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.