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.