Wednesday, December 19, 2012

From a Teacher's Heart

I hope you all will forgive me if I digress a bit from the usual themes of this blog, in order to focus on something that has been dominating my mind for the past several days.  In all likelihood, this deviation from the norm is harder for me than it will be for you--in my mind, I have "rules" for this blog (Must be recovery!  Must be Jewish!) and it is challenging for me to be flexible and acknowledge that this week, I have something else that I want--need--to write about.  But, never fear--I'll do my best to bring it all together at some point!

Last Friday afternoon, my students were reading quietly as they always do after lunch, and I took advantage of the quiet to check the news on my laptop.  Expecting the usual mix of political and entertainment headlines, I was shocked at what I found instead:  reports of a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, details of which were still unfolding.  The rest of the afternoon passed in a surreal blur: I would teach a lesson, then check the news during a lull, then simply turn and watch my kids in all their vibrant vitality.  By the time I dismissed my class of third graders, I knew the gruesome outcome of the brutal assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School: 28 people dead, including 6 educators and 20 six- and seven-year-old children.

For the first few days after the shooting, my mind was consumed with thoughts about the tragedy.  Not being a parent myself, I couldn't really conceptualize the grief that the parents of the slain children were feeling.  But, as a third grade teacher, I felt complete empathy for the teachers at Sandy Hook.  I thought about what it would be like to lose colleagues and students in such a sudden, tragic way.  I worried about where I would hide 23 nine-year-olds in my own classroom if, G-d forbid, we ever faced a similar situation.  I watched and read interviews with teachers who had protected their students by hiding them in bathrooms, closets, and cabinets, teachers who had kept their kids calm by reading to them and telling them to "wait for the good guys."  As a teacher, I am deeply devoted to my students and feel fiercely protective of them...and the idea of NOT being able to shield them from such trauma is just about the worst thing I can imagine.  For me, thinking of what it must have been like for those teachers is absolutely devastating.

This week, I've had to give myself plenty of space to feel grief over what happened in Connecticut.  I'm also conscious of the fact that five years ago I probably would not have been capable of having such an intense emotional reaction to a story in the news--I had numbed myself into emotional flatline.  This week, however, I've felt the full force of sadness as I've tried to wrap my mind around the deaths of so many children and the adults who cared for them.  Years ago, I would have run from such strong feelings as quickly as possible.  Now, however, I am able to recognize that being able to have emotions is also what helps me be connected to other people who are going through a similar experience.

It has been a tough week to be an elementary school teacher...but, it has also been a special one.  On Monday morning, my colleagues and I met for an emergency staff meeting to discuss what we might face during the day.  We expressed our fears, we cried, we hugged each other...and then we went to meet our students, who came through the doors full of precious energy and reminded us of why, exactly, we do the work that we do.  I have never felt more privileged to be a teacher than I have this week.  My heart is with the teachers from Sandy Hook, and I pray that they will find the strength to guide themselves and their students through this dark time--emerging, once more, into the light.

"I have learned two lessons in my life:  first, there are no sufficient literary, psychological, or historical answers to human tragedy, only moral ones.  Second, just as despair can come to one another only from human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by human beings."  --Elie Wiesel

Monday, December 10, 2012

This Little Light of Mine...

A few moments ago, I lit the menorah for the third night of Chanukah.  As I write this post, the candles stand upright and proud in their holders, casting small yet hardy flames into the air above them.  True, Chanukah isn't considered among the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar, but it does carry powerful messages for us to consider as we try to find our path in a world that often seems cast in darkness and shadows.

One of the central themes of Chanukah is the victory of the small band of Hasmoneans against the much larger Syrian-Greek army.  As a classic culture, the Greeks had a lot to offer, and they were eager to share their Hellenist rituals and beliefs with the Jews--but the Jews weren't interested.  Simply put, the Jews didn't want what the Greeks were selling.  They appreciated many things about Greek culture--in fact, Judaism has often praised the ancient Greeks for their linguistic and philosophical contributions to the world.  But although they were able to see the virtues of the Greeks, the Jews didn't want to be Greek--they wanted to be Jews, and they had to fight for their right to remain true to themselves.

This is a predicament that continues to face us today.  As we grow and develop into ourselves, there is no shortage of people who are waiting to give us advice and tell us how they think we should live our lives.  Sometimes, outside influence comes in the form of family or close friends who tell us what we should consider, what we should prioritize, what we should value.  Other times, input comes from our surrounding culture that informs us, in no uncertain terms, of how we should dress, how we should speak, how we should behave.  It is easy to be intimidated and confused in the face of all those "shoulds," and when we let those "shoulds" dictate our choices, that's when we start to lose ourselves.  As a person who tries hard to avoid confrontation, I fully appreciate the challenge and scariness of bucking the trend.  But, I also know that I spent many years of my life believing there were only two options--conform, or disappear--and neither of those was entirely successful (or satisfying).  Slowly, I began to wonder if there might be a third option...and Chanukah teaches us that there is.

Chanukah is about the fight that we all must undertake to live by our own light.  It's about remaining true to ourselves in the face of intense cultural pressure and not losing sight of our own priorities and visions.  Chanukah reminds us that this is indeed a fight worth fighting, and that if we are willing to go through the struggle that growth entails, we will emerge stronger and more vital.

We light the Chanukah candles in accordance with the tradition of Beit Hillel:  one candle for the first night, two for the second, and so on in an increasing manner.  Hillel based his ruling on the principle of ma'alin ba'kodesh ve'ayn moridin--one increases in matters of holiness, and does not diminish.  So it is with ourselves--if we do the work of living authentically and speaking our truth, our strength and virtue will increase, as will the light that we are able to share with others.

This Chanukah season, may we all have the courage to use our own light to guide us out of whatever darkness in which we find ourselves.

!חג חנוכה שמח

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Mother's Love

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Rachel, our matriarch, whose story began in parasha Vayetzei and concluded last week with her tragic death during childbirth in Vayishlach.  I should admit to being just a teensy bit biased towards her, as we do share the same name...but in all seriousness, what I learn from Rachel extends far beyond that one point of connection.

When Rachel dies, Jacob buries her on the side of the road on the way to Efrat as his family makes their way back to their homeland.  Her tomb is solitary, separated from that of her husband and the other matriarchs and patriarchs who are buried in the Cave of Machpelah.  A Midrash reveals the critical significance of Rachel's burial "on the road" by explaining that centuries later, when the Jewish people were exiled after the destruction of the First Temple, they passed by her grave on their way out of their homeland...and Rachel wept for them, begging Hashem to be merciful toward her children.  In response to her heartfelt pleas, Hashem promised Rachel, "There is hope for your destiny...the children shall return to their borders."  (Pesikta Rabbati, piska 2)

But not only is Rachel the mother of children in exile, she herself also knows all too well the feeling of being stuck "in process," not yet at her desired destination. Much of Rachel's story chronicles the ways in which she is "on the way," close-but-not-quite-there.  First, she must become the second wife of Jacob, when she should have been the first.  Then, there are all the years in which she is barren, unable to conceive children while she watches Leah give birth to son after son.  When she finally does give birth to Joseph, her first son, Rachel is prays to Hashem to give her another baby...but she dies bringing that much-desired second child, Benjamin, into this world.  

I recently read an article about Rachel that describes her in this way:

"It seems that Rachel's entire existence symbolizes "the way," the process.  Her life is a story of constant grappling with processes, and it is from Rachel we learn the significance of process.  
Something that is attained easily is of lesser value in a person's eyes.  When a person lacks something, he has a better understanding of its value.  When he must work hard in order to attain something, he appreciates it more, and is more attached to it.  In addition, the very process that he undergoes--even if he never achieves his final objective--causes his personality to grow and develop."

Recovery is a colossal process, if ever there was one.  Although we're not exiled from our homelands anymore, we have endured the experience of being in exile from ourselves.  We've been lonely, confused, lost, and fact, we may be feeling those emotions right now, depending on where we are in our process and how far removed we feel from where we want to be.  Rachel is the quintessential comforter of people who feel stranded "on the road."  She watches over us, shining her light on the path that we follow to our destinations.  Rachel loves us unconditionally with a compassion that comes from having been through her own rocky process in the name of a greater vision.  By caring so deeply for us, Rachel teaches us to care for ourselves--to be gentle with ourselves as we navigate the twists and turns on the roads leading back to our cores.  

