Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sing Your Inner Song

This past Shabbat was Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat on which we commemorate the miracle of Hashem splitting the sea and of the Israelites crossing through it, on dry land, to freedom.  Central to parashat Beshalach is שירת הים, The Song of the Sea.

This week I learned that there are differing views as to when the Israelites sang the Song.  At the end of the Song comes Shemot 15:19, which reads:

"When Pharoah's cavalry came with his chariots and horsemen into the sea and Hashem turned back the waters of the sea upon them, the Children of Israel walked on the dry land amid the sea."

According to Ibn Ezra, this verse is part of the Song; the crossing of the Israelites is included in the list of miracles that Hashem performed for the Israelites.  However, other commentators (including Ramban and Sforno) offer a different view.  They hold that this verse came after the Song, and therefore the Jews sang the Song while they were still in the process of crossing the sea.  I can see the validity of both positions, but personally I prefer the latter.  The idea that after all their years of slavery--years in which their bodies and spirits were pushed to the breaking point, years in which they nearly lost all hope--the Israelites still had within them the power of song, strikes me as poignant and powerfully moving.  Despite all their anxiety and fear, the Jews recognized that they were on a journey of liberation, and so they celebrated even before their passage was complete.  From this we can learn a valuable example of how to keep our inner song alive through difficult times, and how to emerge from periods of personal darkness with our voices strong.

Personally, I found that the darkness of my eating disorder was accompanied by silence--both external and internal.  Not only could I no longer hear my own song, but I also had lost the ability to express myself in any way other than monotone.  Singing (or at least singing well) requires emotions and a sense of connectivity to the present moment and the world at large.  Recovery is about reopening those channels of connection and reawakening emotions from the eating disorder-induced state of dormancy. I know that I often found this process a bit overwhelming, and it was frightening to get back in touch with the power of my own song (who was I to try to add my voice to this world?!)...but what I discovered is that my song had never really gone away--I just had to release the "mute" button.  I find that to be both comforting and remarkable...the idea that despite everything, my heart never forgot the words to its own song and was just waiting to be allowed to sing once more.

Just as the Israelites did not wait to finish crossing the sea before they began singing, neither should any of us believe that we must be "done" with recovery before we can begin to use our own voices.  What merits celebration is not only the finish line, but also the journey--the willingness to take step after step in faith toward a fuller, more authentic life.

One of my favorite poets is Mary Oliver, who explores this theme of the resilience of the inner song in several of her poems in the collection, Red Bird.  I'm including here one that I particularly love...I hope it resonates with some of you, as well!

I will try

I will try.
I will step from the house to see what I see
and hear and I will praise it.
I did not come into this world
to be comforted.
I came, like red bird, to sing.
But I'm not red bird, with his head-mop of flame
and the red triangle of his mouth
full of tongue and whistles,
but a woman whose love has vanished,
who thinks now, too much, of roots
and the dark places
where everything is simply holding on.
But this too, I believe, is a place
where God is keeping watch
until we rise, and step forth again and--
but wait.  Be still.  Listen!
Is it red bird?  Or something
inside myself, singing?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Out of the Straits...

I'll be honest:  I'm not much of a psalms person.  As much as I enjoy davening, I just haven't really gotten into the whole tehillim routine.  Saying tehillim is on my list of things I "should" do, but don't yet feel any deep emotional motivation to actually put into practice.  That said, this past Shabbat was Rosh Chodesh Shevat, and when the congregation began reciting Hallel on Saturday morning, I found myself actually reading some of the psalms...and wouldn't you know...

...something grabbed me.

That "something" is from the opening to Psalm 118:

.מן המצר קראתי יה, ענני במרחב יה
From the straits did I call upon Hashem; Hashem answered me with expansiveness.

The commentary in my siddur explains that this psalm reflects gratitude and confidence.  Just as Hashem lifted King David out of his personal struggles and into glory, so too can we hope to be brought out of our own narrow places and into a freer, more radiant existence.

The idea of being liberated from confinement and released into the openness of the world resonates with me deeply (especially as I also think of this week's parasha, Bo, and the developing story of the Exodus).  I remember well the feeling of being stuck in a narrow, compressed existence, one with limited vision, little hope, and seemingly no good options.  From within that place, although I felt that I had no faith left, my spirit called out to Hashem...and He did answer me.  He placed supportive people into my life and gave me the determination to use the help I received; He brought hope back into my heart, and He gave me the courage to take one step at a time until I was able to exit the cramped world of anorexia and reenter life.

