Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Debunking, "Perfect"

Recently I came across an article titled, "Six Kinds of Perfection."  As a person who has never truly achieved even one kind of perfection (though certainly not for lack of trying), I was intrigued with the idea that there might, in fact, be six types to strive for.  Perfectionists, rejoice!  More chances to hit the target!

So, I started reading.  Noting that the Sages called Bereishit, "the book of the righteous," the author proceeded to make the following claim:

"Genesis is the story of a series of perfect individuals.  Adam (made in the image of G-d), Noah (whom the Torah calls 'a righteous man'), Abraham (described as 'G-d's beloved'), Isaac (the 'perfect offering'), Jacob (the ultimate 'whole person'), and Joseph ('the righteous')."

Noooooo.  If there is one line of reasoning that frustrates me to no end, it's the argument that any Biblical figures were, "perfect."  I'm no expert Torah scholar, but I don't think you need to look very far to find the complexities (flaws?) within the six individuals listed above.  Were they inspirational?  Certainly.  Influential?  Definitely.  Instructive?  For sure.  But perfect?  

Let's do a brief run-down:  Although he was created in G-d's image, Adam committed one of the first "sins" in the Torah and then blamed Eve for his own inability to follow G-d's instructions.  As for Noah, the Torah says, "Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with G-d" (Bereishit 6:9).  Many Sages have argued that the phrase, "in his generations," implies that Noah was only righteous compared with the deeply corrupt individuals among whom he lived, and he is often criticized for saving only his own family and not reaching out to try to save others.  Abraham certainly was very virtuous...but he was also the man who put his wife in danger by asking her to pretend to be his sister, lest the Egyptians kill him to take her as their own.  Like his father, Isaac also pretended that his wife was his sister, thereby endangering Rebecca and nearly tricking Abimelech's people into sinning by being intimate with a married woman. Jacob does bear the distinction of being Israel, the true father of the Jewish people.  However, he is also the man who tricked his brother into giving up his birthright, and who deceived his father in order to secure his blessing.  And, finally, there's Joseph.  When Jacob arrives in Egypt after not seeing Joseph, his son, for 22 years, Jacob is overcome by emotion and greets Joseph enthusiastically.  Joseph, however, responds in a curious way:  by turning to his brothers and telling them he will alert Pharoah that they have arrived.  With everything that has transpired in Joseph's family, with everything that remains unsaid between him and his father, Joseph is unable--or unwilling--to connect with Jacob in that moment.

My analysis here is relatively brief and simple, and I recognize that each of the points in the previous paragraph could be fodder for its own lengthly, intense discussion.  But, clearly it is not hard to find the complexities within each of the key male players in Bereishit.  I would suggest that deeming these men, "perfect," is an oversimplification that erases the richness and nuances of their characters.

I believe that what makes these individuals truly great is precisely that they are not perfect.  They may loom larger than life over our collective narrative, but if they did not have their own weaknesses and flaws, how would any of us be able to relate to--or truly learn from--them?  They don't need to be perfect to be worthy of our admiration.  Instead, they earn our respect by dealing head-on with their own sets of challenges, sometimes making what seem like less-than-ideal choices but still managing to be leaders who get their jobs done.

Perfection is something so elusive that not even Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph was able to achieve it.  And yet, we don't stop trying to emulate these men.  We don't stop studying their stories or invoking their names in blessings.  We embrace them, complex figures all, because through their struggles they teach us much more than any "perfect" person ever could.

When I think about the people in my life with whom I'm most connected, I recognize that not a single one of them is perfect...and I love them all the more for their ability to live authentically and to actively work through their challenges.  When I try to imagine a perfect person, all that comes to mind is a robotic, Stepford-wife-like creation who, as a result of her not having any complexities, is boring and impossible to relate to.  Perfectionist though I am, when I ask myself, "Do my loved ones wish I was perfect?" I have to admit that the answer is probably, "no."  Instead, what they probably wish is that I was more open with them about the true ups and downs of my life.

When I study Bereishit, I take comfort in the fact that even our greatest role models were only human beings--multilayered human beings with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses.  It seems to me that Hashem has always understood that we cannot truly relate to perfection, and that if the bar is set at, "flawless," our shortcomings will only discourage and demoralize us.  So, in His infinite wisdom, He gave us forefathers (and foremothers!) who could lead our people not because they were perfect, but because they knew how to rise above their challenges.  As we each make our way through our own journeys, that's really the best we can hope for:  to pass through obstacles and emerge on higher ground, and to become greater people because of it.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Spin Your Turkey Dreidel!

In case you haven't heard, two great holidays--Thanksgiving and Chanukah--are about to make an unlikely convergence.  The resulting, "Thanksgivukkah," has become quite a craze, producing hybrid treats such as butternut squash sweet potato latkes, and even inspiring Conan O'Brien to get in on the action with the Turkey Dreidel.  Personally, I feel like these two holidays are meant to be together--how else can you explain that the biblical Hebrew word for "give thanks," hodu (הודו), is ALSO the modern Hebrew word for, "turkey"?  Coincidence?  I think not.

The truth is that Thanksgiving and Chanukah also have some thematic similarities, chief among them being the shared emphasis on freedom, particularly cultural and religious freedom.  Most of the original "Pilgrims" came to the New World because they were unhappy with the Church of England's inflexible, dictatorial style.  In England, attendance at Anglican churches was mandatory and people didn't feel that it was safe to practice their religion openly in any other way.  Similarly, the Maccabees of the Chanukah story rebelled against the Greeks' attempts to forcibly Hellenize the Jewish people in the Holy Land.  Hellenic culture emphasized idol worship and focused on physical beauty--concepts that were deeply at odds with traditional Jewish values of monotheism and spiritual connection to Torah.

I find the common theme of freedom fascinating, particularly the Jewish resistance against a culture of materialism.  Recently I have been feeling quite frustrated with the cultural world I inhabit--it seems that I can't go anywhere without seeing or hearing something related to dieting, weight loss, exercise, or physical appearance.  Between television, radio, magazine covers, social media, and conversations overheard in just about any venue imaginable, there is no shortage of evidence that we live in a food-, body-, and weight-obsessed culture.

Recovering from an eating disorder while living in such an environment can be a maddeningly frustrating experience.  A clinician I know explains it this way:  "A person recovering from an eating disorder is recovering into a very disturbed world."  To recover means to land above and beyond where the vast majority of people are in terms of food and body.  Although it can be satisfying to have such an evolved perspective, it also can be challenging.  It's hard to feel forced out of all the bonding that happens over discussions about exercise routines, and it can be daunting to try to practice "normal eating" when you are surrounded by people eating diet foods.  Even though I know I should be proud of myself for doing what is healthy and supportive of a life in recovery, I sometimes experience shame around not complying with the prevailing cultural expectations.  In those moments when I feel like I will scream if one more person comments on how she supposes she can afford to eat dessert because she worked out that morning, I have to dig deep and remind myself that I actually don't want to fit into that cultural norm--I've worked too hard to raise myself above it.

It is hard to swim alone against the tide.  The Pilgrims and Maccabees knew this, which is why they each formed groups in order to defend and preserve their true values.  Similarly, we need to surround ourselves with other people who can reinforce our commitment to a life free of the food-and-body obsession.  This Thanksgivukkah season, I wish all of us the courage of our ancestors to keep our eyes and hearts trained on what is truly important and beautiful in this world.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Hashem is in this place..."

I think my favorite thing about Bereishit is the richness of the narratives.  Our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, complex and dynamic figures all, have so much to teach us about the human experience that I really do feel like I learn something new from them every year.

The parashiot of last week (Vayeitzei) and this week (Vayishlach) each center around Jacob as he experiences two of the defining moments of his life.  I recently read an insightful article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that explores why Jacob--and not Abraham, Isaac, or Moses--is considered the true father of the Jewish people.  After all, we call ourselves "Am Yisrael"--the children of Israel (Jacob).  What is it about Jacob that earns him this status?  Chief Rabbi Sacks argues that it is Jacob's resiliency, his ability to flourish in the wake of struggle, that makes him the ultimate leader of the Jewish people.

In last week's parasha, Jacob runs from Esau's anger and goes to sleep outdoors with his head on a pile of stones.  While asleep, Jacob has one of his major spiritual epiphanies:  he dreams of G-d's angels going up and down a ladder reaching from the ground up to heaven.  When he wakes, he utters one of my favorite lines in the entire Torah:
"Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know!" (Bereishit 28:16)
I connect deeply with the idea that Hashem truly is everywhere, even the most seemingly ordinary of places--if we don't see or feel Him, it's because we fail to notice, not because He's not there.  Chief Rabbi Sacks takes this a step further and points out that not only did Jacob find Hashem in the middle of an otherwise obscure field, but also this happened at a moment of intense personal vulnerability for Jacob.  Similarly, in this week's parasha, Jacob flees from Laban and is heading home to meet Esau (who he presumes is still angry with him), when, once again, he finds himself alone in the middle of the night.  Suddenly, an angel appears and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak, at which point he gives Jacob his new name:  Israel, "...for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome" (Bereishit 32:29).  Just as in Vayeitzei, Jacob descends to a place of true vulnerability only to emerge stronger than he was before.  Explains Rabbi Sacks:

"These are the decisive spiritual encounters of Jacob's life, yet they happen in liminal space (the space that is neither starting point nor destination), at a time when Jacob was at risk in both directions, where he came from and where he was going to.  Yet it was at these points of maximal vulnerability that he encountered G-d and found the courage to continue despite all the hazards of the journey.

