Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Crossing the Threshold

Wow...it 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, virtualcantor.com!) 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!