There was a time when the expansiveness of life scared me.  The world was too fast, too loud, too overwhelming.  So, I built myself a tiny fortress and closed myself off from the challenges--and joys--of navigating the wider world.  The problem was that after a while, the fortress ceased to be satisfying...but because it was so sturdily constructed, I couldn't get myself out of it.  Once my desire for freedom became genuine, Hashem helped me return to the very openness I had once shunned.

I remember attending a panel of recovery speakers several years ago, back when I was first entering the final push of my own recovery.  One of the women compared her eating disorder to, "a train to nowhere"...and recovery, she said, was the "train to everywhere."  She could stop the train wherever she wanted, get off and explore, then resume the ride.  If she wanted to truly experience life, that train was the only one that would get her anywhere worth going.  I found this analogy so powerful that when I got home from the panel, I made a drawing of my own "train to everywhere" and hung it on my bulletin board, where it still sits to this day.  When I feel myself start to get scared to take risks or to stop myself from growing, the "train to everywhere" reminds me of what this whole process is about:  having the freedom to take my life in whatever direction I want, and being able to breathe deeply and fill my lungs with the fresh, open air of life.

Sometimes I think back to the years I spent in my fortress and remember how for so long I found its narrowness comforting and familiar.  But, although the real world can be surprising and challenging at times, I continue to be grateful for being able to experience the breadth and depth of life.  My wish for you is that you also find the courage to venture out into the open.  The expanse can seem overwhelming, but it is also full of brightness and beauty.  Give yourself permission to take from, and contribute to, the abundant world that Hashem created.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fire and Ice

In this week's parasha, Va'eira, Hashem begins inflicting the Ten Plagues on the Egyptians.  The seventh plague is hail--a tremendous hailstorm descends on Egypt, raining down icy precipitation that destroys all the plant life and also causes significant damage to the animals and humans.  But, this is hail with a twist:  deep inside every hailstone is a burning flame of fire.

Finding this to be a curious detail, I searched for an explanation.  I learned that the Zohar teaches that while the plagues were indeed intended to punish Pharoah and the Egyptians, they also served to teach the Israelites important lessons about spiritual growth.  The ice and fire in the hail symbolize two different personalities that reside within each individual.  Hail represents an "icy" personality, someone who is cold toward others and appears unable to love, connect, or be passionate about anything.  In contrast, the fire represents the spark of positive energy with a person--that which allows an individual to feel compassion, empathy, and enthusiasm for life.  Although each person carries that spark within, sometimes it is hidden underneath an icy veneer.  However, if the flame burns hot enough, it can melt the ice and burn freely.

To me, this sounds a lot like the dichotomy between who a person becomes when she or he has an eating disorder, and who that person actually is.  Although I was never what one would call "bubbly," growing up I definitely had a sparkle to my personality.  I had a sense of humor; I was affectionate; I was contagiously enthusiastic about my various passions.  When I fell into anorexia, all of that disappeared behind a wall of impenetrable ice.  I stopped valuing my relationships and prioritized my food and exercise obsessions above everything else.  I had very little to talk about with other people; I lost interest in nearly everything.  I felt as though I was wrapped inside my own narrow world, frozen off from the seemingly carefree existence that other people enjoyed.  In some ways, I craved the ice--the world was too big, too chaotic, and too loud; I longed for smallness, simplicity, and quiet.  Simply put, ice was safer than fire--easier to contain, and less likely to harm.

But, there was always a flame inside me, and my early recovery was nurtured by the people who were determined still to see it.  Even if I had forgotten who I was, people who loved me had not...and they found gentle yet powerful ways to remind me of the spirited person I once had been.  As I continued on my path, I discovered new ways to cultivate my spark:  teaching, hiking, writing, and learning are among the many activities that keep me passionate and connected.  I now have energy to feel love toward other people, and I'm aware that this is a beautifully self-perpetuating cycle:  my inner flame allows me to demonstrate love and care toward others, and the authentic relationships that form as a result are what stoke my fire and keep my energy burning.

