Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Days of the Years

I find this week's parasha, Vayigash, to be one of the most moving in the Torah.  This is the parasha where Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and reunites with Benjamin; Jacob learns that his treasured son, Joseph, is still alive; Jacob and his sons make the journey down to Egypt; and there is a beautiful, tearful reunion between father and long-lost son.

One of my favorite moments is when Joseph presents Jacob, his elderly father, to Pharaoh.  It's clear that there is mutual respect between Pharaoh and Jacob, that each man recognizes the power within the other.  Pharaoh asks Jacob,
כמה ימי שני חייך
How many are the days of the years of your life? (Bereishit 47:8)

Many commentators note that it's a little odd for Pharaoh to inquire about the age of his visitor, and Rav Hirsch offers an interesting explanation.  He points out that Pharaoh distinguishes between days and years; he takes this to mean that Pharaoh recognizes that a person can live a long life while only truly making full use of a few of his days.  In other words, the years of one's life represent the sum total of time lived, while the days of one's life are only those times when one lives up to one's full potential.  Jacob, too, understands this subtle distinction.  He replies, 
מעט ורעים היו ימי שני חיי ולא השיגו את–ימי שני חיי אבתי בימי מגוריהם
Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns. (47:9)
When evaluating the qualitative nature of his life, Jacob feels that he has fallen short.  Compared to his forefathers, Jacob believes he has not truly lived his life to its greatest potential, and this pains him.

I find it humbling and somehow reassuring that Jacob, one of the great fathers of the Jewish people, judged himself so modestly and struggled with the feeling that he had not lived his life as well as he would have liked.  Personally, I spend a lot of time on the mental hamster wheel of, "Am I doing a good job with my life?"  There are a lot of factors:  Am I happy?  Am I making other people's lives better?  Do I express enough gratitude?  Do I spend enough time on worthy pursuits?  Am I stretching and challenging myself enough?  Inevitably, I will answer, "no," to at least one of those questions, thus sending myself into a spin of shame and fear that I am wasting time, that I am not using this life that I have as well as I could--should--be using it.  It is a very fine line between healthy self-evaluation and unproductive self-shaming, and I am the first to admit that I do not always walk it successfully.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently because my grandmother passed away on erev Chanukah this year, twelve days shy of her 101st birthday.  My Nana was, to use her own terminology, "a hot ticket."  She was an athlete; she got a college education when few women were doing so; she volunteered at causes that were important to her; she gave generously of her time and her money; she never lost touch with anyone.  At least in my mind, my Nana was someone who made full use of most of her days.  She lived a long life, and she lived it well.  In the days since her death, I've been thinking a lot about how, when I am ready to leave this world, I want to look back on my own life and believe that I used it as well as my Nana used hers.

Recovery is about putting the days back into the years.  When I was really struggling with my eating disorder, I spent years existing but didn't truly live even one of those days.  Now, I have the chance to live my life so that when I get to the end of my years, I'll be able to say that I lived the days well.  To be honest, sometimes it feels like a lot of pressure.  But it also feels like an incredible opportunity.  To keep it manageable, I need to start small--take it day by day, little by little.  Since we are about to begin a new calendar year, I encourage all of us to think about the concept of, "days and years," and try to infuse our days with more meaning.  As we enter 2015, I wish all of us a year of days well lived!    

Monday, December 8, 2014

Out of the Cave

Sometimes, you don't even realize how thirsty you are until you take that first sip of water, and suddenly it's like you can't get enough--you've been waiting for that water forever.  That's how I felt this past weekend when I attended a Limmud conference and had my first real Jewish learning experience since returning from Israel this past summer.  Returning to studying Jewish texts and history felt exciting, satisfying, and comforting--and the best part was that one of my amazing teachers from the Pardes Institute was there, so she and I got to learn together and enjoy some quality catch-up time.  Soul nourished, bucket filled.

During the last session, I went to my teacher's class on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a great sage who lived in the Tannaitic period (10-220 C.E.).  My teacher opened the class by describing Rabbi Shimon as someone who was "zealous and inflexible," but had to soften his positions a bit due to his life experiences.  Rabbi Shimon thought learning Torah was absolutely the most important pursuit a person could undertake--certainly more vital than farming, which one could argue was essential for survival.  He even prioritized Torah over saying the Shema--the Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot) cites the famous dispute among the sages regarding the appropriate time for saying Shema, and Rabbi Shimon asserts that if one is learning Torah, he should not stop even for the Shema.  Since one is required to say Shema twice a day within specific time windows, that's making a pretty bold statement.

Perhaps the most famous story about Rabbi Shimon is the one in which he hid in a cave with his son for twelve years to escape execution by the Romans.  A miraculous carob tree and water well appeared in the cave, providing Rabbi Shimon and his son with food and drink while they hid in the cave, day in and day out, studying Torah and praying.  When they finally emerged from the cave at the end of the twelve years, Rabbi Shimon was so distraught at the sight of people engaged in mundane daily activities (as opposed to learning Torah), that his eyes burned up everything he saw.  As punishment for destroying His world, Hashem banished Rabbi Shimon and his son back to the cave for an additional twelve months.  Upon exiting the cave for the second time, they saw a man running with two bundles of myrtle in his hands.  When they learned that the two bundles were in honor of Shabbat--one for shamor and one for zachor--Rabbi Shimon finally realized that the "simple people" who engaged in day-to-day living weren't forgetting G-d at all--in fact, they were sanctifying Him.

I couldn't begin to tease apart all there is to learn from this story, but one element that I love is how Rabbi Shimon in many ways epitomizes cognitive rigidity, but ultimately learns to adjust his worldview to allow for some gray in between the black and white.  Personally, I am no stranger to black-or-white thinking--it's something I still struggle with, particularly around topics that are emotionally charged.  When my eating disorder began during my freshman year in college, I had to eat dinner at 6:00 pm exactly, no matter what.  That was the Right Time, and any other time was the Wrong Time.  This meant that I often ate dinner alone, because most people vary their dinner times based on other activities or with whom they'd like to eat, but I could not be flexible.  If the choice was, eat with friends at 6:30 or eat alone at 6:00, I chose the latter every time.  I had rules for everything:  rules for eating, rules for exercising, rules for studying--and anyone who didn't follow the same rules was obviously doing it wrong.  In hindsight, I can see that my eating disordered response to "rule breaking" was similar to Rabbi Shimon's:  contempt, disapproval, anger, and fear.  That led to a lot of loss--I spoiled many relationships, lost opportunities for connection, and missed out on fun because I could not bring myself to be flexible.

My favorite part of the story of Rabbi Shimon is that when Hashem sent him and his son back into the cave as punishment, they understood that it was punitive and they wanted to come out, which was why their sentence was only twelve months long.  When they were allowed out, Rabbi Shimon was finally ready to be flexible.  He didn't throw his standards and priorities to the wind, but he was able to see the gray area in between the two extremes.  Reflecting on my own experiences, I see that when I was really "in" the rigidity of my eating disorder, I didn't even realize how stuck I was, nor was I ready to contemplate change.  But once I'd had my first taste of recovery, I no longer wanted to go back to that same level of inflexibility.  When I did slip back, I understood that it was a setback and I wanted to move forward.  That's how I learned to make room for the gray, little by little.

At the end of the class, my teacher left us with this lesson:  "Ultimately, you have to come out of the cave."  A life lived in rigidity and extremes is not compatible with the rest of the world, and if you want to be able to relate to other people, you have to be willing to let go, at least a little bit.  For me, recovery has been my process of "coming out of the cave," and I've found that it's beautiful out here in the world.  May we all be able to experience the pleasure of life lived in the gray zone!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


"Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection."
--Brené Brown

Every morning, my wake-up routine is the same:  1) Modeh Ani;  2) hand washing and netilat yadayim; 3) turn on the light (whimper); 4) make the bed; and, 5) wake up my iPhone to see if there are any breaking news headlines from Israel on my lock screen.  This past Tuesday, November 18, I groggily went through the motions like I do every day, until I got to step 5, at which point I saw the following: "Jerusalem synagogue attacked, four killed."