That is the strength Jacob bequeathed the Jewish people."

From Jacob, we learn that G-d is present not only in our moments of glory; rather, He can be found even when we are struggling and are unsure in which direction to turn.  If we are open to seeing Him, we can find Hashem even in our lowest, loneliest moments, and from those encounters we can gain the strength to move forward.  

The "liminal space" of recovery is a scary place to be.  It's a space in which we can no longer retreat into the obliviousness of the eating disorder, but we've also not yet reached secure footing on the other side.  When I was in the thick of that space, there were times when I felt profoundly weakened, frightened, and alone.  And yet...Hashem was there.

He was there in the constant, enveloping love of my family and the close friends who stuck by me the entire time.  He was there in the new friendships that sprang up during treatment and gave me the day-to-day encouragement and understanding I needed.  I found Hashem in my mentors, my clinicians, and others who challenged me and guided me along my path.  Hashem was in the natural world that always managed to ground and soothe me, no matter how distressed I was.  And the result was that I emerged from that vulnerable space, open for connections, more in touch with myself, and feeling a bit braver than I had been before.    Was I automatically "cured"? No.  But I knew that I was stronger for having gone through that struggle, and that I had within me the energy needed to keep going on the journey.  

Of Jacob, Chief Rabbi Sacks writes:

"He said to Pharaoh, 'Few and hard have been the years of my life' (Genesis 47:9).  Yet on the way he "encountered" angels, and whether they were wrestling with him or climbing the ladder to heaven, they lit the night with the aura of transcendence."  

May we all be open to the presence of Hashem in the darkness, and may we emerge from that place more whole than we were when we went in.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Tune of Ambivalence

If you listened to a public reading of this past week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, you might have noticed a rare treat:  the vocalization of the shalshelet, one of the rarest notes in Torah trope.  The shalshelet occurs only four times in the entire Torah:  Bereishit 19:16, 24:12 (which we read this past Shabbat), and 39:8, and Vayikra 8:23.  Appearing on the page as a tiny zigzag, the shalshelet looks exactly like what it was meant to represent:  a psychological state of uncertainty and ambivalence.  

Britain's Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks explains the shalshelet as follows:

"The Torah does not have a word for does, however, have a tune for it.  This is the rare note known as the shalshelet.  It appears three times in Bereishith, each time at a moment of crisis for the individual concerned...The agent is called on to make a choice, one on which his whole future will depend, but he finds that he cannot.  He is torn between two alternatives, both of which exercise a powerful sway on him.  He must resolve the dilemma one way or another, but either way will involve letting go of deeply felt temptations or deeply held aspirations.  It is a moment of high psychological drama." 

Two weeks ago we heard the shalshelet when Lot hesitated before fleeing Sodom, which was destined for destruction.  This past week, the shalshelet appeared when Abraham's servant, Eliezer, asked Hashem to provide him with a very specific sign regarding which woman would be the suitable wife for Isaac (one interpretation is that Eliezer secretly wanted his own daughter to marry Isaac, and so he was ambivalent about finding another woman to fill that role).   There is also a shalshelet in the Joseph narrative, when he refused the temptation to sleep with Potiphar's wife.  The final example of the shalshelet comes when Moshe inagurates his brother Aaron and Aaron's sons as the Kohanim (High Priests), roles he wished he and his own sons could fulfill.  In each of these instances, the person involved feels an intense pull between two conflicting options--what he thinks or wishes is, and what actually is.  The resulting cognitive dissonance leads each man to wrestle with his decision; it is this struggle that the shalshelet represents.  

The idea that ambivalence has always been a part of our collective history is something to which I really relate.  I honestly don't think I've ever been more ambivalent about anything than I was about recovery.  I really wanted to believe that the eating disorder was the glue holding me together, when the reality was that it was actually preventing me from being a fully functional human being.  On the one hand was the deeply ingrained and immediately satisfying pattern of restriction and self-punishment; on the other hand was the Big Picture Truth:  if I wanted to be able to truly experience life, to be open to joy and connection, then I had to get rid of anorexia.  Either way, I had to give up something and stood to gain something else.  The question was, which was the better bargain?

Through the shalshelet, the Torah teaches that ambivalence has always been part of even the greatest individuals (I mean, can I really hope to do better than Moshe Rabbeinu?).  However, although it might be tempting (and easy) to lean into our less-than-healthy patterns, the goal is for us to keep our eyes on the big picture and ask ourselves, "Is this really going to lead me to my best self?"  Feeling ambivalent is not inherently bad.  The key is to ultimately make choices that lead us in the direction that our core selves--and Hashem--want us to go.  

I always feel validated and reassured when I recognize in Biblical figures some of the same insecurities and struggles that I myself experience.  Rabbi Mois Navon beautifully sums this up when he says,

"There exists a tendency to take for granted the greatness of our exalted paragons, however in doing so we often lose what is really to be gained from having such noble models.  It is not from looking up to their perfection that we learn from their example, but in examining their path and their struggle to that perfection that we stand to gain the most.  And it is only by maintaining an ever attentive ear to every nuance of our heritage, as profoundly demonstrated by the shalshelet, that we stand to reap all of its didactic rewards."

I wish for all of us the awareness to recognize our own "choice points" and to consciously make decisions that lead us down the paths we are truly meant to take.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Worthy of Love

In this post, I want to tackle an issue that has been lurking around in my mind for a long time, and which recently has taken up a front-and-center section of my brain space.  It's a theme that I hear over and over again--from adults about their partners, from parents about their daughters, and from women themselves:  the lack of belief that a person with an eating disorder has in the inherent goodness of her being.  It's heartbreaking for loved ones, who have the often frustrating task of caring deeply about a person who feels unworthy of love and belonging.  For individuals with eating disorders, this lack of self-worth often takes the form of an insidious, nagging voice in the back (or front) of the mind that repeatedly says things like:

"You are a bad person."  "You'll never find anyone to love you."  "People would never like you if they really knew you." And on, and on.  Clearly, this is a voice that seriously undermines recovery...and it is one that far too many of us hear.

Where does it come from?  I can't claim to have done any formal research, but it seems to me a major source of these messages is a surrounding culture that communicates a need to earn your self-worth.  If we could only get that advanced degree, secure that promotion, lose those extra pounds, win that competition, have that attractive mate and those adorable children--then we would be good people.  In other words:  in order to be loved, we need to prove our worthiness--and if we ever stop proving it, we'll stop deserving love.  I'll be honest and admit that there are times when I, too, get sucked into the "I am inherently unworthy" vortex.  Case in point:  during my sophomore year in college, I actually sent a good friend of mine an email in which I asked her, "If I stop being pre-med, will you still think I'm a good person?" I believe her response was something along the lines of, "Are you serious?"  I was.

In recovery, I've had to do some serious "cognitive restructuring" around the concept of self-worth.  One thing that has helped tremendously has been exploring--and buying into--what Judaism has to say about the inherent goodness of a human being.  Every morning, I recite the blessing of Elohai neshama (for my favorite audio version by the group עלמא, click here).  In this prayer, I reaffirm that my soul, my essence, is pure and good.  Hashem placed it into me thoughtfully and lovingly, and it remains inside me, holy and intact.  There is nothing broken or bad about me at my core.  I might make mistakes and poor choices from time to time, but those are just behaviors that I can fix if I choose to do so.  No matter how far I feel I have "strayed," the purity of my soul is never in doubt.

In his work, Orot HaKodesh, Rav Kook offers a teaching that counters the notion that we need to earn our worthiness.  He writes:

"Know yourself, and your world; know the meditations of your heart...and of the life beyond you, around you, the glorious splendor of the life in which you have your being...

Look at the lights, in their inwardness.  Let not the names, the words, the idiom and the letters confine your soul.  They are under your control, you are not under theirs.

Ascend toward the heights, because you are of mighty prowess, you have wings to soar with, wings of mighty for them, and they will at once be ready for you." (Vol. I, pp. 83-84)

Put simply:  The beliefs, "I'll be a good person when _____," or, "I'll never be a good person," are false beliefs.  We might have absorbed the notion that we have to do, earn, or prove something in order to be people of any value, but the irony is that we actually don't have to do a thing.  We are good people simply by virtue of being.  When we came into the world as infants, we were pure at heart and already lovable--and we still are.  We might have changed the packaging and accessories a bit here and there, but the essence of our beings has remained the same Divine, precious light that it has always been.  Make no mistake--there are a lot of distractions out there, but nothing can take away from the pure soul that was put into each of us specially by Hashem. anyone who is anywhere in recovery and struggling to believe in her (or his) self-worth, here's the take-away:

If you never get a diploma...if you never climb the corporate ladder...if you never fit the media's definition of thin/fit/attractive...if you never are recognized as "the best" at anything...if you never get married...if you never have children... will still be a good person who deserves to be loved.  And anyone who really knows you, knows that this is true.  Now YOU need to believe it.