As we press forward on our journeys, may we be comforted by the wise, maternal love of Rachel Imenu...and may we use her tenderness to propel ourselves onward, out of exile and back to our true selves.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Struggle for Wholeness

Since I started learning Torah, my friends and teachers have been telling me that the power of Torah is that no matter how many times you read it, you can always find in it something new.  At this point, I haven't read the entire Torah enough times to really test that theory, but this week I'm getting the sense that it holds water.  Last year I blogged about the episode in this week's parasha, Vayishlach, where Jacob wrestles with the angel.  (A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the text:  After using deception to claim the birthright that was intended for his older brother, Esau, Jacob fled from his homeland and remained in exile for around 20 years.  Finally, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him and Jacob prepares for the reunion with a good amount of fear and anxiety.  The night before he is to see his brother, Jacob has a dream in which a mysterious being wrestles with him until the break of dawn.)  I really love this story, and as I started reading the parsha for the second time, I felt a little disappointed that I'd already written about that section of text...but then, I found it:  something new!

While reading the psukim about Jacob and the angel, I was drawn to the following midrashic commentary at the bottom of the page:

We can imagine Jacob saying to himself, "Until now, I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running.  I deceived my father.  I ran away from Esau.  I left Laban's house stealthily instead of confronting him.  I hate myself for being a person who lies and runs.  But I'm afraid of facing up to the situation."  By not defeating his conscience, Jacob wins.  He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them.  At the end of the struggle, he is physically wounded and emotionally depleted.  Nevertheless, the Torah describes him (in 33:18) as shalem, translated "safe" with connotations of "whole," at peace with himself (shalem is related to the word "shalom"), possessing an integrity he never had before (S'fat Emet).   --Etz Hayim chumash, page 201.

I often feel that part of the challenge of reading Torah is finding ways to connect with the central figures of the narrative--how can I relate to them and make their experiences applicable to my life?  Through this commentary, I discover a whole new way to relate to Jacob.  Like Jacob, I went through a period of my life when I was deceptive and untruthful.  When confronted with any type of uncomfortable situation, I chose the path of avoidance, which was usually paved with lies.  I hated how my eating disorder had turned me into someone sneaky and dishonest, but I was unable to find the strength to face confrontations or challenges head-on.  For me, recovery has meant growing into a person who is willing to bear discomfort.  It has meant finding a way to be honest even when it might upset someone else, because having a strong sense of integrity has become more important to me than insulating myself from the bumpy parts of real life.

Jacob's battle leaves him injured and exhausted, yet undeniably whole.  Recovery is similar, in that probably no one (at least no one I know) escapes it unscathed.  I have found it to be physically demanding and often painful, and it has pushed me to the outer limits of my capacity for handling tough emotions.  So, why have I put myself through all of that?  I've done it because the "me" who has emerged out the other side is a fuller, more authentic self than I ever would have been had I not engaged in the struggle.  Although recovery, in the moment, often seemed impossibly challenging, it has ended up being the process that brought me to a clearer, brighter existence.  The eating disorder gave me a false sense of protection, but recovery provides me with a path toward genuine wholeness.  I hope that each of us is able to internalize the courage and wisdom of Jacob and use this strength to further our own positive transformations--and that we emerge from it all as individuals who truly know the meaning of shalem.  


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Anxiety Comes Calling...

Whenever I sat down to think about this week's blog post, my mind would stay on task for a few minutes before being distracted by news coming in from Israel--reports of rockets, missiles, air strikes, and sirens.  No matter how hard I tried to focus on philosophical issues, I always ended up dwelling on current events in the here and I decided I needed to write about that.

As much as I relish a rich political debate, I don't want to have one here.  The more I learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more I realize I will never be able to sort through all of its complexity.  To be honest, right now I am relatively uninterested in the nitty-gritty details of that complicated history.  What occupies my mind is something much more basic:

People I love are in danger, and I'm not able to help them.

For me, this is what it boils down to.  In my mind, Israel is no longer just a place where a lot of Jews live.  It is the place where my friends and teachers live, where I lived this past summer, where I have learned and grown and shared and connected.  The land of Israel is a place where I feel at home, and the friends I have over there are some of the people dearest to me in the entire world.  This week, I talked with friends of mine whose lives had gone from mundane to surreal in a matter of hours; I read about rockets landing near the communities of two of my teachers; I found out that my friend's husband was called up to the army; I heard about sirens going off in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  My best friend told me about how she and her coworkers ran for cover when they heard a siren, and this morning I started my day by reading headlines about a public bus bombing in the city where she lives. As I go about my days in my relatively safe neighborhood far across the world from the center of the action, I can't help but notice the pit I feel in my stomach or the way my breath often stops just short of actually reaching my diaphragm.  I am aware of my fear, my frustration, and my sense of helplessness--and my need to manage all of those emotions effectively in order to keep living my life.

Historically, I've not done well with handling anxiety over things beyond my control.  My mind spins and whirls around the what-ifs, and I tend to need more reassurance than usual that no news does not, in fact, mean bad news.  In early recovery I started learning about the "cognitive distortions" in which I often engaged:  catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, jumping to conclusions...those were but a few of my favorites.  For a long time, I dealt with helplessness, fear, and anxiety by exercising or starving them into oblivion.  At this point in my journey, though, clearly I need some new strategies...and this past week has given me an opportunity to practice the coping skills that I've worked hard to develop.

Here's what has worked so far:  I try to keep my consumption of news reports to a reasonable amount, as opposed to keeping Israeli news sites up in my browser for the entire day.  I don't check the news late at night, when I need to be relaxing in preparation for sleep.  I make an effort to curtail the number of emails I send to my friends--enough to satisfy my need to know they're safe, but not so many so that taking care of my anxiety becomes another problem on their plates (okay, so my best friend still gets a lot of emails...but isn't that what best friends are for?).  When I say the prayer for peace every day, I say it with more feeling, more kavannah.  I signed up for the Shmira Project, started by two families affiliated with Livnot U'Lehibanot, one of my favorite Israeli organizations.  And, I've tried to shift my focus from what I can't control to what I can I bring light to the lives of the people I care about in Israel?  How can I bring light to the lives of the people I care about here?

Two hours ago, a ceasefire went into effect.  I'm hopeful that it sticks, and that the rockets that have continued to rain on southern Israel will slow to a trickle, then to nothing.  I hope that life gets back to normal for my friends and teachers, and that soon we will return to thinking and talking about matters not related to national security.  Finally, I hope that this week when I wish them all a shabbat shalom, that's exactly what it will be.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Outgrowing the Flower Pot

People who know me well could probably think of a variety of adjectives with which to describe me, but I'd be willing to bet that, "daring," would not be one of them.  (I base this assumption on the high frequency with which I have been described as, "risk-averse.")  In some ways, my cautiousness is an asset--it protects me from danger and unnecessarily risky situations.  However, lately I have been thinking that although it keeps me safe, it also undeniably keeps me stuck.

On the one hand, if I have to be stuck somewhere, the life I currently lead isn't a terrible place to be.  I have a job doing what I love to do; I live in a satisfactory apartment in a safe, clean neighborhood; I have amazing parents whom I get to see almost every weekend. I have in place many of the pieces that make up the picture of a functional, fulfilling adult life.  And, for nearly a decade, this has been enough for me.  In fact, for a long time this stable life of mine was all I wanted--as I worked my way through early recovery, I couldn't imagine that I would ever be able to do anything truly daring, nor did I want to.  Even once my recovery was more secure, I felt it would be foolish to uproot myself from the support system I'd put into place--surely, such a move would cause me to unravel.  So, I've stayed put, safe in my little flower pot of sorts, growing as tall as I've been able with roots that are limited in how far out they can extend.

But now...I think I might have outgrown the flower pot.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to just throw away everything I've worked so hard to build, but I can't deny that I feel constrained and restricted to a life that is just okay, as opposed to a life that is great.  But, herein lies the problem:  moving from okay to great requires change, uncertainty, and a willingness to take chances.  None of that dovetails so nicely with my lifelong history of risk aversion.  When I think of making dramatic life changes--moving, changing jobs, etc--part of me feels alive, excited, and smiley while another part yells things like, "It's stupid to leave a stable situation!"  And then, there is the quiet yet persistent voice that whispers, "What makes you think you deserve to be any happier than you are?"

My recent struggle with safety-vs-growth has led me to reexamine the Midrash about Nachshon, the Israelite who was brave enough to venture into the Red Sea before it split, thereby proving to Hashem that the Jews were a people of courage.  As risks go, that was about as significant as it gets, and the other Israelites probably thought Nachshon was crazy to leave dry land to plunge headlong into roiling, uninviting waters.  But in the end, it was Nachshon's courage that allowed the Jews to survive.

This doesn't mean that taking big chances is always a good idea.  For sure, some risk-takers are met with disappointment.  But it's also true that a life of positive growth requires a willingness to step into the unknown.  An article I read on the Midrash of Nachshon explains,

"Surely risks must be calculated and carefully planned, but without an element of uncertainty nothing can be accomplished.  There is no authentic life choice that is risk-free."