All day at work--before school, in between lessons, at snack time, at lunch--I scoured the Israeli news sites for the latest information on the terrorist attack in Jerusalem.  By the end of the day it was clear that along with four rabbis--Rabbi Moshe Twersky, Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Rabbi Calman Levine--a Druze police officer, Officer Zidan Saif, was also dead, having been killed in the line of duty by the two terrorists.  

I have spent all week trying to come up with something to write that would capture the heartbreak, grief, and fear that I, along with the Jewish community at large, felt in the wake of this horrific event. I've tried to think of something I could write that would be a fitting tribute to the men who were cut down while davening Shacharit, and to the brave police officer who died trying to stop the slaughter.  After five days of thinking, I've come up empty, not because there isn't anything to say but because I can't find the words.  Who am I, after all, to write in honor of men I've never met; who am I to try to put words to pain large enough to engulf an entire nation?

In the end, all I can do is write about my own little corner of the experience--what it's like for me, an American Jewish woman, to watch tragedy unfold in the nation I consider my second home.  I can think of many words for that, but the one that comes up the most is: vulnerability.  This is ironic, because vulnerability is something that historically I've tried to avoid at all costs.  Back when my maladaptive protective strategies were at their apex, I used to watch other people get smacked in the face by vulnerability and think, "Ha.  Suckers."  At the time, it never occurred to me that you can't shut out vulnerability without sacrificing connection.  It's no coincidence that I only fell in love with Israel, and got reconnected to Judaism, once I was in recovery--once I was ready to open myself to connection and the vulnerability that inevitably follows.

For me, loving Israel wholeheartedly is one giant exercise in vulnerability.  It is emotionally risky to be so invested in a place where terror could strike at any moment and where war is always potentially around the corner.  Caring deeply about people who live in such a place means that I send a lot of emails and text messages that begin with, "Are you okay?"  It means being willing to remain engaged with the land and its politics, even when those politics frustrate or disappoint me.  And, as Tuesday's attack reminds me, it means that being an openly observant Jew in a world that often does not like openly observant Jews or Israel, can be (sadly) an inherently vulnerable position in itself.  


Although the price is vulnerability and vulnerability is often uncomfortable, the reward is connection that is some of the sweetest I've ever felt.  Although I've never liked discomfort or uncertainty (who does?), I can't imagine disengaging if it would also mean severing my connections to a land and to communities that bring me so much joy and light. 

Brené Brown, vulnerability researcher extraordinaire, teaches that we are hardwired for connection; in fact, we can't live healthy lives without it--and, as a result, we also can't escape vulnerability.  For me, living a life in recovery means that I am both connected and vulnerable, for good and for bad.  Sometimes, like this past Tuesday, being connected means taking part in collective grief as your team suffers.  But even in times like that, it is worth being vulnerable to hurt if it means also feeling the sweetness of being part of a whole.  I am grateful every day that I am finally in a position to start leaning into vulnerability without shrinking away, and I wish for all of us the courage to remain open, even when there are fresh wounds.  Stay connected; don't disengage.  You need your team, and your team needs you!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Leaving with Wealth

I find going back to Sefer Bereishit to be quite satisfying--you just can't beat the narratives, and reuniting with some of the key figures in the collective history of the Jewish people is very sweet, indeed.  This week's parasha, Lech Lecha, has SO much packed into it that it's hard to know where to start.  In the spirit of finding something new with each read of the Torah, this week I'm going to explore an angle of Lech Lecha that I previously often passed by:  The Covenant Between the Parts.  In this covenant, Hashem promises Abraham that the Jewish people will inherit the Land of Israel, but first they will go through a painful period of exile and slavery.

"And He said to Abram, 'Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own--and they will serve them, and they will oppress them--four hundred years...and afterwards they will leave with great wealth." (Bereishit 15:13-14)

The Talmud teaches that the Jewish people were exiled and scattered throughout the world only so that converts might join them.  On one level, this could be referring to the many people throughout history who were born non-Jewish but chose to convert to Judaism.  But there is a Chassidic interpretation that I like even better:  that the "converts" are actually sparks of holiness that have been dispersed far and wide.  The idea is that every soul has its own sparks strewn about the world, and it is only by traveling through life--a journey that is often rocky--that one gathers up all of one's sparks.  All the struggles and challenges we face, which might feel like random bad luck, are actually given to us with the purpose of allowing us to extract from those experiences the sparks that complete our souls.

Developing an eating disorder is like going into exile from one's true self and entering a harsh world of isolation, desperation, and fear.  When one is in that state, it is difficult to imagine that anything good could come out of it.  "I'll be lucky to get out of this alive," you might think, "Forget about leaving with riches."  But, Chassidut teaches that perhaps the eating disorder isn't random bad luck, at all; rather, it is an experience given to a person in order to grant him or her sparks of insight and strength upon emerging from it.

Personally, I would not wish an eating disorder on anyone, but I also would not trade for anything the blessings I've gained in recovery.  Because I struggled with an eating disorder, I am more thoughtful, courageous, and resilient than I would have been had I not had that painful experience.  Recovery has given me the ability to go beyond the food and body obsessions that plague so much of the general population--I see that for what it is, and I'm not falling for it.  I am able to name my feelings and sit with them, rather than numbing myself with distraction after distraction.  Years of therapy have allowed me to understand myself and my own strengths and weaknesses much more clearly than I ever would have otherwise.  And, along the way I have connected with many special people--friends, mentors, and clinicians--who have brought much love, light, and truth to my life.  Was life in the eating disorder miserable?  For sure.  But I truly believe I have emerged with great wealth.

For all of us who are in exile in one form or another, I wish for us the ability to appreciate the riches we're accumulating as we go through our experiences.  Persevere through struggle, and gather your sparks--it's wealth you can't get any other way, and it's 100% worth it.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Challenge of Vows

Two three-day yom tovs down, one to go...Cheshvan is around the corner!

It's this time of year when the "religious/secular dichotomy" in my life feels most pronounced.  On the one hand, this is the marathon holiday season full of rituals and observances designed to mark sacred time.  On the other hand, I live and work in a completely secular environment that is not particularly attuned to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar.  In order to keep my head at least partly in the realm of the chaggim, I need to make an effort to find some outside inspiration.  As I've mentioned, this year's source has been the book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew.  I particularly connected with his chapter on Kol Nidre, and I've been wanting to write about it ever since Yom Kippur but haven't had time because of all the holidays!  Sigh.

While discussing the nature of vows and what happens when we inevitably make a vow that we are unable to keep, Lew cites parasha Mattot, which deals with a woman who makes a vow and then can't keep it because she is living under the control of a man (husband, father) who won't let her follow through.  When this happens, the Torah's stance is to forgive the woman for not keeping her vow.  Lew notes that the Torah pushes for the ideal situation in which one would always be free to keep one's vows.  However, as a historical document, the Torah came about in a time when women did not have that freedom, and the Torah recognized this and made an allowance for it.  The Torah doesn't compromise on its values, but it does leave room for people to operate in an imperfect system, with the idea being that over time, the values would win out and the system would change.

Lew then turns to the commentaries of the medieval Spanish kabbalist Ibn Gikatilla, who interprets this story on another level.  Gikatilla sees the woman in the above situation as not an actual woman, but as the neshama, or soul, inside each person.  The domineering man who won't let the woman keep her vow is not actually a man, but the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.  In other words, the neshama is the Divine spark inside each of us that represents the will of Hashem, and the yetzer hara is the negative impulse we have that often leads us to act counter to that will.  Our innermost voice, the voice of our core, always comes from the neshama, from Hashem.  However, because we live in a world full of stimuli that bring out our negative impulses and dysfunctional behaviors, we often can't follow through on what we know we should do.

Gikatilla says that in such a case, we are not to be blamed, for we are just like the woman who can't fulfill a vow because she is overpowered by someone else.  We don't need to be punished (or punish ourselves), because in that moment there may be nothing we can do about it.  However, Gikatilla continues, what we can do is build up the neshama so it can become strong enough to resist the yetzer hara.  How do we do this?  There are many options:  prayer, meditation, performing acts of kindness--whatever keeps us aligned with our core.  If we do enough of those things, our neshamas will be strong enough to resist negative impulses and we will be able to act in alignment with our souls and with Hashem.

