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!