Recovery, for me, is about living an authentic life, about believing that I do deserve to feel more complete and satisfied than I do right now.  What have I done all this work for, if not to grow up and out as much as possible?  As I start to make plans for the future, I hope that I am able to channel some of Nachshon's courage to take risks (calculated and planned ones, of course).  As Rebbe Nachman said:

"The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge.  And the most important thing is not to be afraid."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Best Laid Plans...

I really dislike curveballs...

...and yet, life seems to enjoy throwing them.

You know how it have a plan, one that excites you and energizes you, one that you think will move your life in the direction you want it to go, and then...WHAM.  Curveball.  So much for the plan.

Very recently, I found myself in this situation--a plan that I had looked forward to with great hope and excitement suddenly fell apart and left me back at square one.  Now, it's true that I've been in therapy for over a decade, but let's be real--the demise of a Really Good Plan is still cause for some serious emotional crumbling.  First thought:  Now what will I do?  Second thought:  I can't do anything.  Third thought:  I don't want to eat.

Yep, that was the third thought, because even in recovery, I know that when I am vulnerable, that's where my mind goes.  But the amazing thing about recovery is that I can recognize such a thought as a red flag and can intervene before ever putting that thought into action.  So, instead of not eating, I did the following:  I cried; I reached out to someone I trusted; I distracted myself; I took a nap (all of which, it should be noted, ultimately were way more effective than going hungry).  And, I thought about the concept of bitachon.

Bitachon is translated as trust.  It is a way of applying the concept of "faith in Hashem" to one's everyday life.  If you have faith in Hashem, then you should trust Hashem.  But what does that mean?

On a simplistic level, it means understanding that Hashem would never make us go through something that wasn't ultimately for the greater good.  It also means acknowledging that we don't see the whole picture--only Hashem can do that.  Consequently, we might have plans that seem perfect to us, but maybe they won't ultimately get us where we need to go--and when that happens, Hashem intervenes and foils our plans.  This may seem devastating to us because we can't see where we are headed--all we can see are our ruined plans.  But, remembering that Hashem creates reality in a way that is for our benefit--and the world's--can help us trust that even that which seems bad, might lead us somewhere good.

However, it's important to understand that bitachon does NOT mean being complacent or believing that "everything will be fine if I just sit back and trust Hashem."  Rav Shimshon Pincus Zatzal explains that when we are confronted with adversity, it is misguided bitachon to convince ourselves that there is no problem and that Hashem will handle everything.  Rather, bitachon means acknowledging the severity of the challenges we face and using the tools Hashem has given us to lift ourselves out of problematic situations.  Bitachon is not passive--it is the active channeling of our trust in Hashem to propel ourselves forward.

Personally, I like this idea of bitachon much better than the notion that I just should be happy no matter what my circumstances, because Hashem is taking me where I need to go.  I mean, I have faith in Hashem, but I also believe in personal agency--and bitachon is the intersection of the two.  Perhaps that "great plan" of mine actually wasn't in sync with Hashem's big picture--I can accept that.  I can also use the skills and tools that Hashem has given me--determination, resourcefulness, thoughtfulness, patience--to find another option for myself that is better aligned with what Hashem ultimately wants for me.  Yes, life threw me a curveball...but, I don't need to throw up my hands and wait for the next pitch to smack me in the face.  I can pick up my glove, channel my fielding skills...and trust that Hashem will help me catch it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Go Against the Flow

This week's parasha, Lech Lecha, is so chock-full of rich material that I've already written about it two times!  But, since there's always the possibility to discover something new in Torah, I decided that this week I would try to find a new angle from which to approach this parasha.  An article by Rabbi Max Weiman from inspired me to begin by taking a close look at Abram--what was it that separated him from the rest of humanity at that point?

In the very beginning, Hashem spoke to Adam, who passed on the teachings to his children and their descendants, including Noah.  But, by the time of Abram, society had once again deteriorated.  Abram lived in a culture of idol worshippers, yet somehow he heard the call of Hashem, the one G-d.  How did this happen?  Some say that he was so enchanted with the beauty of the world, that he knew there had to be one Creator overseeing everything.  However it unfolded, the bottom line is that Abram challenged the status quo and dared to follow what he knew to be true.  He rejected the culture of the majority and instead took a different path--which, as we know, had profound implications for the history of the Jewish people.

Abram wasn't afraid to go against the tide--he went in the direction of what he knew was authentic, even as everyone around him was doing the opposite.  What does it take to be the sort of person who is brave enough to do this?

It takes a lot of work to swim against the cultural stream.  In recovery, this comes up all the time--with the incessant social buzz about diets and weight, it is almost impossible to follow a recovery meal plan without feeling like you're fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Western world.  When people around you are trading stories about workout regimens, it can be hard to remain confident in your decision to cancel your gym membership.  And, when your friends or family members are gossiping about someone else who just lost/gained a noticeable amount of weight, it can be very daunting to look them in the eyes and say, "So what?"

But, this is what recovery demands.  We must be willing to distance ourselves from the commonplace, yet mildly distorted, thinking that pervades our surrounding culture with respect to food and body.  We don't need to buy into the myths of "good" and "bad" foods, and we don't need to believe the falsehood that any one particular body type is the gateway to happiness.  The last time I checked (which wasn't too long ago), no one food will singlehandedly make or break your health, and happy people come in all shapes and sizes.

In the book Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Pipher, there is a chapter called, "Worshiping the Gods of Thinness."  Isn't this what so much of our society is doing?  We have a choice in front of us:  we can either join the majority in their idolization of a phony ideal, or we can be strong enough to follow what we know in our cores to be true.  One of the gifts of recovery is that we can see the falseness of the cultural myths and the misalignment of societal priorities, whereas people who haven't done this work are not always able to do so.  We need to be brave enough to voice our own truths and prove that there is a more genuine way to live.  May we all be blessed with the courage and vision of Abram, and may we spread the light of authenticity to those around us!

Monday, October 15, 2012

"Lapses and Crises"

I know I've mentioned the importance of self-compassion many times, and I do genuinely believe in it...but I'll be honest and say that sometimes it's really hard for me.  As a teacher, I'll gladly work with a student all year on one particular skill, but when it comes to myself, I expect proficiency right out of the gate.  Lately, this has been a problem for me regarding religious observance--although I've been steadily increasing my religiosity over the past two years, I'm still far from where I'd like to be in terms of "religious fluency."  To be fair, I was raised in a secular environment and still operate in one on a daily basis. There are times when my interactions and relationships with the many non-observant (or non-Jewish) people in my life lead me to make compromises and adjustments to my practice that I wish I didn't have to make--but I do make them, because I'm not yet always confident or assertive enough to say, "This is what I need," or "That won't work for me."  When I consciously do something that I know is in violation of Jewish law, the self-judgment voice  starts yelling, "You know better than that.  You're supposed to be taking this seriously.  How can you say you are religious and then go and do that?  You're a fraud.  You will never get better than this." 

As this latest round of Jewish holidays neared its end, I struggled with this critical voice because I felt I hadn't observed the last couple of festival days as thoughtfully as I would have liked.  Never mind that I did observe them more carefully than I had the year wasn't perfect, and I knew I could have done better.  I should have done better.  In the middle of this overwhelmingly negative self-assessment, it dawned on me that this entire routine seemed awfully familiar--this was the same way I had talked to myself in the beginning of my recovery, every time I would give in to the urge to use an eating disorder behavior.  Once I knew how I should be acting, there was no excuse for mistakes.  I judged any slips into the eating disorder as signs that I wasn't taking recovery seriously, that I was insincere, that I was weak, and that I would never get any better than I was in that moment of lapse.

When I noticed that I was having these thoughts about myself as a religious person, I did what I often do in times of self-doubt:  get advice from someone who knows more than I do.  In this case, the person I consulted was Adin Steinsaltz, Jewish scholar extraordinaire and my newest intellectual hero.  I'd been reading his book, Teshuvah, and in light of my current mood I decided to reread the chapter called, "Lapses and Crises."  In this chapter, Steinsaltz emphasizes that stumbling is part of the process of advancement--not a negation of it.  The people who aim the farthest are going to have more opportunities to trip along the way, and the struggle involved in moving from stage to stage is inherent to growth.

This does not mean, however, that we shouldn't take slips seriously...but, neither should we use them as an excuse to abandon the process entirely.  Steinsaltz cautions, "The seriousness of individual lapses should not be minimized, but neither should even the worst of them be allowed to lead to despair and total abdication."  In other words, acknowledge errors and take steps to correct them, but then move on--no mistake is worth resigning oneself to failure.

