Thursday, November 21, 2013

Spin Your Turkey Dreidel!

In case you haven't heard, two great holidays--Thanksgiving and Chanukah--are about to make an unlikely convergence.  The resulting, "Thanksgivukkah," has become quite a craze, producing hybrid treats such as butternut squash sweet potato latkes, and even inspiring Conan O'Brien to get in on the action with the Turkey Dreidel.  Personally, I feel like these two holidays are meant to be together--how else can you explain that the biblical Hebrew word for "give thanks," hodu (הודו), is ALSO the modern Hebrew word for, "turkey"?  Coincidence?  I think not.

The truth is that Thanksgiving and Chanukah also have some thematic similarities, chief among them being the shared emphasis on freedom, particularly cultural and religious freedom.  Most of the original "Pilgrims" came to the New World because they were unhappy with the Church of England's inflexible, dictatorial style.  In England, attendance at Anglican churches was mandatory and people didn't feel that it was safe to practice their religion openly in any other way.  Similarly, the Maccabees of the Chanukah story rebelled against the Greeks' attempts to forcibly Hellenize the Jewish people in the Holy Land.  Hellenic culture emphasized idol worship and focused on physical beauty--concepts that were deeply at odds with traditional Jewish values of monotheism and spiritual connection to Torah.

I find the common theme of freedom fascinating, particularly the Jewish resistance against a culture of materialism.  Recently I have been feeling quite frustrated with the cultural world I inhabit--it seems that I can't go anywhere without seeing or hearing something related to dieting, weight loss, exercise, or physical appearance.  Between television, radio, magazine covers, social media, and conversations overheard in just about any venue imaginable, there is no shortage of evidence that we live in a food-, body-, and weight-obsessed culture.

Recovering from an eating disorder while living in such an environment can be a maddeningly frustrating experience.  A clinician I know explains it this way:  "A person recovering from an eating disorder is recovering into a very disturbed world."  To recover means to land above and beyond where the vast majority of people are in terms of food and body.  Although it can be satisfying to have such an evolved perspective, it also can be challenging.  It's hard to feel forced out of all the bonding that happens over discussions about exercise routines, and it can be daunting to try to practice "normal eating" when you are surrounded by people eating diet foods.  Even though I know I should be proud of myself for doing what is healthy and supportive of a life in recovery, I sometimes experience shame around not complying with the prevailing cultural expectations.  In those moments when I feel like I will scream if one more person comments on how she supposes she can afford to eat dessert because she worked out that morning, I have to dig deep and remind myself that I actually don't want to fit into that cultural norm--I've worked too hard to raise myself above it.

It is hard to swim alone against the tide.  The Pilgrims and Maccabees knew this, which is why they each formed groups in order to defend and preserve their true values.  Similarly, we need to surround ourselves with other people who can reinforce our commitment to a life free of the food-and-body obsession.  This Thanksgivukkah season, I wish all of us the courage of our ancestors to keep our eyes and hearts trained on what is truly important and beautiful in this world.

Monday, November 11, 2013

"Hashem is in this place..."

I think my favorite thing about Bereishit is the richness of the narratives.  Our Matriarchs and Patriarchs, complex and dynamic figures all, have so much to teach us about the human experience that I really do feel like I learn something new from them every year.

The parashiot of last week (Vayeitzei) and this week (Vayishlach) each center around Jacob as he experiences two of the defining moments of his life.  I recently read an insightful article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that explores why Jacob--and not Abraham, Isaac, or Moses--is considered the true father of the Jewish people.  After all, we call ourselves "Am Yisrael"--the children of Israel (Jacob).  What is it about Jacob that earns him this status?  Chief Rabbi Sacks argues that it is Jacob's resiliency, his ability to flourish in the wake of struggle, that makes him the ultimate leader of the Jewish people.

In last week's parasha, Jacob runs from Esau's anger and goes to sleep outdoors with his head on a pile of stones.  While asleep, Jacob has one of his major spiritual epiphanies:  he dreams of G-d's angels going up and down a ladder reaching from the ground up to heaven.  When he wakes, he utters one of my favorite lines in the entire Torah:
"Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know!" (Bereishit 28:16)
I connect deeply with the idea that Hashem truly is everywhere, even the most seemingly ordinary of places--if we don't see or feel Him, it's because we fail to notice, not because He's not there.  Chief Rabbi Sacks takes this a step further and points out that not only did Jacob find Hashem in the middle of an otherwise obscure field, but also this happened at a moment of intense personal vulnerability for Jacob.  Similarly, in this week's parasha, Jacob flees from Laban and is heading home to meet Esau (who he presumes is still angry with him), when, once again, he finds himself alone in the middle of the night.  Suddenly, an angel appears and wrestles with Jacob until daybreak, at which point he gives Jacob his new name:  Israel, "...for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome" (Bereishit 32:29).  Just as in Vayeitzei, Jacob descends to a place of true vulnerability only to emerge stronger than he was before.  Explains Rabbi Sacks:

"These are the decisive spiritual encounters of Jacob's life, yet they happen in liminal space (the space that is neither starting point nor destination), at a time when Jacob was at risk in both directions, where he came from and where he was going to.  Yet it was at these points of maximal vulnerability that he encountered G-d and found the courage to continue despite all the hazards of the journey.

That is the strength Jacob bequeathed the Jewish people."

From Jacob, we learn that G-d is present not only in our moments of glory; rather, He can be found even when we are struggling and are unsure in which direction to turn.  If we are open to seeing Him, we can find Hashem even in our lowest, loneliest moments, and from those encounters we can gain the strength to move forward.  

The "liminal space" of recovery is a scary place to be.  It's a space in which we can no longer retreat into the obliviousness of the eating disorder, but we've also not yet reached secure footing on the other side.  When I was in the thick of that space, there were times when I felt profoundly weakened, frightened, and alone.  And yet...Hashem was there.

He was there in the constant, enveloping love of my family and the close friends who stuck by me the entire time.  He was there in the new friendships that sprang up during treatment and gave me the day-to-day encouragement and understanding I needed.  I found Hashem in my mentors, my clinicians, and others who challenged me and guided me along my path.  Hashem was in the natural world that always managed to ground and soothe me, no matter how distressed I was.  And the result was that I emerged from that vulnerable space, open for connections, more in touch with myself, and feeling a bit braver than I had been before.    Was I automatically "cured"? No.  But I knew that I was stronger for having gone through that struggle, and that I had within me the energy needed to keep going on the journey.  

Of Jacob, Chief Rabbi Sacks writes:

"He said to Pharaoh, 'Few and hard have been the years of my life' (Genesis 47:9).  Yet on the way he "encountered" angels, and whether they were wrestling with him or climbing the ladder to heaven, they lit the night with the aura of transcendence."  

May we all be open to the presence of Hashem in the darkness, and may we emerge from that place more whole than we were when we went in.