Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Challenge of Freedom

Yesterday my good friend and chevruta introduced me to my new favorite haggadah:  A Night To Remember by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion.  It has the full traditional text accompanied by contemporary insights, spectacularly clever artwork, and commentary from a wide range of contributors (Rav Soloveitchik, Aviva Zornberg, Yehuda Amichai, and Amos Oz to name but a few).  I loved it so much that this morning I had to rush out and get my own copy.  If you've never been to the haggadah section of a Jewish bookstore on the day before Erev Pesach, put it on your to-do list for next year.

In a section discussing the meaning of freedom, the haggadah quotes 20th century French author Andre Gide:

"To be liberated--that is easy.  To be a free person--that is very hard."

I think this is a critical yet often unspoken aspect of freedom:  the challenge of maintaining it after it has been won.  In fact, the responsibilities of living as a free human being can be so daunting that sometimes people find themselves missing the predictability and security of slavery.  The ancient Israelites certainly experienced this--not even two months into their liberation from Egypt, the Jews began to whine about their new living conditions.  What would they eat?  Where would the food come from?  Oh, if only they had stayed in Egypt where they had their fill of meat and bread!  But, the Jews weren't being simply ungrateful complainers.  Rather, they were experiencing the fear that comes from understanding the responsibility of being self-sufficient.  When they were slaves, the Jews didn't have to worry about their own upkeep--they ate what was given to them and had their basic needs met by their masters.  Once the novelty of freedom wore off, the Jews woke up to the knowledge that life was no longer predictable and security could no longer be counted on.  Crossing the sea was a scary but finite event; in contrast, freedom stretched before them as a continuous stretch of fending for themselves.  Through those infamous rose-colored glasses, the Jews forgot about the backbreaking labor and crushing oppression that had been their lot as slaves, and saw only one thing:  the comfort of a lifestyle that had been familiar to them.

Andre Gide's quote resonates for me personally as well.  I remember that when I first went into intensive treatment for my eating disorder, I felt relieved that I would no longer be allowed to be a slave to my anorexia.  I was scared, of course, but I was also exhausted and tired of having every day be a battle between my mind and body.  Treatment provided me with a kind of scaffolded freedom--it taught me how to make more liberated choices around food and exercise but also provided me with a supportive framework in which to practice those skills.  A nutritionist watched over my meal plan, a staff of therapists and counselors tended to my emotional needs, and my case manager handled most of the major decisions around my treatment.  I had my hands full just trying to assimilate all the new knowledge and emotions, but I definitely didn't have any big "life responsibilities" during that time.

When I left treatment and began to live as a "free person," all of that changed.  I still had the skills that I learned in the program, but now I was fully responsible for using them.  I had an outpatient team that coached me along, but the major legwork was on me:  the responsibilities of shopping for food, following my meal plan, monitoring my own exercise, and providing my own in-the-moment distress tolerance fell squarely on my shoulders.  It was very, very hard.  There were many times when I wished I could go back to treatment...not because I wanted to be sick again, but because I just wanted to be taken care of.  Never mind that intensive treatment had been hard in a completely different way; when I was newly into "independent recovery" all I could remember was that it had been safe and secure.  Learning to take ownership of my own life of freedom from my eating disorder was a challenging yet critical step in my process of attaining recovery.

Years later, I still have all the "real world" obligations that come with living an adult life:  I have a full-time job, pay my own bills, and cook and clean for myself.  I am responsible for continuing to make recovery-oriented choices and for keeping myself physically and emotionally healthy.  There are times of overwhelm, but really, these "burdens" don't seem unbearable anymore--they just feel like life.  Recovered life.  And, although they bring their share of stress, these responsibilities also bring me lots of joy and a sense of accomplishment.  I remember what it felt like to be enslaved to an eating disorder, and I am proud that I now have what it takes to sustain my own recovery.

This Pesach, I hope we can all validate for ourselves that freedom is hard, and it is normal to miss the familiarity and security of whatever oppression we've left behind.  But, I hope we can also remind ourselves that what freedom brings is infinitely more gratifying than anything we could expect in slavery.  Remember--the Jews didn't go back to Egypt.  They trusted Hashem, they persevered, and they became a stronger people because of it.  If our ancestors could do it, we can do it, too.

חג כשר ושמח!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Small Yet Mighty!

The past two weeks have been unusually trying ones, headlined by a major crisis at work and filled in with the more-mundane-yet-still-stressful demands of my professional and personal lives.  I've had to pull out all my tricks in the name of maintaining some semblance of emotional equilibrium, and what I've discovered is that learning Torah makes for some great distress tolerance.  Text study exercises my intellectual powers and allows me to shelve my feelings for a bit, permitting me to operate in a realm that is dominated by the analytical--not the emotional.  Over the past ten days, when I've needed to ground myself in something I've often found myself turning to my chumash.

If you like cubits and animal sacrifices, the past two weeks' worth of parshiot would be right up your alley.  Personally, I don't find either of those topics overly compelling, but this week in particular I found something in the parasha that grabbed me.  It's small (I like small things), it's mysterious (fun!)'s...

A little aleph.

Yep, a little aleph, right there at the end of the first word of the parasha:  vayikra. Why the tiny letter, in a text written painstakingly and precisely by hand?

The word, vayikra (ויקרא), can be translated as, "and He called" (as in, Hashem called to Moshe).  The Sages explain that the word, called, indicates a degree of closeness and affection that Hashem felt for Moshe.  Without the aleph, however, the word becomes, vayikar (ויקר), which means, "He happened upon."  Vayikar denotes a coincidental or accidental relationship, and in comparison with the implied meaning of vayikra, is indicative of an inferior connection.  It is also used to describe Hashem's interaction with Bilaam, the gentile prophet known for being haughty and indifferent to the power of Hashem in the world.  In contrast, Hashem calls to Moshe, a man who is the epitome of humility and sensitivity to the Divine presence.

That distinction seems to make solid sense...but why is the aleph at the end of vayikra so tiny?  The Sages teach that it is because Moshe was so humble that he didn't believe he deserved for Hashem to call to him; he thought the word, vayikar, was prestigious enough for him.  Hashem, on the other hand, wanted to express His affection and love for Moshe through the use of the word, vayikra.  Because Moshe was so uncomfortable with the idea that he merited that supreme honor, Hashem compromised with him and allowed Moshe to write vayikra with a little aleph.

What I take from this is that humility is an important virtue...but so is recognizing one's significance.  It's almost as if Hashem said to Moshe, "I know you think you're not special, but *I* know that you are.  I won't force you to publicly acknowledge that you are exemplary, but neither will I let you forget that you are precious in My eyes."

Jewish tradition makes it clear that Moshe Rabbenu was one of the greatest men our people has ever known; yet, this man with so many gifts was also plagued by self-doubt.  Part of what (I think) makes Moshe such an inspiring personality is that he was able to find balance between recognizing his uniquely prestigious role among the Jewish people, and believing that he was completely ordinary.  Moshe found a way to acknowledge and honor his value without letting it consume him or alienate him from other people or from Hashem.  This balance is what the little aleph symbolizes.

We all need the little aleph in our lives.  We need to believe that although we are not everything, we are something.  We might not be the most important person in the entire world, but we are uniquely created and loved by Hashem.  And, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that at times when we're not able to believe that we have value, Hashem will keep the little aleph handy as a way to call to us and remind us of our specialness and importance to this world.