Steinsaltz understands that once we decide to change ourselves for the better in a specific way, we want our progress to be smooth and linear--and immediate.  But, he teaches, this usually isn't how it works.  He explains, "A person who confronts the necessity of making a change in his life or of pressing on with renewed determination must also reckon with internal resistance, partly conscious and immediate, partly unconscious and revealed only with the passage of time.  He cannot simply 'turn over a new leaf' and start afresh; even after he sets out on his new path he will be hounded by those parts of him that remain unreconciled to his decision.  The very struggle to ascend gives one the feeling of being at the bottom of the ladder; but this is only a trick of the senses and the imagination, for the ascent is, in fact, well underway."

Although he is writing specifically about the process of becoming religious, his words also resonate with me in terms of recovery.  Both processes entail major life shifts in both behavioral and emotional realms, and we need to be patient with ourselves and understand that we will stumble along the way.  When we do experience a setback, we should interpret it not as evidence of failure, but as a testament to our desire to strive higher...after all, if we were content to remain static, failure wouldn't be an issue.  A healthy dose of frustration may propel us forward, but we must stop short of getting so discouraged that we quit altogether.  Remember what Steinsaltz says:  if you're stumbling, it's because you're already moving along the path.  May we each keep this wisdom inside our own hearts as we aim to progress forward from wherever we are!  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Make Room for Guests!

Chag sameach--happy Sukkot to all!  Before I dive into the blog post itself, I just want to take a little bit of space to acknowledge that this blog is now one year old!  Developing it has been such a fun journey for me...many thanks to everyone who is along for the ride!

Now, onto the festival of Sukkot, of which we are currently smack in the middle.  After the somber, contemplative mood of the High Holidays, Sukkot brings us into a week of festive celebration.  One of the themes of the holiday is that of, "welcoming guests," or hachnasat orchim in Hebrew.  (For an adorably amusing "Shalom Sesame" video explaining hachnasat orchim, click here...I can't be the only one who gets all nostalgic for "Shalom Sesame!")  Just as Abraham was famous for waiting for strangers to pass by his tent so he could invite them in, so are we supposed to make an extra effort to invite people into our sukkot or to otherwise share the holiday with us.  The spirit of reaching out and welcoming others into our lives is part of what makes Sukkot such a joyous time.

I find the idea of hachnasat orchim to be especially personally relevant because opening myself and my space to others is definitely not a natural instinct of mine.  I am introverted to the core and have been since childhood; but, I am also aware that for the years when I was actively engaged in my eating disorder, I took this particular personality trait to new heights.  In my mind, other people made things messy--and I hated mess.  I wanted things exactly how I wanted them, tightly under my control...and bringing other people into the mix inevitably meant letting in an element of unpredictability and uncertainty, which I simply could not tolerate.  Additionally, I was deeply afraid of rejection and of desiring a relationship with someone who did not want one with me.  I was not willing to risk feeling the pain of being unwanted--better to not reach out in the first place, than to reach out and be disappointed.  One of my early therapists had a name for this:  "people restricting."  In addition to restricting my intake of food, I was also severely limiting my intake of other people--I honestly felt it was the safest way to go.

I've since changed my mind.

Don't get me wrong--I am still a classic introvert who craves "alone time," but I have also discovered that along with unpredictability and uncertainty, other people also inject a lot of energy and love into my life.  In fact, when I think about the moments in my recovery that stand out to me as major milestones, every one of them was an experience that I shared with other people, and the connectedness that I felt with those individuals was part of what made each of those moments so precious.  My eating disorder stepped in to fill a gaping void in my life during a time when I felt profoundly empty.  In order for me to be willing to give it up, I needed something else to slip into that space--and I have found other people to be a critical part of what now "fills me up."  Interestingly, it's only in recovery that I've found myself actually able to present with other people.  Connectedness fuels my recovery, and my recovery powers connectedness--it's a beautifully self-perpetuating phenomenon.

So, although I still find that quiet time alone in a sukkah is sometimes just what I need, I also must acknowledge that when I do go out of my way to let others in, I am almost never disappointed and am almost always enriched.  Hachnasat orchim might not be my natural instinct, but it's definitely one of the best learned habits I've picked up on the way, and is one I am still working hard to cultivate.  During this week of sukkot and beyond, I encourage any other "people restrictors" out there to try a different approach, even just one time.  Invite others to be with you, wherever you are.  It's true--other people do sometimes make a bit of a mess, but they also bring a lot of joy!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Fast that I Desire"

In a few days, Yom Kippur will be upon us, bringing with it the ritual fast that is always a hot topic within the Jewish eating disorder community.  Understandably, many eating disorder clinicians  strongly encourage their patients not to fast, citing the principle that anyone whose health is in jeopardy should not fast.  It's true that there is a halachic loophole for people whose lives would truly be endangered by fasting; however, it's also true that determining who falls into this category is often complicated and, depending on one's level of observance, can entail consulting with learned Torah scholars in addition to medical professionals.  Then, there's the valid issue of wanting to be part of one's religious community and to participate in the Yom Kippur fast, which is an ancient rite and central to the observance of the holiday.  All this is to say that for a Jewish person with an eating disorder, choosing whether or not to fast is often not a simple decision.  Although I briefly outlined my own personal fasting philosophy here, even I have to admit that there is often way more to it than that.

For an individual who is torn between wanting to fast and acknowledging that it might not be the absolute best choice for recovery, the haftarah portion for Yom Kippur morning (Isaiah 57:14-58:14) offers some guidance.  In this text, the prophet Isaiah stresses that Hashem does not value fasting for fasting's sake alone; rather, He is satisfied only by fasting that is also accompanied by higher values of social responsibility.  The haftarah reads,

"Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?"
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!  
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.
(Isaiah 58:3-7)

Personally, I find the words of Isaiah to be a powerful tool of refocusing around the issue of fasting.  The truth is, there were many years when the Yom Kippur fast was, to me, just a religiously sanctioned excuse to avoid eating.  It was a day when I found a twisted sense of pleasure in inflicting discomfort on my own body, because I told myself that Hashem wanted me to do it.  In other words, the fast was an end in itself--not eating for the sake of not eating.

Isaiah tells us that to fast this way is to completely miss the point.

Given how complex and personal a decision it is whether or not to fast, I wouldn't feel comfortable making a blanket statement that people in recovery absolutely should not (or should) do it.  But, I would encourage anyone in recovery who feels internally pulled toward fasting to take time to honestly evaluate the motives behind that fast.  Are you fasting because you're secretly looking forward to denying yourself food for 25 hours?  Do you see this as a good excuse to violate your meal plan for a day?  Are you going to fast for appearance's sake alone?  If your honest answer to any of those questions is yes, I would invite you to consider Isaiah's words--such a fast does not please Hashem at all.  In the haftarah commentary of the Etz Hayim tanach, the commentator remarks, "He [the prophet] does not wholly condemn ritual acts such as fasting.  What he condemns is false piety, particularly when it is accompanied by deeds of oppression and wickedness." In other words, if fasting is just another way for you to oppress and mistreat yourself, perhaps that is not the best way for you to serve Hashem.

So, I'm not saying, "Don't fast."  What I am saying is, consider your intent, because it matters.  Tradition has value, but only when accompanied by actions that indicate kindness toward self and others.  Whatever you decide regarding fasting this year, I hope Yom Kippur brings you time to think about how you can start off the new year from a place of empathy, humility, and compassion, as these are key ingredients to living a truly Jewish--and Divinely inspired--life.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

ּWe are Born Capable

Whew...with just a few hours to go before Erev Rosh Hashana, I'm squeezing in one more blog post before the chag begins.  (So what if there's still cooking and cleaning to do?  Priorities!)  I just can't go into the holiday without sharing with you some thoughts that have been brewing within me in response to last week's parsha, Nitzavim.

In Nitzavim, we reach the climactic moment when Moshe calls upon every individual Israelite to ratify the covenant with Hashem.  Leading up to this scene, the Israelites have spent quite a while listening to Moshe reiterate the multitude of dos and don'ts enumerated in the covenant, as well as the dire consequences for violating Hashem's laws.  I would imagine that the ordinary Israelite might enter into this agreement feeling a mixture of awe, excitement, and anxiety, perhaps wondering, "Will it really be possible for me to successfully follow all of these rules and fulfill all the expectations?"  Understanding this sentiment of self-doubt in the face of this overwhelming responsibility, Moshe declares,

"Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'  Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Devarim 30:11-14)

With this statement, Moshe reassures the Israelites that following the Torah does not require superhuman strength, nor is it only a select few elite who are able to do teshuva and live a life in accordance with Hashem's teachings.  Rather, each one of them, no matter his or her status, is capable of accessing the teachings and making positive changes in the interest of living a holy life.  If they are willing to put in the effort, positive change and growth are within their reach.