This perspective resonates with me deeply because it offers another paradigm through which to view the inevitable "slips" in recovery.  Speaking from personal experience, I can say that on my long journey through recovery there have been many, many bumps in the road, many times when I've known the right thing to do but haven't done it.  Every time that happened, I would be frustrated and angry with myself and would try to discipline myself through negative self-talk.  I would also worry that Hashem was disappointed in me because I had failed, yet again, to stay the course of recovery.  Needless to say, all that self-castigating and worrying helped not a whit; it felt "right" because I believed I deserved it, but it never helped me make different choices in the future.  I know many, many people in various stages of recovery who, from time to time, act out of sync with their recovery core values, and not one of them would say that self-punishment brought them lasting positive change.  Instead, a more productive approach would be Gikatilla's:  recognize that we are not to blame because in the moment we are overpowered; but at the same time, actively work to strengthen ourselves so that in the future we will be able to resist negative influences.  Personally, I find this a much more compassionate and empowering operating system than the endless cycle of, "try, fail, frustrate."

So, in this new year, wherever we are in our journeys, let's all work to strengthen our neshamas so that we can withstand the negative forces in our lives, in whatever form they come, so that we can live true to our vows and our commitments to a positive life.

Chag sameach and shana tovah umetukah!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The hand that blocks the sun

I can't express how grateful I am to the Jewish calendar that the High Holidays this year are not in the first week of school.  Instead, I've had a full three weeks to get back into the flow of teaching and have been able to keep holiday prep on the back burner.  Not anymore!  This week we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, then embark on the Ten Days of Awe, and proceed from there directly to Yom Kippur.  If you have a high level of spiritual discipline, you've probably spent the entire month of Elul engaged in self-reflection in preparation for these days.  If you're more like me, you've squeezed it in here and there and only now are realizing, "Oh...that's happening."  In the words of my new favorite High Holiday literary companion, "This is real and you are completely unprepared."

But, all is not lost.  Yesterday I was fortunate to attend a Shabbat afternoon shiur given by a local Jewish scholar and expert on Rav Kook.  I have mentioned my attraction to the teachings of Rav Kook several times on this blog, particularly in regards to teshuvah, a common theme at this time of year.  The speaker brought a number of inspiring sources; I will share one with you here.  (Rav Kook's language is a bit dense and philosophical, but hang in there.)

"Sin blackens the illumination of the higher wisdom that is manifest when the soul is in edifying harmony with all existence and its divine source...Every sinful act disrupts this ideal unity and places the orbit of life outside it.  The illumination that flows like a clear spring will not resume its influence on the will that has been profaned unless the person will turn back and be remorseful.  Then will the light of teshuvah, to the degree of its clarity in perception and depth of acceptance, restore the original harmony.  O return to me the joy of your deliverance, and a generous spirit sustain me (Ps. 51:14)" (Orot Ha-Teshuvah 9:6)

I love this passage as is, but what really resonated with me was the way the speaker boiled it down:  "Sin is the hand that blocks the sun."

It is our natural state to be in the sun--Rav Kook's "illumination of the higher Wisdom."  When we act in ways that are destructive or unhealthy, we block out the sun and put ourselves in darkness.  I'm not comfortable using the word, "sin," to define eating disorders, but the behaviors that go along with eating disorders are certainly destructive and unhealthy.  If one's natural state is to live in the light of a life free from an eating disorder, then engaging in behaviors definitely shuts out that light.

But, here's the thing:  sometimes, the sun feels threatening.  It hurts the eyes, and too much exposure can burn the skin.  When there is no shade, the sun can overwhelm us...and sometimes it feels like "real life" in recovery can, too.  The world of an eating disorder is narrow, focused, and controlled, with little room for outside stimuli.  A full, healthy life, on the other hand, has more noise, more speed, and more (perceived) dangers.  It's not surprising, then, that when venturing into that healthy life, one might be tempted to put up her hand to block the sun.  The trick is to invest in healthy sun protection, like sunglasses and a beach umbrella, rather than seal oneself into a dark, windowless room.  The recovery versions of shades and an umbrella might be forms of "quiet time," such as taking a nature walk or reading a book, or methods of preventing "stimulus overload," such as committing oneself to a limited number of social events--especially those involving food--per month, instead of feeling pressure to attend everything.  In recovery, you learn that it's possible to get temporary relief from the sun without having to block it out entirely...and you can get right back to enjoying its rays as soon as you're ready.

As we prepare to enter the Yamim Noraim, I wish for all of us to live in the light of the sun, as we are meant to do...and when we need a break, to choose a healthy one.  Don't block the sun entirely; just grab a pair of shades and get back into the world.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Breaking Down the Walls

It seems I have, once again, been shirking my posting duties.  It's a transitional time of year, which is SO not my thing, and I've spent the past few weeks both reacclimatizing to my life in the States, and preparing my classroom for a new crop of eight-year-olds who are scheduled to arrive tomorrow (yikes!).  Blog entries require a certain degree of contemplative thought, and the truth is that lately I just haven't had it in me.  But I have been reading a fabulous book called, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared by Alan Lew (come on--how awesome is that title?).  Meant to be read in the weeks between Tisha B'Av and Sukkot, the book takes the reader on a journey through teshuvah and the process of self-evaluation that this time of year requires.  

When writing about Tisha B'Av, Lew frequently uses the image of the walls of your house crumbling down around you, leaving you exposed and disoriented.  This alludes to the literal destruction of the walls of the Temple in Jerusalem, but also to the metaphorical walls we all have around our own lives--the routines and material items that protect us and allow us to ignore the true issues that lie beneath the surface.  The month of Elul is our opportunity to remember who we are, where we are, and where we are going.  Lew describes this as a journey of "self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution.  It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across this world:  the journey from Tisha B'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from birth to death and back to renewal again" (8-9).

I tend to be ambivalent about Elul; I love it conceptually but feel overwhelmed by it practically.  The idea of reflective self-assessment and teshuvah is beautiful, but actually doing it usually leads me to feel self-critical, frustrated, and sad.  Why?  Because no matter what improvements I've made over the year, inevitably there are still those few ways in which I have not changed or grown.  These stumbling blocks tend to be the same from year to year, and although every year I resolve to "do better," I don't follow through because doing so is just too hard.  Elul brings me face to face, once again, with the truth that if I want these things to change, then I have to change.  This is a problem because, as I've mentioned, I hate change.  So, you can see why this is a perpetual struggle.

Lew suggests that a critical first step in getting out of points of "stuckness" is acknowledging that we play an active role in keeping ourselves there.  He explains that, "spiritually, the only question worth asking about any conflict, any recurring catastrophe, is this:  What is my responsibility for it?  How am I complicit in it?  How can I prevent it from happening again?" (45)  In other words, I don't end up in the same struggle year after year because the world is against me.  I end up there because I allow myself to stay stuck.  So, I need to ask myself, "In what unproductive ways am I engaging in this conflict?  How could I do things differently in order to get out of it?"  Asking and answering these questions honestly requires that we allow our walls to come down, so that we can see what is truly underneath.

This isn't easy, but personally I think it's worth trying.  When I'm old, I don't want to look back on my life and see pockets of aborted growth and missed opportunities in places where I chose inertia over action.  While this approach to Elul and the High Holy Days will require a lot of effort, I think my life deserves that investment of time and energy.  We all deserve to give that gift of growth to ourselves.

Here are some key questions from Alan Lew to get us started:

"Where are we?  
What transition point are we standing at?  
What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance?  Where is our suffering?  
What is making us feel bad? 
What is making us feel at all?
How long will we keep the walls up?
How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?"

