my emotions and release them in positive ways. They got me to a place where I was healthy enough to work on the real issues, and then stuck by me to help me sort out the messiness that comes with life in recovery.

Other lamplighters have been my "recovery mentors"--radiant women who traveled their own journeys of recovery before I did, who were willing to share their stories with me, and who acted as models of what life could be like if I would only be brave enough to let go. These women have been my cheerleaders, the ones who looked me in the eyes and told me they knew I would be recovered one day...and now that I AM in recovery, they have continued to push me to challenge myself and extend my life in ways I wouldn't have imagined.

Finally, there have been my friends, without whose lamplighting power I would surely be lost. My friends have illuminated the best parts of myself and have made me believe that I am worthy of friendship, affection, and love. They've shown me how to live with honesty, how to take risks, and how to clean up messes I might make along the way. I have also been blessed with friends who have helped open my eyes and heart to the beauty of Judaism, who have shown me the richness of my religion and the awesomeness of authentic faith. They've given me the tools to begin to use Judaism to fill some of the lingering void in my life, and have demonstrated to me that there is room for me in this tradition, if only I am willing to be open to it and to make a place for myself.

So, this post is a tribute of sorts, to all my lamplighters--thank you for helping to bring me home to myself, and for making me a more complete version of myself along the way. Toda raba.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Soul Sisters #1---Sarah

"Soul Sisters" is a new series on this blog, in which I will spotlight various historical Jewish women who, through their stories, have much to teach us in our own recovery-oriented lives. If you have an idea of a woman who should be featured, please leave a comment and share your ideas!

When I decided to explore the lives and lessons of ancient Jewish women, I felt it was only natural to begin with Sarah, the first matriarch of the Jewish people. I was a bit skeptical of how much I could truly relate to a woman from so long ago, who lived a life so vastly different from mine, but I found in Sarah's story many points of connection.

What stands out the most to me about Sarah is the clarity of her vision and the strength of her voice. Sarah desperately wanted to have a child to continue the line of Abraham, and she sought a creative solution to her childlessness. Sarah gave her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham so that he and Hagar could conceive a child, whom Abraham and Sarah would then raise as their own. Sarah knew that being a mother of a nation was her destiny, and she was steadfast in her determination to make this a reality. After Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Hashem told Abraham and Sarah that Sarah would, in fact, give birth to her own child, a son named Isaac, through whom Hashem would continue his covenant with Abraham. Knowing it would be Isaac (and not Ishmael) who would fulfill Hashem's promise, Sarah realized what needed to be done. In a voice clear and firm, Sarah ordered Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael so that there would be no one to challenge Isaac's place as Abraham's successor. I've heard some people judge Sarah's action against Hagar as aggressive or even cruel, but what I think is important to remember is that Sarah never lost sight of the big picture, and she did what was necessary to protect the greater good--the future of the Jewish people.

What can we, as women on our own journeys of recovery, learn from Sarah's example? Sarah provides us with a model of female determination, self-confidence, and efficacy. She is a woman who knew her mission as the mother of the Jewish people, and she stopped at nothing to protect the generations she knew would follow her. No shrinking violet, Sarah was every bit her husband's equal, and he listened when she spoke her mind. Sarah had the courage to seek truth, envision the future, and live according to her convictions. May we all learn from Sarah to pursue our dreams, to be active agents in shaping our own futures, and to use the power of our own voices for good.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Receiving is Giving

In this week's parashah, Vayeirah, Abraham eagerly extends hospitality to three visitors passing by his tent. He offers them bread and water, then proceeds to prepare for them an elaborate feast. The visitors turn out to be three angels, sent to inform Abraham and Sarah of Sarah's future pregnancy. In learning about this parshah, I've consulted several sources, many of which examine why Hashem sent angels to receive hospitality from Abraham. When he offered to host the visitors, Abraham was still recovering from his circumcision, no doubt feeling less than his best. Angels do not actually need food, or water, or shelter--so why did they accept Abraham's invitation, instead of politely declining and encouraging Abraham to rest and take care of himself? The answer I have repeatedly come upon is that the angels didn't accept for their own benefit; they accepted for Abraham's benefit. They knew how important it was to Abraham to be hospitable to guests, how much he yearned to give to others, and their role was to give him the opportunity to fulfill that mitzvah. By allowing Abraham to give to them, the angels provided Abraham with a way to feel valuable, to experience connection, and to demonstrate his kindness.