I believe this is also true of recovery--or, really, true of any significant life change that we wish to effect in the interest of personal growth.  How easy it is to become overwhelmed by the path in front of us, and how quickly we can fall into the trap of thinking, "I will never be able to do this," or, "It will never happen for me."  Instead, we should remember that Hashem would not put us in a situation where success is an impossibility.  The work may be intimidating, but it is not beyond us--each one of us has the power to take the steps toward what we yearn for.

The Talmud (Niddah 30b) teaches us that when a fetus is within the womb, that child is taught the entire Torah.  But, when the baby is born, an angel strikes the child and causes him or her to forget everything he or she learned.  You might ask, "What's the point of teaching the baby everything if that child is only going to forget all of it, anyway?" The Sages explain that although Torah study is difficult and requires a lot of effort, each of us is born with an innate affinity for it.  We all have within us the ability to accomplish this task, because instead of starting from square one, we're returning to knowledge that has always been within us.  Recovery is the same--none of us was born with an eating disorder; rather, we were created with the ability to interact authentically and enthusiastically with the world.  We each have inside of ourselves the desire and capability to achieve a life that is rewarding, fulfilling, and nourishing.

So, as we enter the chaggim, I wish for all of us the faith that what our souls are hungry for is not beyond our reach, and the motivation to stretch ourselves far enough so that we are able to grab it.  May the new year bring each of us the courage to progress on our own paths of personal development toward lives that are full of light, love, and satisfaction!

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The 13 Attributes

To round out my posts from this month of Elul, I've decided to dedicate this last one to selichot, the special prayers of repentance that Jews traditionally recite in the days leading up to the High Holidays (Sefardim recite selichot during the entire month of Elul, while Ashkenazim begin on the last motzei Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and continue until Yom Kippur).  The main theme of selichot is the "13 Attributes of Mercy."  This passage originates in the Torah during the infamous incident of the Golden Calf; Hashem tells Moshe that whenever Israel sins, if they recite the 13 Attributes in the proper order, He will forgive them.  This teaches us that repentance and forgiveness are always possible.  Additionally, when we recite selichot we are to remember that these 13 Attributes exist inside us, as well.  Because we are supposed to try to emulate Hashem, we can use selichot to reaffirm for ourselves how we would like to behave in the world.  In this post, I'll give a brief explanation of each of the Attributes (courtesy of ArtScroll and!) and will add my own thoughts as to how each one can connect to recovery specifically.

1. and 2.  הי, הי  The name of Hashem is repeated twice as a way to demonstrate that Hashem is with us not only before we sin, but also after.  He knows that we always have within us the potential to go astray, but He is also consistently open to our return to Him.  I find this to be a really comforting message to take into recovery, especially considering all the "slips" and deviations from the path that are bound to occur along the way.  It is never beyond us to correct ourselves, and Hashem's love for us is unwavering.

3.  אל  (Power) This version of G-d's name indicates the tremendous power of Hashem's mercy, which is not limited in the way that human mercy is.  This reminds us that even when we lose patience with ourselves, Hashem does not.  It also prompts us to be more patient with other people, especially with people whom we find particularly frustrating.

4.  רחום (Compassion) Hashem does not go overboard with punishments; rather, He eases the suffering of the guilty.  He also does not deliberately put people into situations of extreme temptation where they are going to be overwhelmingly driven to sin.  Many of us tend to be particularly hard on ourselves and find self-compassion hard to come by.  This is a helpful reminder that even when we feel we have done "wrong," we should not punish ourselves ceaselessly.  We also should not put ourselves into situations that we know are full of triggers (say, buying myself a gym membership or stepping on a bathroom scale).  Similarly, we can try not to hold others' mistakes against them indefinitely and should do what we can to give others the resources they need to succeed.

5.  וחנון (and Gracious) Hashem extends His kindness without restraint, even toward people who are less deserving.  This reminds us to give freely of ourselves and not to withhold courtesy and good will from others out of spite.  Additionally, we shouldn't be stingy when giving to ourselves, either--emotionally or physically!

6.  ארך אפים (Slow to anger)  Hashem is patient and gives us the chance to reconsider and make more positive choices.  I think we would all do well to take a few deep breaths before passing judgment on ourselves or other people!  We also need to recognize that change takes time, and that we must be patient with ourselves (and others) who are trying to make improvements in our lives.

7.  ורב חסד (and Abundant in Kindness) When we are ambivalent or wavering between a positive choice and a negative one, Hashem chooses to judge us favorably and edges us toward the good.  Because ambivalence is such a major struggle in recovery, we should remember that Hashem always believes we can--and will--make the positive choice, and He will help us to do this.

8.  ואמת (and Truth)  Hashem never goes back on His word, even when we've veered far off the desired path.  Just as Hashem does not waver from His promises, we also must try to be honest with ourselves and with other people.  We also can periodically reassess whether our behaviors are in line with what we consider to be the fundamental truths or "bottom lines" of our lives.

9.  נצר חסד לאלפים (Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations)  Hashem has created a system in which the good deeds of a righteous person extend to his or her offspring far in the future.  I'll admit that I'm having a little more trouble finding a human way to emulate this trait...but, I suppose we could connect to it by "passing on" the generosity or kindness that others show to us, in a "pay it forward" kind of way.

10-12. נשא עון, ופשע, וחטאה (Forgiver of sins of desire, rebellion, and carelessness)  Hashem forgives us even when we give in to temptation, when we deliberately defy His will, and when we sin out of apathy or lack of motivation.  I think this pretty much covers the main sources of giving in to eating disorder behaviors!  When we try to resist the pull of old patterns and find we can't; when we are willful and actively choose to do what we know we shouldn't; when we feel that one little action doesn't really matter, anyway--Hashem offers us forgiveness, and we should forgive ourselves, as well.

13.  ונקה (and Who cleanses) Hashem wipes away the sins of people who go through the process of repentance.  No matter how far down the "wrong path" we think we are, we are never too far gone to start fresh.  If we are willing to do teshuva, we can be rid of the negativity that accumulates as a result of being stuck in harmful patterns.

What I take away from studying the 13 Attributes is the reassurance that Hashem really, truly wants us to succeed and live positive lives.  He gives us the benefit of the doubt and provides us with every opportunity to stop, reassess, and make different choices.  We can take comfort in this, and can also strive to extend to ourselves and others the same gentleness that Hashem offers to us.  As the High Holidays approach, I encourage all of us to consider how we can use Hashem's mercy to improve our own lives, and how we can, in turn, be more compassionate towards ourselves and other people.

Monday, September 3, 2012

"Why Should I?"

Although I initially planned to spend each week of Elul looking at a different theme of the month, I've decided that for the time being I'm going to stick with teshuva, on the grounds that there is just so much to explore within that one theme.  The more I thought about what I wrote last week, the more it occurred to me that in explaining a reason why the process of recovery can be so painful, I had really addressed only half of the issue.  What naturally follows from that is the question, "Well, if recovery hurts so much and is so uncomfortable, why should I bother putting myself through that in the first place?" Convincing someone (or yourself) that enduring the unpleasantness of early recovery is a worthwhile process can be a tough sell, but recently I came upon some words from--you guessed it--Rav Kook, that I believe both validate the paradox of a painful recovery and offer a solid argument in favor of sitting with the discomfort:

"At the inception of creation it was intended that the tree have the same taste as the fruit (Genesis Rabbah 5:9).  All the supportive actions that sustain any general worthwhile spiritual goal should by right be experienced in the soul with the same feeling of elation and delight as the goal itself is experienced when we envision it.  But earthly existence, the instability of life, the weariness of the spirit when confined in a corporate frame, brought it about that only the fruition of the final step, which embodies the primary ideal, is experienced in its pleasure and splendor.  The trees that bear the fruit have, however, become coarse matter and have lost their taste...But every defect is destined to be mended.  Thus we are assured that the day will come when creation will return to its original state, when the taste of the tree will be the same as the taste of the fruit."  (Orot HaTeshuva)

Here, Rav Kook acknowledges the reality that oftentimes, the process by which we achieve what we most desire is not, in fact, pleasurable.  If full recovery is the "fruit," then the process of getting there is the "tree"...and I think we can all probably agree that the journey is nowhere near as sweet as the destination.  Rav Kook validates this and also normalizes it by teaching us that this is one of the imperfections of life on earth, a less than ideal situation that is familiar to anyone who has ever traveled a long, arduous path toward a much-anticipated goal.  But, he also reassures us that someday the "injustice" of this reality will correct itself, and we will find ourselves in a world where both the process and the result are full of delight.