And, if you're the loved one providing support to someone who feels unworthy and inherently flawed, remind that person that this is just a feeling--not reality.  Provide examples of why you love that person for who she or he is, not what she or he does or has.  It's a message that, when communicated authentically, can't be delivered enough times:

You will always be a good person. You will always be loved.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Thou Mayest"

If you are reading this (and living outside of Israel), it means you have successfully made it through not one, not two, but THREE, three-day yom tovs.  Amazing!

Is anyone else ready for Cheshvan?!

In all seriousness, despite feeling a bit relieved to resume my normal life routine, I truly did enjoy the chaggim this year.  Simchat Torah gave me a much-needed energy boost at the end as we celebrated finishing, and restarting, the reading of the Torah.  I found myself eager to get back to the rich narrative of Bereishit, and excited by the possibility of discovering new teachings in the familiar text of the Torah.  This past Shabbat I heard a dvar Torah that reaffirmed my belief that there is always, always, something new to learn in Torah.

In his dvar, the speaker focused on the Hebrew word, timshol (תמשל), found in Bereishit 4:7.  Speaking to Cain, Hashem warns him that if he changes his ways and repents, he'll be forgiven, but if he doesn't, "sin rests at the door."  The verse concludes with the words, v'atah timshol-bo (ואתה תמשל–בו), which, depending on how the word תמשל is translated, can mean any of the following:

"thou shalt conquer [sin]"
"do thou conquer [sin]"
"thou can conquer [sin]"
"thou mayest conquer [sin]"

The speaker then referenced East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, as a means of exploring the subtle yet critical differences in these translations.  In that story, the characters come across two different translations for תמשל--thou shalt, and do thou.  Convinced that there must be a definitive ruling on the word, the characters investigate further and delve into the Hebrew language until arriving at the translation, thou mayest.  Regarding the implications of this, one character says the following:

"The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance.  The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.  But the Hebrew word timshel--'Thou mayest'--that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man.  For if 'Thou mayest'--it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'  Don't you see?"

This character goes on to argue that the ability to choose--"thou mayest"--is what makes human beings great.  When it is a sure thing ("thou shalt") or a command ("do thou"), neither one of those leaves any room for human agency.  But when doing the right thing is a choice, one that we must actively select and pursue, that makes us responsible for using our precious gift of free will--something that (arguably) no other creatures on earth can do.

This idea really resonates with me as it relates to recovery.  When I was in my first round of intensive treatment for my eating disorder, I heard a lot of, "You'll definitely recover," "You're going to beat this," and "You'll be fine."  These messages were reassuring, but also a bit confusing:  I certainly did not FEEL ready to recover, but here were all these people telling me that I WOULD, so maybe it was inevitable?  If I just hung in there long enough, maybe it would just...happen?

This is not to say that I didn't actively pursue recovery, but I do think there were times when I was lulled into complacency because I believed that, in the end, I would magically pull it together and full recovery would happen no matter what.  So what if I didn't exactly follow my meal plan, or if I skipped a snack here and there?  I was going to recover anyway.  It wasn't until years later that I  Recovery is not a guarantee, nor is it a mandate.  If I wanted it, I had to choose it...and I had to do more than just choose it mentally.  I then had to make the actual behavior changes that would move me toward that choice.  Ironically, in order for me to make "I may recover" a reality, I had to understand that "I may not recover" was the equally viable alternative.  Was that scary, and less reassuring than a guarantee of success?  For sure.  But it was also empowering, because as I have accepted responsibility for my own recovery, the success has become mine--not something that happens to me, but something I make happen.

I believe that recovery can be ours, that Hashem does give us all the tools we need to reach it...but I also believe He gives us free will, which means that the decision to use those tools rests in our hands alone.  If we choose recovery, Hashem will support us every step of the way...but He can't make that choice for us, and neither can our family, friends, or doctors, no matter how much they might want to.

As Steinbeck says, "the way is open."  Thou mayest. will you choose recovery this year?     

Sunday, September 22, 2013

In Your Back Pocket

There really is nothing quite like Sukkot.  All of a sudden, temporary dwellings pop up all over the neighborhood--in yards, in driveways, on balconies--and people forgo their standard kitchens and dining rooms in order to eat their meals out in the (somewhat) open air.  If the weather holds, it's nothing short of glorious; if it doesn't, you get some good stories.  And, this being New England, either outcome is equally possible.

One of the aspects of Sukkot that I find intriguing is the coming of the Ushpizin (Aramaic for "guests").  The Ushpizin are the souls of the seven great leaders of Israel--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David--who are believed to visit with us in the sukkah during the festival.  Welcoming guests is an important part of any Jewish holiday, but it is especially integral to the observance of Sukkot, which is a celebration of Jewish unity.  Along with all of our run-of-the-mill "earthly" visitors, the seven Ushpizin enter the sukkah on each of the seven nights of the festival.  Each one takes a turn leading the rest, and each one represents one of the Kabbalistic sefirot and its corresponding character traits:

Isaac--gevurah--strength and discipline
Jacob--tiferet--truth and beauty
Moses--netzach--endurance and victory
Aaron--hod--humility and divine splendor
Joseph--yesod--spiritual foundation and connection

The idea is that the Ushpizin help us access the Divine within ourselves through the spiritual pathways they represent.  It's a beautiful concept--you can explore it in more detail here and here.

I really love the idea of these seven distinguished forefathers of mine coming to give me an extra dose of spiritual nourishment during Sukkot.  It actually reminds me of a concept that some of my "recovery buddies" and I developed early into our journeys--we called it, "keeping people in your back pocket."  When we knew we would be entering into a situation that posed a challenge, we'd imagine having tiny yet powerful versions of supportive people in our lives tucked into our pockets (since it's all metaphorical, this works even if you wear skirts).  I remember countless conversations with a friend of mine that inevitably involved one of us telling the other, "I'll have you in my back pocket!"  Somehow, having her in my pocket would give me comfort and courage to do whatever hard thing needed doing:  eating an extra snack, having a difficult conversation, going to an unfamiliar social event, etc.

I've traveled far on my road of recovery, but from time to time I still draw upon the people I've stashed in my back pocket.  Each person provides me with an extra dose of something different:  poise, assertiveness, bravery, flexibility, confidence--the list goes on.  Sometimes, I imagine one of my "pocket people" doing nothing more than squeezing my hand and saying, "You can do this!"  They may not have the illustrious status of the Ushpizin, but each mentor, teacher, and friend who has ever occupied space in my pocket has given my soul nourishment when I've needed it most.

We all need people in our back pockets...all year long, not just during Sukkot.  As we take our first steps into this new year, I invite you to think about who you could squeeze into your pocket for those moments when you need a little extra inspiration and courage.  Really pack them in--the more, the better--and allow them to strengthen you whenever you need it!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

On the Battlefield

And...we're back.  Sincere apologies for my lack of posts for the past few weeks.  It's easy to explain, really--within one week, all of the following things occurred:  I moved to a new apartment, the new school year began, and the chaggim started.  I'm sure you can imagine the scene as I tried to prepare for all of those activities; needless to say, that great blog post I was envisioning about the shofar never materialized in time for Rosh Hashana.  Maybe next year...

But, never fear.  I'm back, albeit still a bit frazzled, and I happen to be reading a thought-provoking book called, Return:  Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe by Erica Brown.  Yesterday's topic was "discipline" and brought with it this corresponding quote from the liturgy:  "For the sin we have committed before You by eating and drinking."  I'll admit that I had a teensy whisper of the thought, "What does SHE think she's going to tell ME about discipline, eating, and drinking?!"  But, I was also curious, and I proceeded (warily) to read that day's installment...and I'm grateful that I did, because she actually presents a rather intriguing concept that I want to share here.

In her discussion of willpower and what happens for us internally when we have to make choices between positive and negative forces, Erica Brown integrates the work of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, who coined the phrase, "bechira point."  In Hebrew, bechira means "choice," and Rabbi Dessler explains a person's bechira point as the point at which an individual feels genuinely torn between two opposing choices, one positive and one negative.  He compares the bechira point to a battlefield:

"When two armies are locked in battle, fighting takes place only at the battlefront.  Territory behind the lines of one army is under that army's control and little or no resistance need be expected there.  A similar situation prevails in respect of territory behind the lines of the other army.  If one side gains a victory at the front and pushes the enemy back, the position of the battlefront will have changed.  In fact, therefore, fighting takes place only at one location."