I find this perspective so interesting because it emphasizes the idea that it is not only giving that is important, but also receiving. Something that has always been hard for me is accepting kindness from others. Whether it's because I think I don't deserve it, or because I simply do not want anyone to think I'm needy or dependent, I have an exceedingly difficult time allowing other people to give to me. Part of my work in recovery has been learning how to receive gracefully--how to accept compliments, favors, gifts, and assistance without bringing judgment on board, as well.

I know that there is nothing I find more fulfilling than giving to other people; and yet, I hesitate to allow others the opportunity to experience the pleasure of giving to me. This week's parashah reminds me that when I accept kindness from another person, I am not the only one who benefits. In a way, receiving is giving--it is providing another person the chance to feel needed, useful, and valued. I hope we can all find ways to feel satisfaction from extending kindness to others...and, that we become more comfortable allowing others to return the compassion to us.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

...and You Shall Be Satisfied...

When I first started exploring how Judaism might support my recovery, one of the first books I turned to was God In Your Body by Jay Michaelson. I stumbled upon it quite by accident one afternoon at the library, and like a magnet I gravitated immediately to the chapter on eating.

The central message I extracted from the text is, eating is sacred and being satisfied is a key part of the process. In Deuteronomy chapter 8, Hashem describes the land into which He will bring the Jewish people, a land full of bounty. He then declares, ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את יי אלהך על הארץ הטבה, "...and you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless your G-d for the good earth".

For me, this was a revolutionary concept...the idea that Hashem wants me to eat to the point of satisfaction. Eating, in my world, was an act of necessity. I ate prescribed foods at prescribed times, often regardless of hunger or fullness. Satisfaction was not even on my radar. I considered it a luxury and an indulgence to take pleasure in eating, to give myself more than the bare minimum--and if there was one thing I refused to do, it was self-indulge. But when I read that the Torah actually commands that we be satisfied, I was forced to examine the act of eating from a new perspective.

Food is what sustains us. Without it, no matter how pure our intentions or how righteous we are, we will die. Our hunger for food, rather than being a weakness, is actually Hashem's gift to us--it signals to us that we need to nourish ourselves, to fuel our bodies and care for them. And, allowing ourselves to experience satisfaction is part of the beauty of the act of eating. If eating truly is a holy act, it follows that it should also be pleasurable. Hashem has provided us with such plentitude. I like to think that, just as a parent finds joy in watching his or her child take pleasure in life, Hashem also delights in watching His children satisfy themselves with the food He has provided.

For me, this outlook on eating has changed the way I approach food. Now, before I put the food into my mouth, I spend a few seconds focusing on it in my hand or at the end of my fork, and I say the bracha for that food. I do my best to eat to the point of satisfaction (although to be fair, this sometimes still seems like a work in progress!)...and when I am done, I feel grateful to Hashem for having given me the nourishment I need, and I express this thanks through a blessing. Eating will, in all honesty, probably never be my favorite activity. But now, at least, I consider it a meaningful, sacred potential source of pleasure which Hashem wants me to experience.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Inner Unity

I can't resist another Sukkot-themed post...this holiday is so full of inspiring material!

One tradition of Sukkot that really resonates with me is the mitzvah of the "Four Kinds." It is customary to bundle together the etrog (citron), lulav (palm frond), hadas (myrtle), and aravah (willow), and to bless them in their unity. The Four Kinds represent four types of Jewish people: those with both Torah and good deeds (etrog), those with Torah but without good deeds (lulav), those with good deeds but without Torah (hadas), and those with neither Torah nor good deeds (aravah). The Midrash says that we are to bundle them together so that they will "atone for each other." Implicit in that statement is the idea that not only is each of the Four Kinds important, but that each one has something to offer that the others do not, and therefore is essential for completeness.

What I love about this concept is that the idea of uniting the Four Kinds can be applied to not only unity among people, but also unity within a person. We each have so many diverse aspects of our personality, some of which we like, some of which we maybe don't like so much. It can be tempting to want to homogenize ourselves so that we are uniformly positive, but doing so would erase what makes each of us a complete individual. In my recovery, a challenge has been for me to appreciate and honor ALL aspects of myself, not just the ones that are easy for me to like. Here is a brief sampling of what is bundled together inside of me:

I am compassionate. This allows me to empathize with others, meet them where they're at, and to treat other people (and myself) gently.