You might be thinking, "Okay, great.  Someday far, far in the future, this yucky situation will no longer be the reality.  But what about NOW?  How do I deal with it in the present as it happens?"  I have received many valuable answers to the question of how to cope with the discomfort and have personally tried a wide variety of "distress tolerance skills" and methods of "cognitive restructuring."  While not every strategy hit the mark, there were many that did help me manage the uncomfortable feelings and sensations that came along with early recovery.  However, another critical contributor to my ability to push through the unpleasantness was the underlying sense I had that all of the struggles I was enduring were serving to teach me something important.  Even in the moment, underneath all my stubbornness, resentment, and fear was a glimmer of understanding that if I could just pull this off, I would end up stronger for it.  Rav Kook reinforces this idea when he says,

"Penitence does not come to embitter life but to make it more pleasurable.  The joy of life resulting from penitence emerges out of all those currents of bitterness in which the soul is entangled in its initial steps toward penitence.  This is the creative higher prowess, to know that sweetness is drawn from all bitterness, life from all the pangs of death, abiding delights from every disease and pain." (Orot HaTeshuva)

For me, this has proven to be true.  While I would never, ever wish an eating disorder on anyone, I also would not want to give back all the insight and understanding that I've gained through the process of recovery. This does not erase the significant pain I often felt or the very real losses I incurred along the way...but it helps me to accept that this struggle was given to me so that it might teach me something important, and I believe it has.  In that light, my hope for all of us is that we find the courage to radically accept the discomfort, move through it, and emerge stronger on the other side.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

No Pain, No (internal) Gain

I would be remiss in my exploration of Elul themes if I did not venture into the realm of teshuva--certainly a central focus of this month preceding the High Holidays.  Teshuva (תשובה) is often translated as "repentance" or "penitence,"but there's more to it than that.  The Hebrew root of  תשובה is שוב, which means, "return."  When a person does teshuva, he or she repents for his or her sins, turns away from destructive patterns and actions, and returns to a life in harmony with Hashem.  Teshuva also signals new beginnings and a restoration of balance within oneself.  For years, the focus of my High Holiday teshuva was always apologizing to Hashem for yet another year spent engaging in eating disorder behaviors, a year in which I had, once again, fallen short of my "best self" in what felt like so many ways.  So, I prayed fervently for forgiveness and promised that in the year to come, I would really try to "do better" in recovery.  This happened year after year after year...and each time, I fully intended to follow through on my promise.  So, why didn't I?

I was a classic case of ambivalent teshuva.  I yearned to change, and yet I didn't.  It was puzzling and endlessly frustrating...and yet, it seems, not uncommon to the experience of many people who undergo teshuva for a variety of reasons.  In his brilliant work, Orot HaTeshuva, Rav Kook deeply examines the concept of teshuva.  (For more of Rav Kook's ideas, see this blog post.) This past Tuesday was 3 Elul, Rav Kook's yahrzeit, and I set aside some time that day to explore Orot HaTeshuva.  As I read, I came upon a passage that, I believe, gets right to the heart of why it was so hard for me to turn away from my eating disorder, even though I wanted to.  (Note:  instead of reading this text and making a direct inference that your eating disorder is "evil" or "sinful," perhaps think about it more generally as a negative force in your life.)

"The pain felt in the initial inspiration to penitence is due to the severance of the evil layers of the self, which cannot be mended as long as they are attached to and remain part of the person, and cause deterioration of the whole spirit.  Through penitence they are severed from the basic essence of the self. Every severance causes pain, like the pain felt at the amputation of deteriorated organs for medical reasons.  This is the most inward kind of pain, through which a person is liberated from the dark servitude to his sins and his lowly inclinations and their bitter aftereffects." (Orot HaTeshuva)

Rav Kook hits the nail on the head:  I clung to my eating disorder for so long, despite genuinely wanting to change, because separating from it was too painful.  Even though I knew anorexia was harming me, it had become so enmeshed in who I was that detaching it became a labor intensive, often excruciating process of pushing, pulling, and probing.  My eating disorder was killing me; yet, it felt integral to my being.  Letting go of it did, at times, feel as agonizing as if I was chopping off a limb.

But, Rav Kook is also correct about something else:  the necessity of distance to the process of repair.  When we are entrenched in a problem, it's often hard for us to see it clearly for what it is and figure out how to untangle it.  The same is true of eating disorder behaviors--when we're in the middle of using one, we're hardly in a position to view it objectively and make a plan to get rid of it.  For me, the magic of therapy was that it gave me a safe place to detach from my behaviors and observe, with the help of my clinicians, what function each behavior served and how I could begin to chip away at them one by one.  Being willing and able to separate from my anorexia in that context was what allowed me to internalize the tools that I needed in order to dismantle it.

So, for any of you who find yourselves wondering this month why you spent another year engaging in your eating disorder despite having had a genuine desire to kick it to the curb, remember what Rav Kook says:  it hurts to separate from part of yourself, even from a part that is negative.  And, like most people, you do your best to avoid pain.  But, remember also Rav Kook's message that separation is the key to repair.  If you allow yourself some distance from your eating disorder, you will be able to see it more clearly for what it is.  This year, may you be able to tolerate the pain of this separation, and may it lead you to lasting recovery, once and for all!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Chodesh's Elul!

This past Shabbat, we also celebrated Rosh Chodesh Elul.  Elul is the month preceding the High Holidays and is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, self-evaluation, and spiritual preparation to get us ready for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In keeping with this practice, during this month I will aim to center each of my weekly posts around a different theme of Elul and how it relates to recovery.

One traditional Elul practice is to recite Psalm 27 twice a day throughout the month.  Below is a translation of this psalm:

The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
When evil men assail me to devour my flesh it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident.

One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek:  to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.
He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.  In Your behalf my heart says: "Seek My face!"
O Lord, I seek Your face.
Do not hide from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O G-d, my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me in.
Show me Your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes.
Do not subject me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me.
Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living...

Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Lord!

When I read the first half of the psalm, I am struck by the strong faith of the speaker and the confidence that no matter what obstacles rise up, Hashem will offer protection and safety.  The psalmist recognizes that to have such unshakable faith is to know security, peace, and the joy of victory.  This reminds me of the mindset that we often need to spur us into recovery.  Because giving up the eating disorder essentially requires a huge leap of faith, we need to feel confident that Hashem is looking out for us and will help us along the journey.  When we feel this way, we often feel empowered, motivated, and confident that we can do the hard work recovery demands--this is what propels our momentum and inspires us to take risks and grow.  I know that when I have an experience that shows me how far I have come in recovery, I enjoy a delicious sense of accomplishment and power as well as deep gratitude to Hashem for getting me to that point.

The second half of the psalm, however, carries a decidedly different tune.  All of a sudden, the psalmist speaks of fear, of doubt, of loneliness.  He begs Hashem not to abandon him in his time of danger and need, and implores G-d to show him the path to a righteous and holy life.  In my mind, this conjures up times when my resolve has weakened, when I've had setbacks, or when the challenges of living a healthy life seemed far, far too demanding--in short, every time I've ever doubted my ability to "make it" in recovery.  The psalmist expresses the intense fear and anguish that can arise at such a time--it's enough to make a person doubt whether he or she has the strength to keep going.  When we are in such a state of despair, remembering that Hashem's love for us is everlasting can give us the courage to keep engaging with life.  The psalmist recognizes an essential truth:  Hashem never gives up on us and never stops wanting us to connect with Him.  In fact, G-d begs us to seek Him out.  And so, even when his faith is weakened, the psalmist hangs onto his determination to feel Hashem's love...and through this, he finds renewed courage.

Psalm 27 is about oneness--unity between the individual and Hashem, and also the joining inside ourselves of our faith and our insecurities.  Elul is a time to bring ourselves closer to G-d, and is also a time to evaluate that relationship...and, like any relationship, our connection with Hashem sometimes feels strong and other times feels hazy.  But, what I take from this psalm is that this is normal--holding the positive with the negative is part of how life works.  Recovery is not a linear path into sunshine and roses; it is full of the ups and downs of real life in this world.  We need to be able to use the strength that we gather in times of security to help us sit with the uncertainties that are also bound to arise--because we know that if we gather our faith and hang on, we will feel safe and strong once again.

So, as we begin our journey through Elul, I wish for you that you do as the psalmist instructs:  Look to Hashem, and be brave!  You can do it!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Circumcise...the Heart?

This past Shabbat was my first back at home after a summer in Jerusalem, and I was a little worried that it wouldn't feel as holy and nourishing as Shabbat always does in Israel.  It was a bit of an adjustment, but turned out to be pretty enjoyable thanks to some great company and yummy food...and some thought-provoking Torah.

In last week's parsha (Eikev), Moshe speaks to the Israelites and basically outlines for them all the ways in which they had been stubborn and difficult, and reminds them of all the ways in which Hashem took care of them in spite of their obstinacy.  He emphasizes that Hashem chose the Israelites from among all the nations because of His tremendous love for them.  Moshe then implores the people to, "Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more." (Devarim 10:16).  Literally translated, Moshe is asking the people to "circumcise the foreskin of your heart."  This is some dramatic language and certainly conjures up some strong mental images...but what does it mean?