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gardening in Exile

I've been back from Israel for four days, and by now I've had a chance to savor those quintessentially American experiences that I just can't get across the pond:  iced coffee from Starbucks, listening to Pandora radio on my iPhone, waiting in orderly lines, and hugging Mom and Dad.  Also, my body more or less knows what time it is now, which is an added bonus.  But I'll be honest--it's tough to get reacclimatized, as it is every year at this time.  I see in myself all the symptoms of readjustment:  getting teary-eyed at random moments when a loved one in Israel pops into my mind; scouring Israeli online news sources and struggling with feeling 7 hours behind the ball; checking Facebook over and over again, hoping to connect with one of my Israeli friends and feeling at loose ends when it doesn't happen.

I know this feeling:  it's hunger.  Hunger for Israel itself, and for the feelings of connectedness and nourishment I experience there.  And as anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder can tell you, there are few sensations worse than hunger.  It is persistent and pervasive, taking over any crevice of the mind not actively occupied by something else.  When I check Facebook and Google Chat every five minutes with a sense of growing yearning bubbling up inside, I am reminded of the countless times I forced myself to sit through physical hunger as I watched the clock tick toward Time to Eat, thinking, "Is it time to eat yet?  Is it time to eat yet?"  Then, the beeline toward food, the careful rationing, and the speedy consumption, followed by a period of borderline calm paired with the understanding that I was actually still hungry, and in a few hours the whole cycle will repeat itself again.  That's hunger, and even when it's emotional and not physical, the pangs are just as sharp.

My return date from Israel this year seemed particularly apropos, since I arrived back Stateside on Erev Tisha B'Av.  Tisha B'Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, a time when we mourn the losses of both the First and Second Temples as well as several other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.  For the past several years I have spent this holiday in Israel, but because of the leap year, this year I got to commemorate the Jewish people's historical exile from Jerusalem while actually being in exile from Jerusalem.

It could have been an emotional disaster, but as is often the case, I got some relief from a book.  My literary companion for the Three Weeks was, In the Narrow Places by Erica Brown.  In the final chapter, Brown addresses the issue of how one is supposed to behave in exile, which she defines as physically being in one place while your heart and mind are in another.  Brown acknowledges the agony of feeling that one is not where one should be, and offers as advice the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"Jeremiah, perhaps realizing the crippling impact of dislocation on the soul of a people, advised against this kind of thinking:

'This said the Lord of Hosts, the G-d of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters.  Multiply there, do not decrease.  And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.' (Jeremiah 29:4-7)"

Brown notes that although building a house is a relatively immediate act, cultivating a garden implies an investment of time and energy into the place where one currently lives.  A shelter can be put up anywhere, but planting a garden encourages the individual to take advantage of the richness that can be found wherever he or she is, and to build a sustainable life in that place--even in exile.

Brown also cites a midrash on Psalm 137 in which the Levites in exile cut off their own thumbs so that they couldn't be forced to play their instruments for King Nebuchadnezzar.  It's a strong statement of resistance, but ultimately backfires, as Brown explains, " cutting off their thumbs, they made themselves ritually unsuitable for serving G-d in the Temple precincts after their exile.  Signs of mourning that are permanent can show profound loss but may also reveal a lack of faith in the future."

So, it seems that I have two main options for how to deal with the sensation of "being in exile:"  1) cut off my proverbial thumbs and wallow in despair; or, 2) acknowledge the pain but simultaneously go about investing in my life here, right where I am.  The truth is, my life in the States is ripe for gardening (metaphorically speaking, of course; I live in the city and don't even have a window box).  I've worked hard to cultivate a satisfying professional life for myself and am working on putting down more secure "community roots."  Although life outside Israel doesn't contain everything I want, it does have a lot of beautiful elements that I would miss if I had to give them up, and I should continue to honor my life here by cultivating them...and I should not discount the possibility that, one day in the future, I might be living a life in which I will feel more wholly satisfied.

It's hard to have my heart be in two places at once, when my body can be in only one.  But perhaps, out of this situation comes the potential to have two gardens instead of just one, and to draw on nutrients from more than one source.  That seems like the most productive way to handle the issue of exile and the best way to make the most of the situation I'm in.  Here's to another year of fruitful gardening...and, b"H, to next summer in Jerusalem!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Putting Strategies to Work

Another week in Jerusalem...and what a week it has been!  Unless you've been actively avoiding the news, you're probably at least somewhat aware of what people in Israel call, "the Situation."  Communities in southern Israel continue to be under rocket fire from Hamas; Palestinian civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire (after basically being put there by their own leadership), and Israeli combat soldiers continue to carry out their ground operation in Gaza, which, tragically, has cost many of them their lives.  In a country where everybody knows somebody who is fighting in Gaza, the mood here is tense and anxious as people keep tabs on the news, hoping there will be no more fatalities but knowing that, most likely, there will be.

Personally, I do not have any relatives in the Israeli army, but I do have several good friends whose husbands, brothers, and sons are currently in combat units in Gaza.  I cannot even imagine the emotional roller coasters that these friends of mine are on; I don't know how they can successfully focus on activities of daily living while worrying about the safety of their loved ones.  But, they do, and for that they have my total admiration.  I don't know how I would handle being in their shoes.  The truth is, being a watcher has been stressful and painful enough.

Fortunately, after many years of therapy I have learned quite a few "distress tolerance" skills, and during the past couple of weeks I have had many occasions to use them.  I'll be honest and admit that, often, the path of least resistance seems to be just immersing myself in the anxiety and sadness, watching the news unfold and worrying about the people I know who are in harm's way...but if I did that, I would be miserable all the time.  So, I've turned to my arsenal of distress tolerance strategies, out of which have emerged three favorites:

1)  Distraction.  For this, I have two main sources to thank:  My ulpan program at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem, and the summer learning program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.  Between these two programs, I have spent seven hours a day, five days a week, actively engaged in learning both conversational Hebrew and traditional Jewish texts.  And, even when I felt like I could not possibly focus on anything other than the Situation, inevitably I would get wrapped up in my studies and would be able to shelve my anxiety, at least temporarily.  It helped immensely to know that all of my classmates were experiencing feelings similar to mine.  During our breaks or over lunch, we would often talk about our worries and reactions to the news.  But, we also talked about other things, giving ourselves the time and space to think about life outside the current war.  In times of stress, there really is nothing quite like being connected to people who "get it."

2) Prayer.  I'll be totally up front and say that before this summer, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I'd said tehillim.  I didn't really understand how that whole routine worked, and it was just Not My Thing.  But, at my therapist's suggestion, I talked to a wonderful teacher of mine about how to use prayer as a way to calm my mind when anxious, obsessive thoughts start to take over.  My teacher suggested choosing a favorite passuk or piece of tehillim and repeating it to myself slowly when I started to feel my mind careen out of control.  I happened to know exactly one chapter of tehillim (luckily it's a great one!), and over the past week I've tried to recite it both during formal davening and at any time when I start to feel particularly worried about what's going on in Israel and the safety of my friends.  It has been especially helpful to think of the names of the soldiers for whose safety I'm praying, and to recite tehillim with them in mind.  While I have no conclusive answer as to whether or not this practice works cosmically, I will say that it has helped me a lot in the moment, which is good enough for me!

3) Getting Involved.  What I hear Israelis saying over and over (and what I'm also saying) is, "I wish I could do something to help."  Thinking positive thoughts is great, but sometimes you just want to roll up your sleeves and physically do something productive to make a tough situation a little bit better.  Israelis, I have found, are experts at this.  Kids in youth groups are out on the street, getting strangers to donate money and supplies to the soldiers; civilians are collecting food and personally driving it down to the soldiers in Gaza; thousands of people are turning out at the funerals and shivas of soldiers they didn't even know, just so the families feel the love of the entire Jewish community.  This morning, I went with a few of my friends to an event at a private home in Jerusalem, where dozens of people had come together to assemble care packages for soldiers in units that have suffered casualties.  As we all worked together to pack up army-issue socks and underwear, granola bars, books of tehillim, and t-shirts, people kept commenting on how good it felt to finally be doing something to help.  Taking action, it seems, is a remarkably effective way to combat feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

There have been many times over the past few weeks when I've felt almost overcome with sadness, or fear, or worry.  But now, as I reflect on the skills I've used, the connections I've made, and the courage I've witnessed, what I feel most of all is love.  The news is still heartbreaking, and loved ones are still in danger.  But being part of a larger community that works to support each other has made the tough moments easier to bear, and has replaced a lot of the anxiety with feelings of warmth and connection.  My heart is full of gratitude to Am Yisrael, and I wish us all a truly peaceful, quiet, Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 18, 2014

For the Watchers

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!