Rabbi Dessler explains that the bechira point is only activated when one faces a decision that actually is a struggle.  For example, someone who is raised to eat only kosher food will not struggle internally with whether or not to eat a ham sandwich.  However, someone who ate ham sandwiches for lunch every day of his childhood and begins keeping kosher as an adult might very well feel conflicted over whether or not to give up that favorite food.  Rabbi Dessler articulates that the goal is for a person "not to remain in that confused state in which 'truth' and 'falsehood' seem equally valid alternatives.' "  If we exercise our willpower enough times in favor of a positive choice, we will then feel compelled to make that good decision because we will have integrated it into our way of life.  Rabbi Dessler calls this stage, "compulsion," and when we reach it, we've changed the battlefield.

I really love this "battlefield" image, partly because it conjures up memories of playing "Human Stratego" at overnight camp, but mostly because it is such an apt metaphor for recovery.  At every stage in the process, there are battles we fight between our inner strength and our eating disorder.  Whatever issue we're tackling at any given moment, that's our bechira point--and once that obstacle is mastered, we shift our battlefield to take on the next challenge.  This might seem discouraging because it implies a continuous fight--and, isn't "recovery" supposed to mean that the battle is over?  I would argue that "recovery" doesn't imply a complete lack of struggle; it just means that our choices evolve, becoming more nuanced and less stark.  For example, when I first began teaching many years ago, I would eat a small breakfast and then work the entire 7 hour day before allowing myself to have another meal; I was so paralyzed by the idea of eating lunch with other people.  At this point, I've been eating lunch with my colleagues for several years and it would honestly never occur to me to force myself to go an entire workday without eating; that is no longer where my battlefield lies.  However, I do sometimes struggle with whether or not to allow myself to relax when I get home from work, instead of pushing myself to do errands and "be productive."  There's still a battlefield, but the nature of the conflict has shifted considerably and I no longer feel held hostage by the choices I need to make.

Rabbi Dessler also speaks of the highest level on the battlefield, higher even than compulsion.  He explains that compulsion still requires an active choice, even if it IS a positive one.  The true aim is to be so committed to a healthy, virtuous way of life that we do good purely for its own sake--it's just natural.  This point is what Rabbi Dessler calls, "love."  Erica Brown explains,

"For those who are able with constancy and regularity to conquer the forces working against them through active choice, freedom [to choose the positive or negative] turns into compulsion.  That compulsion turns into love."  

Recovery involves all three stages, and we may experience more than one at a time as we tackle different issues.  But the truth is, all of these battles can be won.  We can use discipline and willpower to train ourselves to make supportive choices...and then, we get to experience the ultimate victory of not needing to make those "choices" at all, because doing what is right and healthy comes naturally with love.  Believe me:  it happens.  It might happen slowly or unevenly, but it does happen.  Going into 5774, I wish for us all a year filled with a little less battlefield and a lot more love.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Why Weren't You Zusha?"

Since we are smack in the middle of Elul, it's not surprising that lately I've been thinking a lot about teshuva.  I also happen to be reading a fabulous book called, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't) by Brené Brown, which focuses on how women experience shame.  Though I don't believe teshuva is a shame-based process, I do believe that some of the ways we act in response to our own feelings of shame are certainly grist for the teshuva mill.

Brené Brown defines shame as, "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.  Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations.  Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection."  Since, as humans, we are programmed to need connection--interpersonally as well as spiritually--the sense of disconnection that comes from shame can be profoundly disconcerting.  It is then not surprising that one might go to great lengths to avoid feeling shame...and, one of the ways we do that is by attempting to be whomever we perceive others want us to be.  Like chameleons, we adjust our speech and behavior (maybe also clothing) to blend in with what is expected by our peer group in any given situation.  We might find ourselves nodding in agreement to something we don't actually support, or glossing over our true beliefs in an effort to avoid confrontation.  In our efforts to remain connected and avoid shame, we sacrifice our authenticity.  Brené Brown describes this dynamic as follows:  "Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our authentic selves.  We tell people what they want to hear, or we don't speak out when we should.  In turn, we feel shame for being dishonest, misrepresenting our beliefs or not taking an important stand."  When we believe we can't be connected and be ourselves, we often prioritize being connected...and end up paying a heavy price.

Although I don't think I could have articulated it when I was really struggling, it's clear to me now that my eating disorder had its roots in shame.  Some of the shame came from internal sources and some of it came from other people, but the result was that I believed nothing about me was okay:  my body, my thoughts, my feelings--I was ashamed of all of it.  I had two main strategies for dealing with shame.  One was to make myself physically as small as possible so there would be less for people to find objectionable.  The other was to be hyper-alert to (perceived) hints from other people as to how they wanted me to be--and then, be that way.

Being in recovery has meant giving up anorexia as a means for coping with shame; it is simply not possible to be in recovery and also be starving yourself.  However, it is possible to be in recovery and still be a people-pleaser, and I'll admit that "going chameleon" is still sometimes a default strategy of mine.  Over the years, I've avoided many arguments and smoothed over countless conflicts; I've reinforced others' opinions by agreeing with them; I've given people the answers I believed they wanted, rather than answers that were honest.  In return, I got connection, but I lost my authentic sense of self.  At some point, I realized I no longer knew what I thought, or what I liked.  Learning to eat again was hard, but relearning my own Self has been even harder--and is something I'm still working on.

Judaism teaches us that we are each born at the moment when Hashem realizes the world can no longer exist without us.  He creates each of us with a purpose, to fulfill a unique role in the world.  When we sacrifice our authenticity in order to "blend," we abandon the very work that we were put on earth to do.  Personally, I recognize that I lose sight of my authentic self more often than I would like.  I sometimes prioritize superficial connections with other people over deeper connections with Hashem--and with myself.  As I focus on my process of teshuva, I feel regret when I think of all the ways in which I've not been true to myself...and I feel committed to working harder in the coming year on cultivating my own authenticity.

There is a beautiful Hasidic story about Reb Zusha of Anipoli that goes something like this:

Reb Zusha was on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples.  He was crying and no one could comfort him.  One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry?  You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham."  Reb Zusha answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine?  That is why I am crying." 

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, I invite each of us to think about whether we are behaving in ways that feel authentic to us, or whether, out of fear of shame, we are giving up our own uniqueness in order to be "just like everyone else."  Remember--Hashem doesn't want a duplicate of someone else...He wants US.  I wish that each of us enters the new year knowing that we give Hashem joy when we are authentic--and that we are worthy of connection when we are our true selves.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Thought to Action

Wow...when I look back on my last post, it seems like I wrote it so long ago (even though it was really only 12 days).  Since then, I've had to readjust to being home in the States after a month in my "other home" in Israel, and I'll admit that reentry has had some rocky spots.  It's tough to transition between two places, even when (or perhaps because) I adore both of them.  I have a hard time writing from that "ungrounded" space, so this post has been a while in coming...but, in the interim, a couple of things happened to give my creative juices a kick:

1) Rosh Chodesh Elul!

2) The yarhzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (ג אלול)

Why are these important?  Well, Elul happens to be one of my favorite months of the year due to its emphasis on introspection, self-evaluation, and teshuva (yep...I love that stuff!).  And, no one is a greater source of inspiration for me in the areas of teshuva and self-reflection than Rav Kook.  I've quoted him several times on this blog, and I'm about to do so again--every time I read his work, I come away with something new.

I think recovery is one of the greatest forms of teshuva that there is; it's a process of turning away from an unhealthy lifestyle and re-embracing--and recommitting to--the positively productive, fulfilling, and connected lives we were meant to lead. I'm going to share three excerpts from Rav Kook's famous work, Orot HaTeshuva (The Lights of Penitence), and I'll explain how I see each one relating to recovery as a process of teshuva.

(Note:  Rav Kook consistently uses the masculine form when referring to "person," and I'm keeping his gendered language intact for the sake of preserving the text.  But, feel free to make whatever substitutions you would like in your own mind!)

Rav Kook writes:

"It is in the nature of penitence to endow a person with peace and with solemnity at the same time.  Even the mere thought of penitence is a comfort to him.  In one tiny glimmer of its great light there is already to be found the noble happiness of a whole world, but together with this it confronts his spirit constantly with the obligation of completing it.  This saves him from pride and invests him with a sweet light, which endows his life with great and abiding value."

What I love about this is how Rav Kook recognizes that the very step of THINKING about teshuva (or recovery!) is valuable in and of itself.  A person can feel heartened and galvanized when she first commits to the idea of recovery, and it's important to recognize that the readiness to be open to this process is significant.  However, Rav Kook also cautions us against falling into the trap of only thinking about it, and not actually doing it.  The intention to do teshuva is commendable, but ultimately it needs to lead to actions that follow through.  This is also true regarding recovery--setting goals is important, but then so is actually working towards them.  If we are going to be truthfully committed to this process, then we have the responsibility of sticking with it and actually making it happen.  But, it's not only the end result of all that work that has value--it's the very process itself.