The "foreskin of your heart" is often interpreted as that which blocks the heart from being open to Hashem's teachings.  Circumcising the heart, therefore, implies making oneself open and available to receive the Divine.  Moshe recognizes that the Jewish people's stubbornness has prevented them from truly being able to access Hashem's love for them, and he is instructing them to let down their defenses so that they might be able to open their minds.

This idea really resonates with me when I think about the process of recovery.  For a long time in my own journey, I had a bit of a control issue--namely, I liked to be in control of everything, at all times.  I was also fiercely self-protective and terrified that if I let my guard down at all, I would be endangered or harmed.  Combine the need for control with the mission to never be hurt, and you get a maddening, defensive stubbornness, which is exactly what I extended to anyone who tried to get me to loosen my grip on my eating disorder. It wasn't until I was ready to open my tightly clenched fists to the fresh air of flexible thinking that I really began to make some progress on recovery.

I think that the first step is to recognize that the "foreskin of our hearts" is there in the first place, to acknowledge that we are resisting change and avoiding vulnerability...and this isn't necessarily bad, but it does prevent growth. Once we are able to admit to our stubbornness, we can then begin to think of ways to chip away at it, little by little.  As someone who clings firmly to the safety of the status quo, I fully recognize how scary it can be to open oneself up to the world.  However, I also know that when I am willing to try new experiences or make myself vulnerable to another individual, I am rarely disappointed--in fact, I usually come away feeling as though my world has been made brighter because of what I was willing to let in.

During our weekly parsha discussion, my chevruta pointed out to me that there is a parallel pasuk in parshat Nitzavim, in which Moshe promises that if the Israelites follow Hashem's commandments with all their being, "Then the Lord G-d will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live." (Devarim 30:6)  In Eikev, Moshe instructs the Jewish people to circumcise their own hearts, but in Nitzavim he tells them that Hashem will open up their hearts for them. The way I understand this is, first we have to remove the barriers from our own hearts--and then, Hashem will open us up to His love.  In other words, if we're willing to get the process started, Hashem will take us the whole way.

To those of you who sense that your hearts are a bit closed off, I would say this:  remember that you're not being difficult for difficulty's sake--chances are, you're doing the best you can to protect yourself.  But, remember also that the eating disorder is a covering around the heart--not the heart itself.  It isn't what you are, it's what's preventing you from being fully yourself.  There's no need to rip the covering off all at once--yikes!--but maybe there's a way to get the process started, a step you could take to give yourself a taste of what your life could be like without that barrier.  I bet it could be brilliant!  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Holding onto Growth

It's hard for me to believe, but in a few days I will be saying goodbye to Israel.  My program at Pardes has finished and I am now in that nebulous transition phase, trying to be present to enjoy my remaining time here while also preparing for departure.  While I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the people and places of home, I also feel like I am leaving home, because that is what Israel has become for me:  a home for my soul.

Bidding farewell to such an incredible experience conjures up in me a whole range of feelings:  plenty of gratitude and contentment, but also a healthy dose of sadness and longing.  If I dig a bit deeper, I bump up against another emotion that is buried way down but also pervades all the others:  fear.  As I prepare to say goodbye to Israel, I am afraid that I am also saying goodbye to the person I've grown into while I've been here:  someone who is an explorer, who can go with the flow, and who connects to others with her heart wide open.  I am afraid I will stagnate in my spiritual growth when I can no longer fill my lungs with the air of Eretz Yisrael and my head with the wisdom of my teachers.  In many ways, I feel that this summer has given me a taste of my better self.  Will I be able to hold onto that when I return to my life in the States?

One of my teachers introduced me to the works of Reb Zadok HaKohen Milublin and shared with me a quote of his that resonates with me strongly as I wrestle with this fear:

"Just as one must believe in G-d, so too must one afterwards believe in him or herself.  This is to say that G-d has direct dealings with him/her and he/she is not an insignifcant being who is here at one moment and gone the next..." (Tzidkat Hatzaddik #154)

What I take from this is a reminder that who I am is not wholly dependent on others or my surroundings.  I do not need to fear that I will disappear or whither away simply because I leave a nurturing environment.  Hashem created me with purpose because I have something to offer the world.  He gifted me with the experiences of this summer so that I could grow and have more light to share with others.  I used to think I was only in recovery because of the support of my clinical team, that without them I wouldn't be able to hold onto my progress.  In truth, my team did help me get to where I am, but I am the one who sustains my recovery.  I've internalized their support and now can initiate and maintain progress on my own.  I think the same is true of my fears about leaving Israel:  other people may have filled me up this summer, but I am the vessel and I do not automatically crumble and lose my contents just because I move away from the source.

So... my teachers, who challenged and enlightened me intellectually and also nurtured and supported me personally, who shared with me the energy and beauty of Talmud Torah and also made me excited about possibilities for my own life... my friends, who reminded me of what it means to be truly seen, who shared their radiance with me and also reflected my own light back onto me with love and caring...

...תודה רבה  B'ezrat Hashem we should continue to learn and grow together!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Two Souls

One of the classic teachings of Judaism comes from Deuteronomy 6:5:
And you shall love the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul... 
I've recited this piece of text hundreds of times in my life, but rarely thought deeply about its wording.  In a recent class at Pardes, my teacher introduced me to how the Midrash Rabba explains this text:

"What do all your heart and all your soul mean?  With each different soul that He created in you."

My teacher then explained that Hashem placed within each of us two souls.  One is the נפש בהמי, the  animal soul; the other is the נשמה טהורה, the pure soul.  The animal soul is considered to be "lower" and is concerned mainly with ME and NOW--in other words, survival.  The pure soul is the "higher" soul and is more mature and reflective; it is concerned with both me and others, now and later.        Sometimes our two souls are on the same wavelength, but other times they may send us conflicting messages, and we have to tease them apart.

There is a lot in this idea that resonates with me, but one thing that strikes me in particular is how the two souls are compared to each other via their classification as either "higher" or "lower."  The lower soul is the one that speaks to us about our basic needs:  food, rest, safety, etc., while the higher soul encourages us to think beyond just ourselves in the present moment.  I think many of us would not have much trouble jumping to the conclusion that we should use our higher soul to override our lower soul and that our animal impulses should be subjugated.  This seems to be the message that we often get from society:  "Stop thinking about yourself.  Push your body past its limits--you don't really need to sleep, or to eat.  Do more with less."  This mentality is the fuel that often feeds eating disorders...but, I would argue that this is not at all what is at the core of this Jewish teaching.

This Midrash tells us that Hashem gave us both souls on purpose.  Why would Hashem bother giving us an animal soul in the first place, if we are just supposed to suppress it all the time?  That "lower soul" is our survival instinct.  It is how we assess immediate danger and how we ensure that our basic human needs are met.  This soul is our voice of self-preservation, and I would suggest that unless we honor our lower soul, the higher soul won't be able to do its job.  Part of what I've learned over the years is that if I don't take care of myself, I can't take care of others at the level at which I'd like to.  If I don't get enough rest, I'm cranky with my friends and have no energy to spend on those relationships.  If I deny my hunger and don't eat enough, I can't focus on teaching my students because part of my mind is stuck on my empty stomach.  Basically, if I don't make sure there is enough in my cup, nothing will be able to spill over into anyone else's.  Now, does this mean I should be concerned only with myself or that I should immediately get everything I want?  Of course not...but, neither should I ignore my basic needs under the false premise that prioritizing the well-being of others is a more worthy pursuit than caring for myself.  Hashem gave me both souls because He understands that by ensuring that my basic needs are securely met, I become available to connect with--and genuinely care for--others.  Both souls are essential, and neither should be dismissed as less valuable than the other.

Take some time to tune into your two souls.  What are they saying?  Are you listening?  I wish for you the ability to hear what the two voices of your truth are telling you, and the courage to take steps toward honoring both essential pieces of yourself.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Victory...In Meal Form

Shavua tov!  I hope we're all emerging from Shabbat rested and energized for a new week.  I was fortunate to enjoy a beautiful Shabbat in Jerusalem and want to share a bit of the experience with you.

On Saturday I had Shabbat lunch at the home of one of my Pardes teachers, along with five other students from my program.  Walking into large groups of people tends to really stress me out, so I arrived a little early to give myself time to settle in before everyone else came.  (It helped that my teacher has two adorable children under age 5, and I was more than happy to keep them occupied while she and her husband finished preparing the meal!)  By the time we sat down for kiddush, I felt comfortable and ready to be present for the experience of the lunch, which turned out to be one of the best Shabbat experiences I've had thus far in Israel.