It has been a beautiful week in many ways.  I've continued exploring and debating texts in my classes at the Pardes Institute, and I also began an ulpan program that has empowered me to feel ever so slightly more proficient in Hebrew.  I spent some quality time with some special teachers of mine, got to snuggle a baby, and had a glorious reunion with two friends I hadn't seen in a year or more.  Also, the weather has been close to perfect.  So, that's all wonderful.

And yet.

As I write this, Israeli troops are waging a ground operation in Gaza; one IDF soldier has already been killed and several more have been injured.  Nearly every time I've checked my phone in the past week and a half, I have seen a notification that another rocket was launched from Gaza into Israel.  I've seen and read reports of the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza who are trapped, largely by their own leadership, in what seems to be a hopeless situation.  And, I've watched as a ceasefire agreement failed and took with it the possibility of peace and quiet for civilians on both sides of the conflict.  Added to all of this has been the seemingly endless stream of status updates on Facebook and other media posted by people who, most of the time, have very strong opinions despite not having many facts.  Although my life has gone on relatively uninterrupted in Jerusalem (thank G-d!), there is a part of my brain that is always occupied with the larger struggle in which Israel is enveloped.

It is painful to watch, all the more so because I know there isn't really anything I can do to help as an American citizen who is only here for five weeks.  I'm not in the army, nor do I have any other skills which would potentially be useful in this conflict.  I can't bring aid to soldiers, nor can I offer shelter to families who are under near constant fire in southern Israel.  My contributions have basically been limited to donating food to the Pina Chama, a soldiers' rest stop in the West Bank, and trying to daven with a little more kavannah aimed at the current situation.  While I know that "every little bit helps," it still feels like a small drop in a very large bucket.  I have realized, over the past two weeks, how emotionally challenging it is to be relegated to the role of a bystander while people (and a place) you love are suffering.

As I've struggled with the task of watching a problem unfold in front of me without being able to do anything to "fix it," I've thought over and over again about the parallels between that situation and that of parents who are watching their child struggle with an eating disorder.  In the work that I do as a co-facilitator of a support group for parents and loved ones of individuals with eating disorders, I hear on a weekly basis about the sense of powerlessness, fear, anger, and anxiety that these parents feel.  How excruciating it must be to watch the suffering of your child, the person whom you love most in this world!  Parents, despite their purest positive intentions, cannot fix eating disorders.  They can't eat for their children, provide "quick fix" therapy, or relieve the problem with any manner of rational discourse.  All they can really do is love their children, provide support whenever possible...and watch, as their children do battle on the front lines.  As I reflect on the many years in which my parents were stuck being witnesses to my struggle against anorexia, I can honestly say that although my work was grueling, painful, and exhausting, I think their role was just as agonizing.  Although bystanders are held back from the actual combat, they are forced to watch the suffering of those they love...and being a watcher comes with a pain all its own.

Going into this Shabbat, I am going to continue to try my best to support this country I love from the sidelines.  I will pray for the safety and security of the Israeli soldiers, as well as for the protection of civilians, Israeli and Palestinian alike.  I will also take this opportunity to publicly thank my parents for enduring the challenge of watching for so many years, and for never once wavering in their support.  And, for all the parents out there who wish they could do more to move their children along toward recovery...sometimes, the best you can do is let your children know you are in it with them for the long haul, that you love them and won't give up on them, and that you stand ready to do whatever you can to support them.  I wish that you and your children find some peace in the process of recovery and that you can resume your full lives with energy and joy.

May this be a peaceful and quiet Shabbat for all.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Holding

Shalom from...Jerusalem!  Thank G-d, once again I have been fortunate to come to Israel during my summer break from teaching.  The past two weeks have been full of packing, worrying, flying, overcoming jet-lag, and gleefully running into the arms of friends and teachers I hadn't seen in months, or, in many cases, a full year.  (For those of you whom I haven't yet seen...fear not, I'm coming for you!)

If you've been following the news, you know that this is not an easy time for Israel.  As always, the issues are complex and trying to untangle them is a little like peeling an onion--as soon as you get through one layer, there's another one right underneath.  But here's a very brief synopsis of one heartbreaking layer of that onion:  On June 12, three Jewish Israeli teenage boys--Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad, were kidnapped while attempting to go home to their respective families for Shabbat.  The boys were hitchhiking from a well-known hitchhiking stop in Gush Etzion (a common means of traveling in Israel), when they were picked up by men who turned out to be Palestinian terrorists.  For the next eighteen days, the boys' families and friends waited anxiously for news while the Israeli military worked round the clock to locate the missing children.  During this time, the entire Jewish community--not just in Gush Etzion, not just in Israel, but in the entire world--mobilized to support the boys and their families through whatever means possible, most often prayer or other acts of dedicated religious practice.  Ultimately, though, the boys were found dead; apparently they were murdered by their kidnappers not long after they were abducted.

I arrived in Israel the morning of the funerals.  Needless to say, since then, it has been hard for a day to go by without hearing someone mention the heartrending loss of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad.  It has also been a little bit disconcerting to walk into a country steeped in mourning and grappling with the aftermath of tragedy.  But what has stood out to me most dramatically is the way the community has truly come together to hold and support one another through their individual and collective grief.  Israelis of all stripes have closed ranks around the boys' families, reaching out with prayers and letters of support, knowing that they can do nothing to lessen the families' grief but being compelled to share in it, nonetheless.  The families, in turn, have opened their arms back out to the community by being willing to receive all the energy and love coming at them.  The result is a beautiful, collective holding.

Being held.  How much more elemental does it get, really?  We all need to know that we have people in our lives who will help us bear our emotions, who will get down in the trenches with us and help us weather the storm.  No matter how introverted or independent we believe we are, we still have a basic, profound need to be held--and, I would venture, to be held by people beyond our immediate family members.  We need friends, we need a network--no matter how small--that we can count on to catch us when we begin to crumble to the ground.  When that need goes unacknowledged or unsatisfied, the results can be devastating:  depression, isolation, self-injury, addiction, shame...the list goes on.  Personally, the way I dealt with feeling unheld was by using food rituals and exercise to "hold myself."  When there was no one in my daily life I could go to, I went to the gym instead.  When I had no friends to chase away the loneliness, I filled the void with intricate and much-anticipated eating routines.  It was a valiant effort, but it didn't work.  It turns out, there is no substitute for being held.

A central part of my recovery has been seeking out relationships with people who will hold me, and whom I can hold.  There is nothing more comforting than feeling the warmth of someone's support when I am in a time of need.  As I've watched the people of Israel hold each other the past few weeks, I've become acutely aware of the ways in which this land, and the people in it, hold me, as well.  The sheer natural beauty of this place cradles me when I need an escape from heavy thoughts.  My teachers nurture my spiritual growth; they receive my questions openly and offer guidance and love as I make my way through this world.  And my friends prove to me, over and over again, that I am as important to them as they are to me; that we are here for each other, no matter the distance between us.  Food and exercise can never, ever compete with that.  Being held is the best.

And so, during my time in Israel, I am going to enjoy the experience of being held by this unique and wondrous land I call my second home, and by the radiant, passionate people I call my chosen family. I wish that ALL of us allow ourselves access to the warmth and security of being held.  There truly is nothing better.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Order and Chaos

Apologies for the relatively long, post-less stretch...I've been enveloped by the End of School Year Craze and everything that goes with it.  After seemingly endless hours typing progress reports for all of my students, the idea of sitting at a computer to write anything else just seemed...unappealing.  But, I'm back, and I'm bringing with me some ideas that have been percolating for a while!