Continuing his ideas about the process of teshuva, Rav Kook says:

"Through the thoughts of penitence a person hears G-d's voice calling him, from the Torah and from the feelings of the heart, from the world and its fullness, and all that is contained therein."

Yes. Yes. YES.

For me, there is nothing ultimately more comforting than knowing--feeling--that Hashem is my greatest coach.  I view recovery as more than just maintaining my physical health, but also using my healthy body to help me live the life that G-d wants me to lead.  When I struggle with feelings of, "Maybe I can't go any farther," I do seek out the voice of Hashem for reassurance and comfort.  For me, I find that connection with Hashem in nature--there is no way I can be still and alert in the natural world and not hear and feel the call of Hashem.  When I'm in a place of fear or ambivalence or confusion regarding what to do next in recovery, going for a walk or sitting outside helps me feel grounded in connection to Hashem, and that gives me the resolve to keep pushing.  If "nature" isn't your thing, I really encourage you to find SOMEWHERE where you can hear G-d's voice most clearly, where He can give you encouragement to turn your thoughts of recovery into actions.

Finally, I have one last Rav Kook nugget to share:

"I see how the sins serve as an obstruction against the bright divine light, which shines so brightly on every soul, and they darken the soul.  Penitence, even if it is only entertained in thought, effects a great redress.  But the soul can reach full liberation only when the potential of penitence is translated into action.  However, since the thought is tied up with holiness and with the desire for penitence, there is no need to be concerned.  G-d, may He be praised, will surely make available all the circumstances for the attainment of full penitence, which illumines all the dark places in its light."

If we think of recovery as teshuva, the message is clear:  As long as we are committed to the process and willing to do the work, Hashem will provide us with whatever support we need to make it happen. We don't need to worry, "What if I can't do it?"  The truth is, G-d will make sure that we can...we just have to be brave enough to make use of the tools He gives us.

Going into Elul, I encourage each of us to think of a way we could further advance our own recovery...and then start doing it.  May this lead us into a new year of growth and satisfaction!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Crossing the Threshold seems unreal that a month has flown by so quickly and that I will be leaving Israel tomorrow.  My time here has been amazing, thanks to nourishing connections with my "chosen family" of teachers and friends over here, full days of Jewish learning, and some incredible bird watching.  The fact that the weather has been consistently perfect definitely helped to sweeten the deal!  Of course, I wouldn't be myself if I didn't feel some a lot of "transition anxiety" and sadness in anticipation of my return home.  But I also know that the good thing about all the love and learning I've experienced here is that these are portable goods--I can bring them with me into my life at home, and I'm sure they'll be inspiring blog posts for at least the next few weeks :).

In the last session of my class on Sefer Shemot, my teacher introduced us to a concept that feels especially relevant to the themes of transition and growth.  She had titled the course, "Standing At the Threshold," and explained that the inspiration for the title came from Victor Turner's idea of "liminal space."  Simply put, liminal space is a stage in the process of going through a ritual--a sort of "in-between" stage in which a person has detached from a previous identity but has not yet reached the point of attaining the new identity that comes with completion of the ritual.  In liminality, a person's sense of self becomes amorphous, causing disorientation but also allowing for the possibility of new beginnings.  Some common, real-life examples include students who have graduated high school but have not yet begun college, a couple who is engaged but not yet married, etc.  My teacher explained that at the start of the Exodus, the Israelites were in a liminal space.  They had begun to be set apart from the Egyptians but didn't yet have a real identity of their own as a people.  When the Israelites took the korban Pesach and painted their doorposts with blood, they were beginning a process of transition that they didn't fully understand.  Representing liminal space, the doorposts served as a transitional bridge between their old lives as slaves, and their new lives as Jews.  Although crossing that threshold was significant in itself, the transition would only be complete once the Jews actually left Egypt.  In other words, an Israelite who put blood on his doorpost to escape the plague but didn't take the additional step of leaving Egypt would not have fully transitioned into a member of the Jewish nation.

I've been mulling over this idea for several days, and it has caused me to take a long, honest look at myself.  In many ways, recovery has been like one long transition (many smaller transitions?) away from my previous identity as "the girl with an eating disorder," and toward a manifestation of my genuine self.  Have I shed the eating disorder label that I once wore so proudly?  Yes.  But, have I really, truly grown into myself?  This is the part I am still working on.

Some days, it feels like "enough" simply to not be anorexic anymore.  But, just as "happy" is NOT the same as, "not sad," I don't think I'm satisfied defining "recovered" as, "not sick."  I've definitely done a good job of being, "not sick," but would I be content if my evolution stopped here?  Honestly, I don't think I would.  I've painted my proverbial doorpost and have even made it out of Mitzrayim, but have I fully entered the Promised Land?  Not yet.

Now don't get me wrong:  there is a lot to be said for no longer being eating disordered.  I love the freedom I have attained, and I consider it hard won.  However, just as "anorexia" never really summed up my entire persona, neither does, "non-anorexic."  What about all the other ways in which I want to define myself?  I'm aware that some aspects of my identity, such as my professional self, I've done an excellent job of cultivating because they are a) fun, and b) relatively non-threatening.  But there are other areas (relationships!?) in which I'm still very much in a transitional space, in which I feel held back by fear.  I think that if I truly want to become my full self in recovery, I'm going to need to take some steps toward growth and commitment in those areas.

It's easy to get lulled into thinking that the process of recovery ends when you ditch the eating disordered behaviors, but I'm challenging all of us to rethink that idea.  In what ways are we still in our "liminal spaces"?  How might we actively adopt a new mentality that might offer us greater freedom and development?

As members of the Jewish nation, we are more than just, "not slaves."  We are Jews.  How can we move from being "not eating disordered," to being who we were truly created to be? 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hearing My Voice

Earlier this week, we observed Tisha B'Av, the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar.  It was appropriately unpleasant, with a 25-hour-long fast in the heat of summer, but it was also decidedly meaningful.  To me, there is no more powerful place to be on Tisha B'Av than Jerusalem, no better place in which to witness the ways in which the Jewish community has rebuilt itself, despite all the parts of it that still need repair.  But this Tisha B'Av was especially meaningful to me on a personal level because this year I took on the task of publicly reading aloud, to the Pardes community, the first chapter of Eicha.

This was a significant undertaking for me for several reasons.  First, on a purely practical level, I had never before learned trope of any kind and had no real experience with public leyning (unless one counts a few psukim that I memorized for my bat mitzvah sixteen years ago).  Second, when I am in religious settings I am very self-conscious of the fact that I was not brought up in a traditionally observant lifestyle, and I often feel like a fraud when I try to do something indicative of a "more religious" background.  Finally there's that old, familiar voice in the back of my mind that quietly yet forcefully asserts itself whenever I publicly take on a challenge: Just who do you think you ARE, to do something like that?!

And yet, I really wanted to do this, so a few months ago I slowly taught myself the Eicha trope (thanks,!) and set about learning to leyn the first chapter.  As soon as Pardes started organizing students to publicly read Eicha, I signed up for perek alef.  As the eve of Tisha B'Av drew near, I noticed my excitement and anxiety mounting simultaneously.  On the one hand, here was an opportunity to do something profoundly spiritually meaningful within a community I care a lot about...on the other hand, where did I get the audacity to think that I could pull this off--or that I should?

I'm not sure how my leyning sounded to anyone else, but what struck me was the sheer power of hearing my own voice.  I wasn't going to win any Grammy Awards for technical brilliance, but I was clear, I was confident, and I was present in that moment with every inch of my being.  Who is this person, I wondered, who has so much presence?  When did I become someone who would voluntarily become visible and heard?

Over many years in recovery, I have become that person.  It is to the credit of the clinicians who have given me the tools to bring myself out of the shadows, and to my family and friends who have motivated me to actually use them.  It's thanks to my Pardes teachers and fellow students who have made me feel safe to take risks and secure in the knowledge that, even if I don't know all the answers, I still deserve to be heard.

Given that it was Tisha B'Av, it would probably be a bit inappropriate and inaccurate to say that my leyning experience was enjoyable, but it certainly was powerful.  There was profound meaning in hearing my own voice chant the history of my people, while looking out over the lights of Jerusalem twinkling in the night sky.  Like Jerusalem, there are ways in which I still feel incomplete and less than whole, but there is also undeniable evidence of all the repair and growth I've worked hard to achieve.

May we all continue to heal our broken parts, and may we develop into our most harmonious selves, ready to project our voices out into the world.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lemmings Need Not Apply

!שלום חברים וחברות

Greetings from Jerusalem!  I've now been here a full week and have spent several days happily ensconced, once again, in the Pardes Institute's beit midrash.  Under the guidance of some exceptionally gifted teachers, my classmates and I spend hours each day exploring and discussing Jewish texts.  Here, I want to share with you an understanding I gained from one of my classes today.