I am resistant. This helps me to slow down before acting, to evaluate possible outcomes, and to think through decisions.

I am grateful. This means that I am someone who finds pleasure in simple things, whose day can be brightened by a small moment of connection or beauty.

I am critical. This drives me to work hard and not settle for mediocrity from myself or my surroundings. It helps me to know what I like, as well as what I don't like.

I am anxious. This prevents me from taking unnecessary risks, and it helps me to plan how I will respond to any number of potentially negative outcomes.

I am courageous. When push comes to shove, I find it within myself to do what I thought I could not do.

I could go on! But, now it's your turn. What parts of yourself do you need to honor for their contribution to a complete, well-rounded YOU?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The temporary permanence of sukkot--and life

Recently I read an article about Sukkot that discussed the rich symbolism of the holiday. During Sukkot, Hashem commands us to build a sukkah—a temporary dwelling place—and use it as if it were our primary place of residence: eating, drinking, perhaps even sleeping in it. It’s interesting that within the sukkah we are supposed to engage in some of life’s most concrete, grounding activities; and yet, the entire structure of the sukkah is temporary. When we’re in it, we’re in it in a significant way…but it isn’t meant to last forever.
This “sukkah paradox” reminds me of how I handle the emotional ups and downs of recovery, and of life in general. One of my most critical tasks of early recovery was to allow myself to be in the moment and not run from my emotions. I didn’t want to be grounded in the present—I wanted to be anywhere but where I was; I had no use for feelings; I paid no heed to my bodily signals. Given my perpetually distracted, preoccupied brain, it’s fair to say that I didn’t fully dwell anywhere while I was in the height of my eating disorder. That would have required being fully present in the moment, a task that seemed far too overwhelming to take on.
Recovery, however, demands that I fully inhabit my life. On any given day, my task is to be present in each moment to the best of my ability. On some days, my life is overall enjoyable, and being present is a pleasure. On other days, however, life might not be so pleasant—maybe I have to do a task that I dislike, or have an uncomfortable conversation, or tolerate feeling angry or lonely or frustrated—but my challenge is to allow myself to be “in it” while understanding that the situation is temporary.
A few days ago, I was explaining to a friend of mine why I probably wouldn’t sleep in a sukkah this year (I can’t really imagine facing a class of wiggly eight-year-olds the morning after after spending all night trying to sleep in a hut!) He told me that one year, he and a friend of his were sleeping in his sukkah, when it began to rain. Instead of heading for the dry shelter of the house, the two of them simply crawled under the table for cover and stayed there until the rain stopped. I honestly can’t think of a more fitting parallel to weathering the storms of everyday life in recovery—when rain comes (and it will), instead of running away, find a safe place to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. When we’re overwhelmed by a negative emotion, our task is to find a source of comfort and hang on, with an understanding that although we’re “in it” temporarily, the feeling will pass. On this Sukkot, I wish for all of us to allow ourselves to dwell fully in our experiences, and to trust that no discomfort we endure will last forever.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Breaking The Fast, Recovery-style

Fasting on Yom Kippur...always an interesting experience. There were the years when I fasted for the sake of not eating, and there were the years when I DIDN'T fast for the sake of, thankfully, I'm at a place where I fast for the sake of tradition, spirituality, and self-cleansing. However, even now, firmly established in recovery as I am, there is something about going 25 hours without eating that gets my anxiety going. My brain starts feeling out that old, rusty hamster wheel of eating disordered thinking, and I have to be vigilant and determined about not falling into old patterns. This year, I was successful...but I think I scored the biggest victory not in the way I fasted, but in the way I BROKE the fast.