I wrote my last post after attending a shiur given by Rav Avi Weiss, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the founder of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City.  In case you haven't been following all the infighting taking place within Orthodox Jewry, I'll summarize very briefly by saying that Rav Avi Weiss has been at the center of a fair amount of controversy.  He promotes "Open Orthodoxy," a movement of Modern Orthodoxy that emphasizes adherence to Halacha while also supporting innovation and flexibility, particularly in the area of women's involvement in Jewish ritual and practice.  Yeshivat Maharat is the first American institution to ordain Orthodox women as Halachic authorities and spiritual leaders.  Needless to say, all this innovation and flexibility doesn't sit so well with many members of mainstream Orthodoxy, and Rav Weiss has received a lot of criticism from many rabbinic leaders, including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

As I listened to Rav Weiss speak, I was struck not only by what he was actually talking about in that moment, but also by the realization that there, in front of me, was a man who was not afraid to have people disagree with him.  His presence was gentle and humble, but also forceful.  He is a man who stands by his principles and explores new territory, and when people push back, he holds his ground and keeps going.  Say what you want about his positions on various issues, but you can't argue with the fact that Rav Avi Weiss does not let himself be swayed by disapproval.  That is a quality I do not have...and one that I really admire.

On Shavuot, I read an essay by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook titled, "Souls of Chaos," in which he describes the profound inspiration and energy of people who dare to destroy the status quo in an effort to raise humanity to a higher level.  Rav Kook explains, "The conventional pattern of living, based on propriety, on the requisites of good character and conformity to law--this corresponds to the way of the world of order.  Every rebellion against this, whether inspired by levity or by the stirring of a higher spirit, reflects the world of chaos." He then goes on to explain that although people who prefer the world of order are often afraid of those who bring chaos and cannot tolerate their disruptiveness, the truth is that chaos is a necessary ingredient for the perfection of the world.  According to Rav Kook, "These storms will bring fructifying rain, these dark clouds will pave the way for great light, as the prophet envisioned it: 'And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness' (Isa. 29:18)."

I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I'll say that I am 99.9% firmly within the world of order.  I like to please people; I don't like to invite disapproval or disagreement.  I love rules and predictability, and I am not what one would call a "trailblazer."  If I happen to have a point of view that diverges from that of the group, I might stick to it in my head but I certainly will be quiet about it.  It is, I have found, just easier that way.

Easier, yes.  But not very inspiring.

What Rav Kook is saying, and what Rav Weiss is demonstrating, is that we need people who are not afraid to make waves, because they are the change makers.  If there was no one brave enough to stand up against the status quo and say, "I disagree--and I think I have a better way," how would we ever make progress?  We don't need to live in a chaotic world, but we do need a little bit of chaos interspersed among the order, because by shaking up the landscape we make room for new growth.  Similarly, within our own selves we need an element of change and disruption in order for us to break out of our patterns and stretch in new ways.  Obviously, being 100% chaos is going to be a problem...but so is being 100% order.

I am probably never going to be one of Rav Kook's "souls of chaos," nor am I likely to ever be as confident in the face of disapproval as Rav Avi Weiss.  But I like to think that I can learn from both of these men and give myself permission to experiment with making some small waves in safe places.  Even if I continue to prefer conformity, I don't have to be afraid to go against the current now and then.  Although I am comfortable in my habits and like the predictability of routines, I am allowed to "break my own rules" when doing so feels positive and exciting.  I'll be honest:  residing completely within the world of order has worked in some ways, and cost me dearly in others.  It might be time to search out more of a middle ground.

We don't have to leave a trail of destruction in our wake, but perhaps the take-away here is that when we do find ourselves face to face with a little bit of chaos, we don't need to run and hide immediately. We can check it out, try it on, see how it feels.  Who knows--maybe a little shake-up is exactly what we need.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

"I" of Destiny

Just in case you missed last year's birthday post, I'll summarize it by saying that, although it is a lovely occasion, my birthday brings with it its fair share of emotional challenges.  And, here I am, once again, at Erev Birthday, feeling the usual mix of pure gratitude for this life I lead combined with self-criticism and frustration regarding all the ways I haven't quite hit the mark.  It's a time of year when I need a little extra inspiration, a little extra spiritual connectivity and galvanization.

Fortunately, two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a shiur by Rav Avi Weiss, and have been thinking about it ever since.  His topic was, "Fate and Destiny:  Coping with Adversity."  I almost blogged about it right away, but instead chose to hold onto it until closer to my birthday, when I felt I would most need its message of empowerment--and would be most excited to share it.

Rav Avi Weiss packed so much meaning packed into that shiur, but what resonated with me most was when he made the following point:  when a person struggles, it is normal for that person to ask, "Why?"  But perhaps that is not the most effective question.  Maybe instead of asking, "Why?" one should ask, "What now?"

To flesh out this idea, Rav Weiss brought a quote from Rav Soloveitchik's work, Fate and Destiny.  Rav Soloveitchik views the human being as having two "I"s:  the "I" of fate, and the "I" of destiny.  Here is how he explains his concept of an "Existence of Destiny":

In short, the "I" of fate asks a speculative metaphysical question with regard to evil, and this question is not susceptible to solution and has no answer.

In the second dimension of man's existence, destiny, the question of suffering takes on new form. What is an, "Existence of Destiny?"

This is an active existence in which man confronts the environment into which he was cast with an understanding of his uniqueness, value, freedom and capacity without compromising his integrity and independence in his struggle with the outside.  The slogan of the "I" of destiny is, "Against your will you are born, and against your will you die [but with your free will do you live]."  Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capacity to live as a "subject" -- as a creator who impresses on his life his individual imprimatur and who lives autonomously.  According to Judaism, man's mission in his world is to turn fate into destiny--an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, to an existence full of will and initiative.  


There is just so much I love about this, relating to both the specific challenge of struggling against adversity, and to the more general concepts of self-determination and empowerment.  I feel that so much of recovery connects strongly to Rav Soloveitchik's idea of turning "an existence that is passive and influenced, to an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness, to an existence full of will and initiative."  And, what better time to reflect on my own commitment to this endeavor, than my birthday?

In what ways am I actively shaping my own destiny?
In what ways am I still being too passive?
In the coming year, how can I live more authentically as the "subject" of my own life?

We can all benefit from asking ourselves these questions--it's the ongoing work of recovery.  So, even if it isn't anywhere near your birthday, I (gently) challenge you to think about how Rav Soloveitchik's ideas apply to your own journey through life.  How can you wake up your "I" of destiny?

Sunday, May 11, 2014


A few evenings ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Rabbi Sharon Shalom, an Ethiopian-born Jew who emigrated to Israel, where he later received his rabbinic ordination.  Rabbi Shalom spoke about his childhood in Ethiopia and his long, treacherous journey to Israel.  Throughout his lecture, which he peppered with humorous anecdotes and insights into Ethiopian Jewish culture, Rabbi Shalom maintained a focus on hope.  Time and time again, he quoted three lines from "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem:

Kol od balevav penimah
As long as within the heart

Nefesh yehudi homiyah
A Jewish soul still yearns

Od lo avdah tikvateinu
Our hope is not yet lost

Rabbi Shalom referenced these words as he described sitting with his grandfather in Ethiopia, listening to the old man tell him and his friends about Jerusalem.  At one point, he asked his grandfather, "Which way is Jerusalem?" to which his grandfather basically replied, "Go straight."  So, the next morning, Shalom and a friend of his snuck out of their village and started to run in the direction his grandfather had indicated.  They ran for hours, these two little kids, expecting--hoping--to get to Jerusalem.  When Shalom and his family eventually did begin their real journey to Israel, it involved a months-long, dangerous walk to Sudan, in which many people died.  Because they felt Shalom would have the best chance of success in Israel if he went alone with other children, his parents sent him by himself while they remained in Sudan for several more years.  A young boy going to a new country, alone, yet full of hope…because he was finally going to get to Jerusalem.  

There were many, many "take-aways" from Rabbi Sharon Shalom's lecture, and a major one was definitely this:  Giving up is not the Jewish way.