First thing every morning, I begin my day of learning in a course on Sefer Shemot, focusing on the Exodus and the actions and choices of various individuals that led up to this climactic event.  Today, my teacher presented us with a source sheet showing us the textual links between the first chapter of Shemot and the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Bereshit.  There are many fascinating linguistic parallels, which I won't go into here (but email me if you're interested, and I'll try to summarize).  However, what most interests me is the common thematic element of the danger of complete conformity.

In the story of Babel, all the people on Earth speak the same language and come together with a common goal of building a city and a tower high into the sky.  Hashem thwarts their plan by scattering the people all over the Earth and giving each group a distinct language so that they can no longer understand each other.  Regarding Hashem's displeasure with the actions of the people, my teacher explained that what Hashem was preventing was the complete loss of individuality among human beings.  When they all came together to build the city and tower, the people sacrificed their individuality and instead became a mass of conformity.  Hashem prevented the people from completely losing their own identities by separating them and creating linguistic barriers among the nations.

Similarly, in the beginning of Sefer Shemot, we see that both the Egyptians and the Jews have become masses of anonymous people.  The Egyptians appear to be blindly following the demands of Pharaoh, while the Jews, according to Seforno, were "teeming like insects"--not as individuals.  Suddenly, out of the masses emerge two individual midwives, Shifra and Puah, who bravely defy Pharoah's wishes by sparing the lives of newborn Hebrew boys.  Additionally, what follows is the birth of Moshe--certainly a key individual in the narrative of the Jewish people!

What both of these stories show, argued my teacher, is that conformity to the point of self-erasure is not what Hashem wants from human beings, nor is it what He hopes for in terms of His relationship with us.  As my teacher succinctly put it, "It's not enough to just join a community anonymously--you need to find your place within the community as an individual."

This immediately struck a chord with me because for years, my entire modus operandi was, "Blend, blend, blend."  Don't stand out, don't be noticed, don't make waves.  Whenever I wanted to join a group, I would first observe the group members and then figure out how I could best merge with them without anyone noticing that I perhaps didn't actually belong there.  I did everything I could to avoid making obvious the ways in which I was different; it's now clear to me that starving my body was one method I used to make my physical presence as unimposing and unnoticeable as possible.  But even in recovery, daring to be an individual is something that has continued to challenge me.  I still wrestle with the fear of disapproval that nonconformity often invites, and although I admire individuality in others, I've always considered it too risky of an enterprise for me, personally.

Until today, it never occurred to me that standing out (a bit) from the crowd might actually be what Hashem wants of me.

Being different is scary.  It's awkward to be the only person dressed up when everyone else has gone casual; it's uncomfortable to be the lone dessert-eater in a room full of dieting women; it's daunting to make a public choice of, "B," when everyone else seems to be choosing, "A."  It's intimidating to speak your mind when you suspect that most people in the room are going to disagree with you, and it can be tough to stand by your values when it seems that the majority doesn't share them.  But as I learned today, it is only by daring to be our authentic, unique selves that we are able to fulfill our potential on this Earth.  It's only when we are willing to be noticed that we might actually make our most significant contribution to our communities and to our people.  

Here in Israel, I have a chance to start practicing being a proud individual within a dynamic community.  I can offer dissenting opinions, ask challenging questions, and tell my own story honestly when invited to do so.  I'm sure it will feel uncomfortable at times, but I'm also excited to see where it might lead.  I wish for each of you the ability to recognize ways in which you are important and beautiful as an individual--and then, to go out and shine your light on the world!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

See the Birthing

The end of the school year is always a crazy time for me as a teacher.  This year was no exception, as I discussed in a previous post.  Aside from all the logistical hoops through which I had to jump, there was also the poignancy of saying goodbye to my flock of third grade graduates, to whom I'd become deeply attached.  I thought that this year I might not have much time to dwell on the transition, due to my impending departure (tomorrow!) to Israel...incorrect!  I always, always have time for Transition Anxiety because, if I'm going to be honest, "change" isn't really my thing.

Sure enough, not even one day after closing up my classroom for the summer, I felt the anxiety set in.  For ten and a half months of the year, work is my world and "teacher" is my identity.  My colleagues are my "other family," and each year my heart grows just a little bit larger to hold a new class of students, all of whom become "my kids."  When I am at work, I know who I am and I like that version of myself.  I thrive on the structure of my days, and I know how to deliver what is expected of me.  No matter how much I need summer vacation, it is always a tough adjustment.  I usually feel a bit lost without my usual routine, I miss the easy social connections I have with the other teachers, and I definitely miss the kids.  At the bottom of all of this is the unspoken question, Who am I outside of teaching?  It's murky territory, and I don't like it.

Coincidentally (or not?), when I picked up my copy of, Toward a Meaningful Life:  The wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, this past Shabbat, I opened directly to the chapter titled, "Upheaval and Change."  To be fair, most of the Rebbe's teachings in this chapter are intended to refer to global upheaval and catastrophic events, but I think they can be applied to personal life changes and transitions, as well.  Put generally, the Rebbe says that when things around us are changing, we can use our relationship with Hashem to ground us.  Upheaval gives us the chance to separate who we are from our material world, to get in touch with that which is at our cores and does not change.  Additionally, he teaches that change is an opportunity for growth:

"Our sages teach, 'Who is wise?  The one who sees the birthing' [Talmud, Tamid 32a]--not just the darkness, but how it leads to light.  Growth occurs in three stages:  an embryonic state, a void between old and new, and a state of transformation.  Upheaval is the middle, chaotic stage.  From our human perspective, it may appear as an abyss, but in the larger view, it is the first sign of something new, a birthing."

I think recovery is definitely this way--the "letting go" stage, when we release our hold on the eating disorder but don't yet have anything positive to cling to, certainly can feel like a frightening abyss.  But, as the Rebbe says, that chaos leads to transformation and growth into a fuller, more authentic life.

I can also apply it to where I am in this moment:  the transitional space between "teacher mode" and summer.  It is hard for me to let go of teaching and the comfortable routine it brings.  But when I stop and think, I know that I am the same "me" whether I am working or not, that who I am is more than my profession, and that maybe this time away from work will give me an opportunity to develop some of the other aspects of myself that get a bit lost during the year.  Tomorrow I will fly to Israel, where I will get to spend time with people dear to my heart, learning texts I love in a place that is my second home.  If I allow myself to expand beyond my identity as a teacher, if I let myself fully inhabit the experiences of this next month, then I know I will grow in ways I can't yet anticipate.  Getting to that growth requires some traveling through uncertainty, but if the choice was either, a) consistency and stagnation, or,  b) disruption and transformation, I know I would choose "b," hands down.

So, for all of us staring down some sort of transition or change and the anxiety it brings, I share the words of the Rebbe and our sages as a reminder that if we can weather the bumps in the road, we will be rewarded with a birth into new beginnings.  I will certainly continue to write and share with you what I am learning on this next adventure!

(For skeptics who need a bit more convincing--or if you just like good music--the Indigo Girls reinforce the Rebbe in this song.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Focus on Your Own Tent!

Something I am really trying to work on is my tendency to assess myself against my perception of other people.  I might think that I am doing just fine, until I see someone whom I perceive to be more successful at whatever I'm trying to do, and then--all of a sudden--whatever I'm doing is deficient.  Mind you, nothing will have actually changed about me--it's just that when I compare myself to others, I often judge myself less favorably than I do when I try to evaluate myself independently.  The obvious answer to this problem is, stop comparing myself to other people!  Unfortunately, I've always found this much easier said than done.  It's definitely true that I fall into the comparing trap much less frequently than I used to, but if I'm going to be honest, even in recovery I'm still a competitive woman with a perfectionist, some comparing seems inevitable.

I started thinking about this in earnest as I read last week's parasha (Balak).  Balak, the Moabite king, hired the gentile prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jewish people.  But, Balaam knew that Hashem favored the Jewish people and that he would be unable to make any prophecies to the contrary.  As he looked out over the people of Israel, Balaam was able to utter only blessings.

"Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him."  (Numbers 24:2) 

According to Rashi, the phrase, dwelling according to its tribes, refers to the meticulous organization of the Israelite camp.  All the people dwelled in their tribal groups, and they arranged their tents so that no tent's entrance faced that of another tent.  This allowed for a feeling of community while still protecting the privacy and modesty of individual families.  The setup prevented general snooping and intrusions, but it also made it difficult for one person to become fixated on the possessions or private actions of another.  Even thousands of years ago, the Israelites realized how easy it would be to fall into the trap of comparing oneself against another, and they knew they needed to protect their society from the damaging competitiveness that results.  