So, my message here is two-fold...

To parents, partners, friends, and loved ones of a person with an eating disorder:  remember that the individual who is struggling is still who she or he was before the illness took hold.  Even if this person seems devoid of energy, passion, and motivation; even if she or he seems impossible to reach, remind yourself that buried under that ice is the person you love.  Find a way to see the spark within your loved one, and nurture it as best as you can, until the person once again can recognize her or his own inner fire.

To the person struggling with an eating disorder:  I know life feels dark, cold, and often hopeless.  But, remember that your illness is not who you are.  It might feel like it has taken over, but you are more resilient than you think.  After all, Hashem breathed your soul into you, so you have a piece of the Divine within.  That's a flame that will never burn out!  Trust the people around you who try to show you your spark--they know what they're talking about.  Dig deep and find that flame...and slowly but surely, it will melt the ice and bring you back to life.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On Being Authentic

Happy 2013!  This past week I savored a much-needed school vacation and was fortunate to spend it in the company of good friends.  I had many conversations with a wide variety of individuals, some familiar friends and others whom I had just met...and a persistent theme kept recurring: authenticity.  Despite our differences, what we were all talking about was our desire to honestly represent ourselves, to be seen for who we truly are.  Some of us are in situations in which that's relatively simple; for others it is much more challenging.  However, we all identified with the struggle of trying to remake ourselves in the image of others and how, at a certain point, self-respect wins the day and we no longer have the patience to be anything other than what we are.

Not surprisingly, this is a major theme of my personal journey through recovery.  In the early stages, my mantra was, I will be whoever you want me to be.  I actually remember telling my therapist that if other people would only just tell me what they wanted from me, I'd gladly do it, as long as they'd then be my friends. (Needless to say, any "friendships" I made via that strategy never lasted very long!)  It took a lot of time and energy in therapy before I began to really understand myself and what my values, strengths, and passions were.  At some point, I changed my mantra to, "This is who I am...if that's okay with you."  I was willing to represent myself honestly, but only if I felt sure that the other people involved wouldn't have a problem with the way that I was.  I had a sense of self, sure, but it definitely wasn't worth getting into a conflict--if I sensed any disapproval, I reverted back to my former stance of pretending to be the person I thought others wanted.  It wasn't until relatively recently, in the late stages of recovery, that I've finally begun saying, "This is who I am"--with no qualifiers attached.  To be sure, I'm still self-protective and don't go looking for confrontations--if I feel pretty confident that who I am will not be well received by someone, that's probably someone I'll avoid hanging out with.  But, I'm no longer willing to lie about myself, either.  Speaking my truth has become an aspect of my self-respect.  I believe I am worthy of being seen--and respected--for who I actually am.  I recognize that not everyone will respect me for who I am, but that doesn't mean I need to change fundamental aspects of myself.  I am fine the way I am...and although some people won't appreciate that, enough people will.

So, what does Judaism say about this?  Interestingly, I recently read a commentary on this week's parasha, Shemot, in which Rabbi Zelig Pliskin attributes the Israelites' enslavement in Egypt at least in part to their own lack of self-respect.  He cites Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz as saying that once the "important" generation of Israelites (Joseph and his brothers) died out, the Jewish people lost a sense of themselves as a people worthy of respect.  Once this happened, the Egyptians had no problem subjugating them and making them into slaves.  What I take from this is that when we cease honoring ourselves, we permit other people to cease honoring us.  When we stop saying, "This is who I am", we allow other people to make us into whatever they want us to be...and this certainly is a form of enslavement.

Truth and honesty are Jewish values.  When we are honest about who we are, we elevate our own integrity.  If we misrepresent ourselves, we give other people a reason to question our truthfulness in general.  I would also argue that because each of us was made b'tzelem Elohim--in Hashem's image--we have a responsibility to live honestly as He created us.  We are who we are for a reason, and when we honor ourselves by being authentic, we add a needed spark to the world.

In closing, I'll offer the words of Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, who wrote the following based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

What is your job in this world?  It is to become truth.
How do you become truth?  By not lying to yourself.  
It is not that you must do whatever you do with sincerity.
Sincerity itself is the work you must do.
It is what you must become.

Wishing us all a sincere, authentic start to 2013!