A few years ago, I wrote about the Talmudic quote, "Eretz Yisrael is earned through hardships."  In that post, I addressed the question:  If recovery is my metaphorical Land of Israel, how much am I willing to struggle to get there?  How much hope in my own recovery am I able to hold…and how much energy am I willing to expend in order to make that hope a reality?

In order to get to Eretz Yisrael, the answer had to be:  Whatever it takes.  I am not giving up, and I am willing to do whatever it takes.  As long as I have hope, I'm still in this game.

Rabbi Sharon Shalom literally walked through a war zone in order to get to Israel.  His story is dramatic and exceptional, but it is not the only one of its kind.  Our collective history as Jews is full of individuals who fought against tremendous odds and maintained hope in the face of extreme hardship.  Hope--and a sense of agency--is our cultural legacy, and we need to use it.  The road of recovery is full of challenges.  But remember, as long as you have hope and are willing to act on it, you can go all the way.

Kol od balevav penimah
Nefesh yehudi homiyah
Od lo avdah tikvateinu

We're Jews, and we don't give up.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Self-Love Conundrum

As the name suggests, this week's parasha, Kedoshim, is full of mitzvot intended to elevate the Jewish people toward holiness.  Included are many prohibitions that make inherent sense ("You shall not steal," "You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind," etc) and some that don't (shaatnez, anyone?).  But there is also that most famous of mitzvot, the one that is so important that Hillel felt it encapsulates the entire Torah:  "You shall love your fellow as yourself." (Vayikra 19:18)

This commandment may be fundamental, but it does beg the question:  what if you don't love yourself?

For anyone who has ever struggled with low self-esteem or self-worth, the obstacle before this mitzvah is obvious.  It sounds so basic, but the truth is that self-love can be elusive…and if you don't love yourself, can you really feel love toward another person?

Let's examine what it really means to love someone.  In an article based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yanki Tauber asserts that there are two components of love:  respect and care.  When we love a person, we must respect that person for who he or she is, and at the same time we need to care for that person and want the best for him or her.  This requires an honest assessment of the person:  what does he need?  What is she lacking?  Then, love means helping that person overcome his or her shortcomings and become his or her best self.

What I find most powerful about this is the understanding that "love" requires honest critique and  acknowledgement of faults.  It does not mean that we have to think the other person is perfect, just as she is.  The same is true with self-love.  If I love myself, that doesn't mean I have to think I have no weaknesses or deficits.  It means I have to respect myself where I am at, acknowledge the struggles, and care for myself by helping myself overcome them.  That is how we should love ourselves, and that is how we should love others.

In her article called, "Why Hasn't the Self-Esteem Movement Given Us Self-Esteem?" Chana Weisberg reinforces the importance of remembering that Hashem, Who is the source of all goodness, created each individual person on earth--including you.  This means that each person, including you, has goodness at his or her core.  Whether or not you choose to acknowledge or act on your goodness, the goodness remains and is independent of your achievements, skills, or how others think about you.  You are good, simply because you are.  That doesn't mean that everything you do is good.  But it does mean that at your core is a spark of holiness that can never be erased.  If you can acknowledge that spark within yourself, it opens the door for you to see it in others, too.

In my journey toward self-love, I have often turned to the work of "vulnerability and shame researcher" Brené Brown (not Jewish, but definitely relevant!).  One of my favorite quotes of hers is:

"You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging."

It's all true.  I am imperfect, and yet at the same time I am worthy of love, from others and from myself. I think this is the kind of love mentioned in this week's parasha:  love that acknowledges faults and reaches beyond them to the fundamental goodness in every person.  May we experience that love for ourselves, and also extend it to others.

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Power of Stories

I don't know if anyone else has this same Pesach experience, but I always find it hard to really "tune in" to the meaning of the holiday while the holiday is actually going on.  What can I say--Pesach stresses me out.  I appreciate its beauty and meaning, but often get sidetracked by the practical challenges these eight days present.  And, of course, there's the endless internal tug-of-war between the voice that says, "I want to do it exactly right," and the voice that replies, "If kitniyot are good enough for Sephardim, they're good enough for me."  Needless to say, it's a balancing act, and the crazy-making of the logistics often eclipses the actual essence of what this time of year is supposed to be about.

While looking for some reading material to help me refocus, I came across an article called, "The Commandment of Counting" by the wise Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller.  She outlines the significance of the transition between Pesach and Shavuot and the meaning behind the ritual of counting the Omer, which we start doing on the evening of the second day of Pesach and continue for 49 days, all the way until Shavuot.  Noting that the Hebrew word for "number" (mispar מספר) is closely related to the word for "story" (sipur ספור), Rebbetzin Heller explains that although the number of days in the Omer never changes, we go through the process of counting each one because it forces us to slow down and appreciate the individual days that make up the stories of our lives.  Most of the time, we live in such a blur that we lose awareness of what we've gone through.  On Pesach, we become physically free, and on Shavuot, we become spiritually free, as well.  The time in between is one in which we learn to tune in to the power of our own stories.  There is the collective story of the Jewish nation and how we evolved from ex-slaves to people able to connect to Hashem through Torah.  But there are also our individual stories about how each of us has become who we are.  The journey from Pesach to Shavuot is an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with both of these narratives.

It may sound overly simplistic, but one benefit I have discovered in recovery is the ability to appreciate my own story.  My eating disorder was often a disease of comparisons--I could only see myself in terms of how I "measured up" to other people.  I couldn't honor my own process or experiences, because inevitably there was someone whose process or experiences trumped mine in some way.  I disregarded my own story by telling myself:

You haven't been through as much as she has.
Your eating disorder is nothing compared to hers.
You think you have problems?  Look at that person!  Now, SHE has problems.
Why haven't you reached as many "life milestones" as that person has?
You don't have any experiences worth talking about.
Your story is boring.

It was a litany of self-negation.

When I first started to emerge from my eating disorder, I had gained some freedom but did not yet know who I was, because I was alienated from my own story.  I still believed that if I couldn't claim exceptionality, I couldn't claim anything.  In recovery, I have had to learn to manage the "dialectic":  It's true that I haven't been through everything that everyone else has, BUT it's also true that I have been through my own things.  My story might not be as flashy as the next person's, but it is still a story that I can own--a story that is worth telling.  It is important for me to take time to tune into my narrative and to appreciate how it has developed.  I rarely give myself time and space to do that…and maybe that's part of what this period of counting the Omer is for.

What I wish for each of us as we enter these 49 days is, that we recognize the power of our own stories.  We each have one, and they're all worth telling.  The process of discovering who we are, of "coming into our own" as individuals (and as members of the larger Jewish community), is one that merits reflection and appreciation.  Spiritual freedom only comes once we know who we are, and that requires being able to tell our own stories.  So, tune into your story.  Tell it to yourself…and then begin to share it with others!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Life in your Life

I'll admit it:  I was one of those people grumbling about how early Pesach preparations started this year.  Since when do supermarkets start selling matzah two weeks before Purim?!  But, with only two weeks to go until Seder #1, it seems I can't avoid it any longer.  Pesach is quickly approaching, bringing with it The Big Clean, hours-long seders, and very, very flat sandwiches.

And, thoughts of freedom.

Last year at around this time, I wrote about the challenges of freedom--how living in recovery often means having more adult responsibilities and engaging head-on with the ups and downs of life.  This year, I'd like to dig a little deeper into what "freedom" really means, with the help of the always inspiring Adin Steinsaltz.

In an article titled, "To Be Free," Steinsaltz explains that slavery is not merely the absence of freedom, and freedom is not only the absence of slavery.  They each must have a definition independent of the other.  He defines slavery as the condition of being completely controlled by the will of another, while freedom is the ability to act upon one's own will.

"The individual who lacks a will of his own does not become free once he is unshackled:  he is simply a slave without a master…Between ceasing to be a slave and acquiring freedom, the individual must thus pass through an intermediate stage in his progress, without which he cannot become truly free--he must develop inner qualities of his own.  The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people's departure from the house of bondage; they needed to develop to become a truly free people and not merely runaway slaves."