What made this Shabbat lunch so amazing?  Well, many significant things happened:  1) I arrived at the table hungry, and I was okay with that; 2) I ate foods that I did not cook myself and whose ingredients were at least partially unknown to me; 3) I made conversation; 4) I listened to what other people said; 5) I ate dessert, not because I was particularly hungry but because it looked delicious; 6) I left the table feeling full, and I was okay with that.  Even as I write this, I am aware of how mundane those things sounds like any ordinary meal.  And yet, for me the beauty of this experience was its sheer simplicity and the knowledge that the basic act of enjoying a leisurely meal with friends was something I could taste for myself. 

There were whole years full of Shabbats when none of this would have been possible.  If I made it to the table at all, it was in body only--my mind was frantically calculating, measuring, comparing, and worrying--leaving no room for being present.  This past Saturday, the victory was in being able to take full delight in an experience I used to be able to only watch others enjoy.

Despite having spent all morning in shul, I believe my most spiritual moment of the day occurred as I sat around that table, surrounded by delicious food and delightful company.  I felt intense thankfulness to Hashem for seeing me through recovery to that day, that meal.  I'm glad Hashem knows what's in my heart even when I can't express it in words, because there's no way I could truly verbalize the gratitude I feel as I reflect on what I was able to be present for this past Shabbat.  It was, as I like to say, a total "Baruch Hashem moment."  It was also not the first time in recovery when I've had such a moment at a meal, but part of the gift is that it is exciting every time.  For me, recovery means being in a perpetual state of shehecheyanu, because I never take for granted being able to enjoy eating freely in the company of others.

I share this anecdote not because it contains some deep Torah insight or profound spiritual teaching.  Rather, I share it because there was a time when I did not believe such an experience would ever be within my reach, and this past Shabbat I found the prize firmly in my grasp.  I want to say that it is possible to trek through the arduous process of recovery and emerge on the other side, able to engage fully with the delights of this world.  If it can happen for me, it can happen for you, too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Find Truth in the Return

Being in Israel always opens me up to parts of myself that are less accessible in other places.  Consequently, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to feel centered within oneself and in tune with one's inner voice.  A teacher of mine at Pardes introduced me to the work of Rav Kook (rhymes with, "look"), a brilliant Jewish scholar who also happened to be the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate.  Here is what Rav Kook has to say about clarity within the soul:

"When one forgets the essence of one's own soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the substantive content of his own inner life, everything becomes confused and uncertain.  The primary step, which immediately sheds light on a darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul, and from there to the Soul of all souls..." (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)

I may be just a fledgling Torah student, but I believe I understand what Rav Kook is saying.  When I lose sight of what is important in my life and instead become too focused on peripheral matters, I become ungrounded and insecure inside myself.  For a long time, the realities of my life seemed too painful to face.  Instead of dealing with the sources of my unhappiness, I latched onto the shiny distractions of weight and body.  As I became more and more certain that food and exercise were all that mattered, the rest of my life fell away until it was nearly gone, until I was all but unrecognizable even to myself.

Recovery has been a process of returning, of coming home to myself.  Many things have helped:  therapy, writing, and being with people who knew me prior to the eating disorder and could remind me of who I was "before."  The healthier my body became, the more I began to reconnect emotionally with the parts of myself I had forgotten, and to remember what was truly important to me.  Recovery has allowed me to become a teacher and construct a professional identity of which I am proud and through which I find deep fulfillment.  It has made possible my trips to Israel, where I've been able to prioritize my spiritual and religious growth in ways that feel vital to me.  And, it has made me available to connect with some special people who have become my closest friends and who can mirror back to me who I really am, in case I forget.

When I am in touch with my inner truth, I feel a greater sense of security about my place in the world.  I also feel more able to connect with Hashem because when I talk to Him, there is more conviction in my own voice.  I believe Rav Kook is correct--returning to oneself is key.  It doesn't solve every problem, but it allows one to be more present to develop solutions and to experience the journey on the way.

This week, give yourself some quiet space in which to think about your true self, your real priorities and your bottom lines.  Are you living in a way that honors who you are at your core?  Try to identify one way in which you could move closer to your center...and when you are ready, take the first step.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Find What's Yummy

Shalom from Israel!  I do feel like I should apologize for the long stretch without any predicted, getting computer access has been a bit tricky.  But, though I haven't been writing, I've been quite busy exploring Jerusalem and reuniting with dear friends after many, many months apart.  This week I began a 3-week-long course of study at the Pardes Institute, and although I've only had three days of learning so far, I've already made one major discovery:

I LOVE learning Torah!

This is no small realization, especially because I distinctly remember a time when I thought studying Torah sounded both tedious and unproductive.  I've found that not only is learning Torah way more mentally stimulating than I'd originally thought, but also that I have a huge appetite for it.  I can't get enough of the beit midrash, with its continuous current of debate and intellectual energy.  I am completely enthralled by Talmud and the scrupulous attention that the talmudic rabbis paid to every single detail.  Also, I just love the feeling of exploring something new in an environment where every question is valid and every opinion merits air time.  Beginning to learn Torah has also been incredibly humbling--it has been a long time since I've had to learn ANYTHING from scratch, and the feeling can be uncomfortable at times.  But at the same time, the struggle is delicious because the rewards are so satisfying.

At first, I couldn't really see how my newfound enthusiasm for Torah learning related to recovery, but I believe I've found a link.  Discovering what energizes us is a major part of recovery work--figuring out what truly excites us, and making space for it in our lives.  A great therapist of mine once said, "You need to find what's yummy to you."  In other words, it's important to figure out what genuinely brings you positive energy and joy.  For me, in this moment, learning Torah is yummy. I'm grateful to have this opportunity to bring it into my life, and I look forward to sharing with you what I'm learning!

What about you?  What does your soul find delicious?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Leaving...on a jet plane...

Ahhh...summer vacation.  I won't's one of the perks of being a teacher (and we MORE than earn it!).  Having said a rather adorable goodbye to my flock of third grade graduates, I'm ready to leap into summer mode.  For me, that means that in less than 48 hours, I will be on a Eretz Yisrael.

To the extent that it is possible to be in love with a place, I am in love with Israel.  The land there calls to me like nowhere else I've ever been...a few days spent hiking in the Negev or the Golan is my idea of pure delight.  I also find myself firmly attached to its people.  Over the years I've built up quite a collection of friends in Israel, people who know my heart in ways that others don't.  Let this be a warning to my "chevre":  you have a whole year's worth of hugs coming at you!

I think another thing I love about Israel is what happens to me inside myself while I am there.  Israel (and Israelis!) challenge me and push me to grow in ways that are a lot harder to target at home, for whatever reason.  When I think about going to Israel, I often think of that classic moment when Hashem tells Abraham, "Lech lecha...go the land that I will show you."  Closer examination of Hashem's words helps me to understand why going to Israel is so powerful for me.

"Lech" can be interpreted as "proceed," as in continuing on one's journey.  In Abraham's case, he is traveling from his homeland toward an unknown destination.  Abraham's willingness to leave his familiar territory and be guided by Hashem is what allows his growth to happen.  For me, picking up and traveling to a different country certainly does give me some momentum toward change, and I think this effect is strengthened because the place where I am going has such a strong sense of Hashem's presence.  When I am at home, surrounded by the same people and the same places day after day, it is easy for me to get into routines that are comfortable but do not challenge me.  I can travel the same well-worth paths but have a hard time finding the energy to turn myself in new directions.  In Israel, not only are my concrete surroundings different, but I feel I am more directly connected to Hashem.  I can feel His guidance more keenly and can use His energy to push myself along on my journey in ways that I might not have been brave enough to attempt otherwise.  

I have also been told that "lech lecha" can be translated literally as, "go to yourself."  In other words, Hashem is telling Abraham to get in touch with his core.  When I am in Israel, I sense that parts of myself that are ordinarily closed off become open and accessible.  Israel reconnects me to my adventurous self, which is so often overshadowed by the practical and responsible self that dominates my life from September through June.  Israel also brings me in touch with my spiritual core, which is nourished in that land in a way that it rarely is elsewhere.  Being in Israel for an extended period of time doesn't magically clarify my life, but it does give me an opportunity to shine some light on parts of my being that I don't often have time and space to examine. 

Every time I go to Israel, I always hope that I will be noticeably more "evolved" than I was on my previous trip.  This time is no exception--I hope that on this trip to Israel I will find myself able to be open in ways that last summer I was not, that the work I've done on recovery over the past year will allow me to experience the land and people I love more fully than before.  I am sure that in some ways this will happen, and in other ways I'll find that I still have work to do.  Regardless, I am looking forward to a beautiful adventure...and hopefully will find time to blog about it while I'm there!