Most of the Jewish holidays I celebrated growing up were spent with my most immediate family: my mom, my dad, and me. In my lifetime, my mom has never been able to fast, due to health reasons. Neither of my parents has ever been particularly passionate about food. Consequently, breaking the fast in my house usually consisted of my dad and me defrosting a couple of bagels, scrambling some eggs, and eating some of my mom's delicious homemade applesauce...peaceful and low-key, but definitely low on the excitement scale. As a result, I have never considered breaking the fast to be anything special. This year, my plan was safe, simple, and structured: go home to my studio apartment, eat some comfortable, tried-and-true foods, and spend the evening relaxing, alone. I was somewhat conscious of the fact that many people actually had plans to break the fast with other people...but, since my total local friend tally is low and my local Jewish friend tally is even lower, that didn't seem in the cards for me, and anyway, I like to be by myself. Right?

Enter Lauren, one of the coolest women I've met since joining my shul two years ago. Originally from South Africa, Lauren is spirited, outspoken, and full of passion. Despite a bit of a generation gap, we've become friendly, and her family has stepped in to fill a void in my life with their charisma and warmth. As I entered the Ne'ilah service, I knew that Lauren was hosting a break-fast at her family's home. My first thought was, "I have my own plans." But then I allowed myself to wonder: did I really want to break the fast alone? What would it be like to spend that time with other people, if I had the option to do so? The more I thought about it, the more I began to hope that somehow, Lauren would find me in the sea of people and would invite me to her house.

Hashem must have known my secret hope, because after the final shofar blast, as the crowd began to disperse, Lauren appeared in front of me and asked the question I had been wishing to hear: did I want to come to her house to break the fast? Absolutely.

Going to Lauren's home marked a shift for me. I had a hunch that none of the foods I'd been planning to eat in my own apartment would be on the menu at Lauren's, and I was right. But, what was there was delicious, and I allowed myself to eat what I wanted, not what I thought I "should" have. But the true delight of the evening wasn't anything I ate, but the company I kept. Sitting around the table with Lauren, her family, and several other invited guests, I took part in conversations, listened to stories, asked questions, and felt connected. In the past, I wouldn't have allowed myself this freedom because of all the unknowns inherent in going to someone else's house, eating someone else's food, and being on someone else's schedule. This year, I realized that I can do things "my way" any time I want to...but that sometimes, being part of a group is more important than having everything exactly the way I think I want it. I couldn't have asked for a better way to begin 5772...spiritually cleansed, energized, and nourished in body and soul.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I used to really dislike the High Holy Days. First of all, I had to dress up (which I hated), and spend hours in a synagogue where I felt ill at ease. Then, there was the Yom Kippur fast, which was anxiety provoking when I observed it and equally stressful when I did not. Finally, there were the hours passed contemplating all of my shortcomings for which I was supposed to atone: I had not been a sufficiently devoted daughter; I hadn’t called my grandmother often enough; I’d told lies; I had withheld myself from my friends. And, of course, there was the eating disorder, the biggest sin of all. Every year, I would vow to make the coming year the year when I would “really” recover; and yet, when the next Yom Kippur rolled around, I was forced to admit that once again, I had failed.
Looking back, it’s no wonder to me why those High Holy Day experiences were so overwhelmingly negative. One thing that might have helped would have been an understanding of the real meaning of teshuvah, one of the central themes of the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I’d been taught that teshuvah meant “repentance,” which inevitably led me to feel remorse and regret. Recently, however, I learned that what teshuvah actually means is, “return.” The idea is that within each human being is a divine spark of G-dly potential. This is our true self, but it gets buried underneath superficial deeds and concerns. Teshuvah is the process of reconnecting with our inner light, of returning to our connection with Hashem.
When I understand teshuvah in this way, instead of experiencing guilt and sadness, I feel joy and hope. Judaism teaches that even when I am feeling hopelessly far from holy, the divine spark still burns inside of me and links me to Hashem. My job is not to sit and lament all of my misdeeds; rather, my task is to actively find ways to clear out the clutter and fill the space with mitzvot, which then bring me closer to Hashem.
There was a long time in which I was so full of self-hatred that I couldn’t have seen my inner light if it had been shining directly into my eyes. Ironically, it is the process of recovering from my eating disorder (formerly Sin with a capital S) that has led me to recognize the potential of my true self and the strength of my desire for connection with Hashem. This year, I enter the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur with excitement. I am finally able to be fully engaged in the journey back to my divine source, and the endless possibilities of what I might discover along the way have me feeling energized. What I hope for myself in the coming year is not that I be “better” than I was in years before, but that I be “truer.” May we all experience truth and reconnection in the year to come. Shana tova!