My tendency to compare and compete with others often played itself out in my eating disorder.  I constantly engaged in thought patterns such as, "How much is that person eating?  I have to eat less," or, "If she's going to the gym, then I need to go, too."  The only way I knew if I'd exercised enough, studied enough, or achieved enough was to measure myself against someone else.  This was to my detriment and often completely irrational--even in the hospital, I would look at other girls on the floor and think, "She has more problems than I do.  Why don't I have more problems?  I'm not sick enough."  Some of the best advice I ever got in intensive treatment was, "Put blinders on and focus on yourself."  The truth is, there is always going to be someone sicker, or smarter, or more talented, or more attractive.  There will always be someone who has more advanced degrees than I do, someone who is more athletic, or someone who is more professionally successful.  So, the choice is mine:  I can measure myself against the yardsticks of those other people, or I can validate all the hard work I've done and all the ways in which I have succeeded.  One of the keys to my recovery has been learning how to acknowledge the ways in which I want to improve, while simultaneously affirming that I am enough, just as I am.  

The ancient Israelites understood the importance of, "focusing on your own tent."  They knew that privacy was important not only because it preserved modesty, but also because it safeguarded the integrity and individuality of everyone involved.  When a person is free to focus on her own tent, she is able to invest her energy into making that tent the best it can be, regardless of what everyone else is doing.  The Israelites recognized that an individual who is firmly grounded in her own strengths is going to be more able to serve the community than one who is not.  My wish for all of us is that while we continue to connect and engage with the people around us, that we also allow ourselves the time and space to focus on our own tents, to make them radiate out the brilliant light that is ours alone.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Challenge of Relaxation

The past few weeks have put me back in close touch with a familiar, unpleasant emotional state:  stress.  It's getting to be the end of the school year, which is always a fun time but also brings with it a lot of Things That Must Get Done Immediately.  At the top of my list have been 23 narrative progress reports, one for each student in my class--an endeavor that is time consuming, to say the least.  Close behind that is the realization that I have exactly three days between my last day of school and when I leave for Israel, and one of them is Shabbat--not a whole lot of time to get ready!  Then, there are all the small-yet-significant items such as student assessments, work meetings, and closing down a classroom that has accumulated a year's worth of papers and other random items.  So, I've spent the better part of the past two weeks alternating between frantically trying to stay on top of things at work while also attempting to tackle some pre-trip preparations.  The result has been a near-constant knot of stress in my stomach and frayed emotional ends...and, as this past Shabbat approached, I thought, "I CANNOT afford to take 25 hours off!"  For the first time in a long time, I found myself resenting Shabbat.

At the root of this are two core beliefs that underpinned my eating disorder and my general tendency to be very, very hard on myself:

1)  You earn your worth through what you do.
If I wasn't actively engaged in some productive activity, if I wasn't constantly giving others the impression that I was hardworking and dedicated, then I would lose my right to claim those adjectives.  In order to be liked/admired/considered valuable, I must always be doing something visibly useful.

2) Relaxation is an indulgence.
If there was one word that would turn me off in an instant, it was indulgence.  I believed wholeheartedly that indulgences were for people who had no willpower, that relaxation was for people too weak to push themselves.  I, on the other hand, was a champion of self-denial who found some degree of satisfaction from forcing myself to work/study/exercise when others said, "I've had enough."

After years and years spent working on shedding these core beliefs, I've considered myself pretty much divorced from them...and yet, as this past Shabbat neared and my stress level rose, I found them creeping back into my line of thinking.  But I've worked really hard to learn how to enjoy Shabbat, and I did not want to lose my ability to give myself over to the spirit of those 25 hours.  I went back to some of the writings about Shabbat that I've collected over the years, and came across two that helped me refocus on the meaning of Shabbat:

"It is a day in which we abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure..."
--Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath


"Master of the world, let me merit the joy and freedom of the holy Shabbat, and let me nullify the enslavement of the days of the week.  I pray that my mind will be completely settled, without any confusion at all--and that on the holy Sabbath no thoughts of labor and business, nor any worry or trouble, will enter my mind.  Rather it will be in my eyes as though all my work is done.  Then I will have truly attained the rest and pleasure and joy of the holy Sabbath."
--Reb Natan of Breslav, Likutei Tefilot 2:13 

What I learn from these quotes is that Shabbat is a time for me to separate myself from doing and concentrate on being.  In those 25 hours, I get to believe that it's not what I do that makes me valuable, it's who I am.  And although that might be challenging to accept, it's also critical for maintaining a healthy attitude toward myself and toward life.  For sure, it was challenging this week for me to say to myself, "For the next 25 hours, I'm done with work.  There is nothing I have to do.  I get to just be."  But I managed, and let me tell you--if ever there was a week when I needed Shabbat, it was this week.  A day of putting away the to-do list was exactly what my body and mind required.

I know that Shabbat can be challenging because it bumps up against those eating-disordered core beliefs that we cling to so tightly.  Yet, to be able to lean into that window of time when we simply are who we are, is so precious and vital to recovery, and to life.  I hope that we all can begin to release ourselves from the pressures of constantly producing and give ourselves that chance every week to relax and recharge.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

No "Yeah Buts!"

This past week's parasha is one that leads the reader, upon beginning its first chapter, to have a sneaking suspicion that it is not going to end well for Am Yisrael.  Indeed, that would be putting it lightly--the well-known episode of the meraglim, or spies, featured in parashat Shelach is one of disastrous consequences for the Jewish people.  Here, in a nutshell, is what happens:

As the Jews near Eretz Yisrael, Moshe sends twelve upstanding men to scout out the territory and the people who dwell there.  Although Hashem has promised them the land, the Jewish people still need to figure out the most efficient, responsible way to conquer it.  So, the spies go into the land for forty days, and when they come back, ten of them report that, yes, the land is as good as promised...however, it is occupied by some rather intimidating, larger-than-life humans who would surely be too strong for the Jews to overpower.  Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, try to convince the people that they will be victorious...but, to no avail.  Before long, those other ten spies instill such uncertainty and fear in the people that they demand a new leader who will replace Moshe and bring them back to Egypt, to the miserable-yet-familiar confines of slavery.  Understandably, Hashem is furious that despite all the miracles He has done for the Jews, they still are unconvinced of His protection and power and do not believe that He could bring them into the Promised Land.  So, He declares that the Jews will wander in the wilderness for forty years, during which time the entire adult generation will die, leaving only their children to inherit Eretz Yisrael.

When the spies reported their findings to the people, they transitioned from their positive observations to their negative ones through the Hebrew word, efes, which roughly translates as, "however."  (Interestingly, in modern Hebrew efes means, "zero," which coincides with how the spies used it to completely negate all the goodness of the land.) Through that word, the spies let their insecurities overtake what should have been their fundamental knowledge that the land would be theirs--it was only a matter of how.

As I read these chapters of Shelach, I remembered a phrase that came up quite a bit in my recovery:  "Yeah, but...".  I was formally introduced to the concept of the "Yeah Buts" many years ago when I attended a body image workshop led by two of my recovery mentors.  They explained that the eating disorder uses "Yeah Buts" to refute the positive messages of our healthy voices.  For every encouraging statement, every suggestion toward progress, there was a "Yeah But" to prove that it wouldn't work.  (Examples:  "I guess I could add Food X to my afternoon snack...yeah, but Food X doesn't taste good at that time of day."  "I probably should increase my nutritionist appointments to every week instead of twice a month...yeah, but I don't want to pay all those copays.")  The main problem of "Yeah Buts" is that they shut down possibilities and convince us that what we want--what we know we could have--is actually out of our reach.

With that one word, efes, the spies uttered a gigantic, "Yeah, but...".

This past Shabbat I read a weekly Parsha column by Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in NYC.  Rabbi Linzer goes into a detailed analysis of the story of the spies, but he also manages to universalize its lesson as follows:

If one is not a priori committed to an enterprise, if one does not believe that the land is good, then every problem looms large, every challenge becomes an obstacle. However, if there is a fundamental belief in G-d's promise and in the goodness of the land, then whatever the problems and whatever the challenges, they can be met and dealt with--"We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!" (13:30)

What I take from Rabbi Linzer's message is that when we believe wholeheartedly that a positive outcome is ours for the taking, then we will look at challenges as just parts of the journey--uncomfortable parts, perhaps, but completely surpassable.  However, if we enter into a process with a lack of faith at our core, then obstacles become reasons to abandon the entire undertaking.  On this blog, I have previously compared recovery to Eretz Yisrael, and I believe the comparison holds true here.  Just like the Promised Land, recovery is what we yearn for, what we dream could be ours.  If we believe that Hashem has put it within our reach and that if we work hard, we shall surely attain it, then all the bumps in the road to get there become just that--mere bumps in the road.  It's when we start to doubt that we could ever truly live in recovery, that we become vulnerable to the "Yeah Buts."

