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.