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.