If you find yourself doubting your ability to recover, I hope that you can use the lesson of the spies to remind yourself that the only thing really standing between you and recovery is whether or not you believe you can do it.  If you believe recovery will be yours, then you will overcome all the obstacles in your path.  As Joshua and Caleb said, "the Land is very, very good!" (14:7)  So is recovery--so, don't let any "Yeah Buts" prevent you from having it!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Born With Purpose

Birthdays...on the surface, purely delightful; in reality, so much more complicated.  I don't know that I've ever had an approach to birthdays that wasn't at least partly tainted with anxiety:  I clearly remember crying on my ninth birthday because I WOULD NEVER. BE EIGHT. AGAIN. (Yup...I was that kid.)  Fast forward to my twenties, and I still received my birthday with mixed emotions; only then, it was due to the mire of anorexia and depression in which I found myself stuck.  Every year, my birthday would roll around and I would feel a deep pull of sadness as my own emotions failed to match those of my family and friends.  My parents' excitement was the hardest for me to assimilate:  they were celebrating a wonderful child they loved, and I felt like that child didn't really exist.  While I was grateful and comforted by their enthusiasm for my life, part of me remained convinced that I didn't deserve it.

Well, yesterday I officially entered my "early thirties"(!), and I approached the day feeling hopeful that maybe this would be the year when I would feel only (or at least mostly) happy on my birthday. After all, I've been through a lot of therapy, and I'm now in solid recovery and have a life that I enjoy and am proud of in many ways.  And yet, as the day neared, I felt myself getting on the old, familiar emotional roller-coaster of self-criticsm and guilt.  Luckily, I still happened to be working my way through Toward a Meaningful Life: The wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson by Simon Jacobson, and the chapter titled, "Birth," may have saved my relationship with my birthday.

The Rebbe's idea is simple, yet profound:  Your birth was the moment in which Hashem knew the world could not continue without you.  At the time you were born, Hashem put you on earth for a specific purpose; that moment was the beginning of your mission on earth.  Jacobson expresses the Rebbe's philosophy as follows:

"Many people seem to feel that because we didn't choose to enter the world, our birth is a stroke of coincidence or serendipity.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Birth is G-d's way of saying that He has invested His will and energy in creating you; G-d feels great joy when you are born, the greatest pleasure imaginable, for the moment of birth realizes His intention in wanting you..."


When I actually sat and thought about that--that Hashem put me here on purpose, to bring something to the world that only I could bring; that He created me with love and care and joy--I mean, I actually felt goosebumps.  That's not to say that I then rushed out to buy party hats and streamers, but I did spend some time thinking about what Hashem might have had in mind when He created me...when He breathed my soul into my body, what was the hole in the world that He was hoping I would fill?  How can I use the many, many gifts with which I've been blessed to not just imagine a better, more sacred world, but actually help create one?

My suspicion is that for many of us in recovery (and for many other people, too), birthdays are a mixed emotional bag.  I offer this teaching of the Rebbe's in the hope that if your birthday approaches and you feel there's nothing to celebrate, you remember that even if you don't think you're special, at the moment of your birth G-d felt nothing but joy.  He created you filled with purpose and Divine light...and all of it is still inside you, just waiting to be let out.

So, as another year of my life begins, I feel profoundly grateful to all the people whom Hashem has put in my life to help me along my path:  my amazingly devoted parents and family; my friends who nourish me with both fun and authentic connection; my students who fill me with passion and purpose; my teachers who believe in the power of my mind and heart...and, this little community here, because through our collective energy we release a little more light into this world.  May we all be blessed with such supports and able to use the gifts they give.


"Birth is G-d saying you matter." -- The Rebbe


Sunday, May 19, 2013

What About Love?

Recently, I made a new friend--which, let's face it, is something that becomes exponentially more difficult after graduating from college.  I always get excited about new friends, because a) they don't happen that often, and b) I often wish I had more of them.  As a textbook introvert, I have a small number of very close, deep friendships, but I tend to run into trouble when those few friends go out of town or can't be reached by phone.  So, the promise of an authentic bond with a new person feels exciting and refreshing, but also brings along with it some feelings of caution.  Despite my craving for close connection, there were many years in which friendships definitely were not my most successful endeavors.  Even now that I am in recovery, when I enter into a new relationship I always have in the back of my mind the thought, "Don't make the same mistakes you used to make."

During my eating disorder, one of my biggest liabilities in relationships was my neediness.  At that time, I had very, very few friends--there just wasn't room for many of them in my life alongside anorexia.  I was desperately lonely, and as a result I clung tightly to anyone who promised connection.  Since I had so little self-worth I usually felt incredulous when someone actually wanted to be my friend...and then I lived in fear that one wrong move on my part would sabotage the entire operation.  I went overboard trying to endear myself to others via what one of my friends calls the, "Love Me, Love Me Dance"...and every time one of my emails or phone calls went unanswered, I experienced utter devastation and was certain that I accidentally had done something terrible, that the friendship was over.  I hated myself for being so needy, yet I couldn't help it--that hunger for love was so wide and so deep that I felt it would never be satisfied.

Many years of therapy and a few lasting, precious friendships later, I am relieved and happy to say that I no longer approach relationships with anywhere near that degree of clinginess.  As I've gained a genuine sense of self-love, I've found that I'm much more able to connect with others in a way that feels healthy.  And yet, remnants of former insecurities remain, and I occasionally still worry that friendships I hold dear will one day vanish.  I know how to manage those anxieties and understand that they are not, in fact, grounded in reality...but, there they are, nevertheless.  Recently I read something in the book, Toward a Meaningful Life:  The Wisdom of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, that offered me some insight into the link between self-love and loving others:

"If you don't find a way to love G-d, to love the G-d that resides in your soul, you will find yourself in a constant search for love.  We may even turn to unhealthy forms of love to replace this lack of inner love."

To me, this makes perfect sense:  when I didn't love myself at all, I needed others to do all that loving for me--and there was no amount of "other-love" that would satisfy the void inside myself.  Now that I do have a healthy dose of self-love in my life, now that I recognize the
G-dliness within myself, I'm free to enjoy--but not cling to--positive connections with other people.

Recovery is all about learning, and some lessons I learned the hard way.  There were relationships of mine that suffered in large part because of how I approached them.  But, although there was a time when I truly hated myself for "ruining" those connections, I don't feel that way anymore.  Was it unfortunate?  Absolutely.  Was it the best I could do at the time, with what I had?  Yes.  And, going through this evolution of how I approach relationships has made me more able than ever to tune in to myself and assess how I am contributing to a connection:  too much, to little, or just right?  It's not a perfect science and sometimes there are adjustments to be made...but, I also know that I'm not in danger anymore of reverting to my old imbalanced system.

Recovery is a tough journey, and I wish that all of us have friends to walk it with us.  I hope that we can all achieve a genuine degree of self-love and self-worth that will make those connections possible!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Get Out of the Rut

Although Shavuot technically is one of the major Jewish festivals, it's not a holiday that I grew up hearing a lot about.  Probably this is because, aside from staying up all night learning and eating ice cream (yay!), Shavuot doesn't require much in the way of ritual.  There is no frantic house-cleaning, no fasting, no costumes, no traditional gift-giving.  And yet, Shavuot has become one of my favorite holidays as an adult.  What it lacks in typical markers of festivity, it makes up for in themes:  Shavuot is a time for recommitment and rejuvenation, for getting ourselves out of whatever spiritual ruts in which we've found ourselves.

Perhaps I find it particularly meaningful because my Hebrew birthday is Sivan 4, just two days before Shavuot begins.  I'm not really sure what one is technically supposed to do on one's Hebrew birthday, but I like to use this time to do a sort of spiritual self-assessment--a re-clarification of priorities, an acknowledgement of progress, and a rededication of effort in areas that are still lacking.  This dovetails beautifully with the themes of Shavuot...and also, I've realized lately, of recovery.

When the Jews received the Torah at Sinai, it was a MAJOR monumental that it would have been impossible to sustain that level of intensity for the thousands of years that were yet to come.  How were the Jewish people supposed to remain energized once the excitement and novelty of receiving the Torah wore off?  The answer is Shavuot:  our annual acknowledgement of reaccepting Torah and of figuring out what that means to us, in this moment.  In this way, the process of receiving Torah becomes actively ongoing and our relationship with Torah--and with Hashem--remains dynamic and exciting.  Shavuot gives us an opportunity to reestablish the basics as well as to add layers to our practice so that it reflects our continuing growth.

Recovery works in much the same way.  That initial commitment to recovery is exciting, but let's be honest--miles down that path, it's easy to get stuck in a rut.  These are the times when we might not be regressing, but we're also not progressing--we're just sort of hanging out, not feeling particularly energized.  This is when it's helpful to reassess our personal definitions of progress in recovery.  What we once considered a monumental leap forward might be old hat by now, and we might need to set a new goal as a way to keep the process from getting stale.  Personally, I believe that "full recovery" is not a fixed point, but an evolving state of being, as what we need to feel satisfied and nourished by life is bound to change with time.  Similarly, no one is ever "done" accepting Torah--it is a process that needs to be revisited year after year, with new goals and fresh energy.

This year on Shavuot I invite all of us to (gently) reassess ourselves:  Where are we Jewishly, and where are we in recovery?  How can we reinvigorate ourselves and move forward?  I hope that all of us can find ways to recommit ourselves to our processes and to grow in directions that we find fulfilling.