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!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Be Amazed

When I first began working on recovery, I had this idea in my mind that Recovery = Perfection.  This made me anxious because I was pretty sure I would never be, imagine my relief when I realized that recovery does not, in fact, have to be flawless.  Recovery is authentic living, with all of life's ups and downs.  When I committed myself to recovery I also signed myself up for the full range of human emotions, even the negative ones.  Because I was also giving up my unhealthy coping mechanisms, I would need some tools to help me handle the uncomfortable feelings that were bound to pop up.  Some of these strategies have proven more effective than others, and here I want to share with you one of my secret weapons...


Yes, wonder...or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel terms it, "radical amazement."  In radical amazement, a person is able to marvel at even the most mundane elements of daily life.  He or she knows that there are routines and laws of nature that control most phenomena, but this does not dampen the sense of wonder at the fact that the world exists as it is.  In speaking about a person who views the world through the lens of radical amazement, Heschel says, "Looking at the world he would say, 'This is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our eyes.'" (Psalms 118:23)

Now, if you've ever read any of Heschel's work, you know that it can be rather dense and mind-boggling (and if you haven't read Heschel, just take my word for it).  There is no way I can adequately summarize his teachings on radical amazement in one blog entry, but I do think I can explain how I use it.  It's pretty simple, actually:

Step 1:  Go outside.
Step 2:  Find nature.
Step 3:  Notice.
Step 4:  Be amazed.

Even when I'm deep in a funk, doing those four things never fails to crack the armor and let some light into my life.  I find it impossible to remain completely unhappy when I stop to truly appreciate the natural world.  Two weeks ago, I was experiencing a rather significant dip in my mood.  When Shabbat rolled around I was lonely and negative, and the rainy weather wasn't helping.  Midway through the afternoon, I decided I couldn't sit in my apartment any longer, so I put on my rainboots, grabbed an umbrella, and walked a few blocks to my favorite neighborhood park, which has a little wildlife sanctuary tucked into it.  I went into the sanctuary and started walking along the path by the pond, and when I happened to look up I saw a heron standing on a tree branch not more than 50 feet from where I was standing. The bird was magnificent, silhouetted against the gray sky.  I stood under my umbrella and watched that heron for almost half an hour.  It began to groom itself, taking its long, hairlike feathers in its beak and wiping them all clean.  It stretched, first one leg and then the other.  When it finally spread its wings and flew away, I realized that I was smiling for the first time all day.  I felt as though Hashem had brought me to that spot in the park at that exact moment because He knew what I needed:  a close encounter with the beauty of the natural world.

If there are no herons by you, don't worry--you can practice wonder for even the smallest things.  Have you ever noticed how perfectly rain beads up on the surface of a leaf, or how beautiful a birdsong can be?  Do you stop to touch flowers?  When was the last time you stood still and witnessed a sunrise, or a sunset?  These are such simple parts of daily life, so easy to take for granted...but if you stop to really marvel at their magnificence, you will feel more connected to Hashem and to the Divine energy in the world.  As Heschel explains, "This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living:  to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things."  Radical amazement doesn't solve all the conflicts and stresses of life, but it certainly makes the journey more meaningful and worthwhile!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why Deny?

Hello again!  I decided I needed a little breather in the wake of my Omer-marathon leading up to Shavuot, but last week's parasha (Nasso) sparked a little fire inside me and I have been mentally formulating this blog post since then.  I realize that Nasso is chock-full of material ripe for discussion (perhaps we will come back to the sotah issue another day), but what I want to focus on is the nazirite.  Simply put, a nazirite (in the time of the Temple) was an individual who took on vows of asceticism in an effort to achieve a higher level of holiness.  Specifically, the vow was to abstain from wine and all grape products, to refrain from cutting one's hair, and to avoid contact with the dead and with graves.  It would be a reasonable assumption that Judaism, with its famously stringent laws of kashrut and Shabbat prohibitions, would proclaim virtuous any person who is willing to be even more restrictive than the religion demands.  Interestingly, this is not the case.  When it comes to the nazirite, the Sages are split in their opinions.

Because I think many of us with histories of eating disorders know all too well how seductive and appealing the practice of self-denial can be, I am going to bypass the Talmudic commentary that looks favorably upon the nazirite (although, to be clear, it certainly exists and is easy to find, if you're motivated to do so).  What I find much more fascinating are the words of Sages who clearly do NOT approve of the nazirite vow.

When an individual ends his/her term as a nazirite, that person is required to make a sin offering to Hashem.  If a nazirite is so holy, what purpose could there be for a sin offering?  Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar argued that a nazirite was required to make atonement because, by practicing extreme self-denial, he had "sinned against the soul."  Despite all its laws and regulations, Judaism values the enjoyment of life and does not encourage people to be more restrictive than necessary.  As the Sages asked, "Is it not enough what the Torah has forbidden you, but you wish to forbid yourself more things?" (Nedarim 9:1)

This resonates deeply with me because for so long, my guiding principle was Restrictiveness.  Forget the fact that I was deeply miserable--there was something about self-denial that also gave me a feeling of superiority, of separateness, of virtuousness.  I thought I was special because I could resist what others could not.  In that mindset, I never once thought of my vigorous suppression of appetite as "sinning against my soul."  But now I think that's exactly what it was.

The Talmud teaches,

"In the future world, a man will have to give an accounting for every good thing his eyes saw, but of which he did not eat."  (Kiddushin 4:12)  Rabbi Elazar believed this so strongly that he regularly set aside money so that he could taste every kind of food at least once a year.

When I think about that, it almost brings tears to my eyes--that kind of dedication to pleasure and value of delicious experiences.  What would it be like to live in that way, to prioritize and savor the enjoyment of food?  How can we shift our paradigm from the societal messages of, "Avoid x, y, and z if you don't want to get fat," to the much more nurturing perspective of, "What am I hungry for?  What would be yummy?  How can I be good to my soul in this moment?"  Perhaps just asking the questions--and listening to the answers--is a solid place to start.