Steinsaltz goes on to assert that a developed sense of self (or peoplehood) is essential for an individual or collective group to be free:

"In other words, the slave is doubly bound, first of all by his subjugation to another's will, and secondly by his lack of a will and personality of his own.  A person who retains his own essential character can never be completely enslaved; and, conversely, a person who has no independent self-image can never be truly free."

I find this concept of freedom to be particularly pertinent to a discussion of recovery.  What makes "slavery" to an eating disorder so debilitating isn't only the sensation of living under the thumb of a relentless task master; it's also the absence of any meaningful, independent sense of self.  In order for recovery (freedom) to really take hold, a person needs not only to let go of the eating disorder, but also to develop a full and satisfying identity apart from the illness.

Early in my recovery, an important mentor of mine used to coach me to develop "life in my life," by which she meant, "Find some interests!  Fill your life with something!  Learn who you are!"  Though this was sometimes daunting, it was also among some of the best advice I ever received.  After all, I had developed my eating disorder, at least in part, to fill a void and meet an unsatisfied need.  Why would I ever give that up, in favor of nothing?  Merely living without anorexia left me feeling vulnerable and empty.  I needed to actively replace the eating disorder with the ideas, desires, and passions that made me, me.

At least in the beginning, recovery often feels like a full-time job.  There are so many appointments to go to, it's tough to have any leftover time or energy to devote to outside interests.  But, I would argue that figuring out what you actually like doing with your time is just as important as keeping up with all your therapy sessions.  "Recovery" doesn't just mean, "not having an eating disorder."  It means having healthy interests, relationships, and activities--a life that is full of life.

As we gear up for Pesach 5774, I wish each of us the strength to not only step away from what enslaves us, but also to step toward who we truly are as individuals.  Escape bondage, and pursue freedom.  Put some life in your life!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"The Whole Megillah"

After taking a few weeks off from posting, I'm glad to report that I'm back…just in time for Purim!  I think over the years I've made pretty clear that Purim and I do not mesh well together.  Perhaps because of that, every year I feel obligated to find some way to connect with this holiday that otherwise doesn't really resonate with me.  I call it, "The Purim Challenge."

Here's this year's point of connection!

One of the mitzvot of Purim is hearing Megilat Esther read aloud, once on the Eve of Purim, and once on Purim day.  The catch is, in order to fulfill the mitzvah, you must hear every word of the Megillah--if you miss even one word, you haven't fulfilled your obligation.  Now, on any given Shabbat, if you miss a word here and there from the public Torah reading, it's no big deal.  So, what does this Purim stringency teach us?

In her article, "Every Inch Counts," Sara Debbie Gutfreund explains that the obligation to hear every word in Megilat Esther teaches us that every small step in our lives has meaning.  The Purim story is one that develops incrementally.  Hashem does not swoop in and save the day through magnificent miracles; instead, Esther and Mordechai have to carefully plot out their course of action, step by tiny step.  Last year, I wrote about Esther-Vashti dichotomy and explored why Vashti, brave rebel though she was, ultimately failed to effect change, while demure Esther succeeded.  Perhaps it is because Vashti tried to take a giant leap all at once--defying the king outright--rather than focusing on what intermediate steps could take her closer to her ultimate goal.  Esther recognized that the battle wouldn't be won with one sweeping victory.  Instead, she had to be patient and take things one step at a time.

This reminds me very much of how recovery is also an incremental, inch-by-inch process.  In a group that I co-lead for parents of people with eating disorders, I often hear mothers and fathers express frustration over what they perceive as their child's "lack of progress."  What good is all the therapy and nutritional counseling if nothing is actually shifting in their child's behaviors?  It's a great question, born of a sincere desire to see positive growth and recovery happen for their loved one.  I usually respond by reminding them that progress is not always apparent to the outsider--a lot of change happens internally before it manifests itself outwardly, and so it's possible for their child to be working really hard without having much to show for it externally.  The slow nature of the recovery process can also be frustrating for the person with the eating disorder, because--let's be honest--who wouldn't want to just snap her fingers and become recovered?  But, as the Purim story teaches us, the surest path is one measured in inches, in which every little step along the way is essential to the creation of the beautiful whole.

This year as we celebrate Purim, I hope all of us can honor the "inches" in our own journeys.  Let's be patient with ourselves as we make small but steady advances toward our goals, whatever they may be!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wearing the Pants

Today I made a Big Purchase.  It wasn't a residence or a car; I didn't book an expensive vacation; I did not become the owner of any glittering, new jewelry.

I bought a pair of pants.

This was a big deal because when I first started becoming religiously observant four years ago, the first thing I did was trade in my pants for skirts.  It was a relatively easy change to make, one I could implement immediately, unlike the complex lifestyle adjustments of keeping Shabbat and maintaining a kosher home.  I liked having a visible symbol of my Jewish identity, something I could wear every day that would remind me of this new piece of myself that I was discovering.  I enjoyed knowing that, just as I could recognize other observant Jewish people walking down the street, they would now look at me and know that I was also religious.  Most of all, I loved rules, and was excited to have a new one to follow:  Skirts Only--No Pants.

Even though other aspects of my religious life took long periods of time to develop, this wardrobe shift happened seemingly overnight and quickly became an all-or-nothing, non-negotiable practice.  Though I truly felt it was a positively motivated choice, wrapped up in my staunch adherence to the No Pants Policy were many layers of insecurity and perfectionism, along with a strong dose of all-or-nothing thinking.  I fell in love with religious Judaism at a time when my identity without my eating disorder was just beginning to take shape.  I needed a new place to belong, and Judaism was that place.  Insecure about my lack of background knowledge, I felt I should at least look the part so that others would accept me while I was learning.  One thing I felt sure of was that person who is trying to join a group cannot afford to break any rules.  Was I serious about becoming observant?  Was I committed to living a Jewish life in all ways?  If the answer to both of those questions was, "yes," then the answer to the question of clothing was clear:  No Pants.

As long as I insisted on approaching Judaism with the same sense of rigidity I had applied to my eating disorder, there was never going to be any room for flexibility.  Yet, this is what I honestly thought Judaism demanded, until I started meeting women who challenged that notion.  There was the time I paid a visit to one of my Modern Orthodox teachers at her home and she answered the door wearing pants.  Or the time I went bowling motzei Shabbat with a group of my religious friends, and a bunch of the girls showed up in jeans.  At first I thought these were just flukes, but then it kept happening:  over and over, I met women who I knew had strong religious identities, who cared about halacha, who were active members of their observant Jewish communities…and who sometimes wore pants.

Mind blown.

After encountering all this hard evidence, I started to feel ready to experiment.  The truth is, I enjoy wearing skirts.  But sometimes, pants are just easier, like when there's a foot of snow on the ground, or if I'm going hiking, or when it's Sunday and I just want to lounge around.  So I started testing out wearing pants…and…nothing happened.  I still observe Shabbat; I continue to keep kosher; I still daven every day and learn Torah as often as I can.  Wearing the occasional pair of pants doesn't change any of that, but it does make me feel like a more flexible, open-minded human being.  It's true that in some circles, observant Judaism IS very black-and-white, and if I wanted to belong there, then pants would always be a no-no.  But I've worked hard, in recovery, to learn that a secure identity does not have to be a rigid construction.  (I've also learned that the Torah doesn't actually prohibit women from wearing pants, and while some women might take that stringency upon themselves, I can choose to be among the many who don't.)  My eating disorder was all about rules, severity, and harsh discipline--and I've worked too hard to move away from that mindset, to go back to it now.  I want my Jewish observance to flourish in recovery, to be inspired and genuine and also able to withstand some healthy flexibility.

I once had a recovery mentor who taught me to say, "I don't have to______.  I get to _____."  Today, as I bought my new jeans, I heard my recovered self say, "I don't have to control my wardrobe with an iron fist.  I get to wear what's comfortable."  This afternoon, I davened mincha while wearing pants.  And it was good.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"What I Be"

I love a good photograph.  More than any other art form, photography has the power to move me deeply, to stop me in my tracks.  It just amazes me, what a truly skilled photographer can capture with one click of the shutter.

A few days ago, I learned about the "What I Be" photography project created by Steve Rosenfield; particularly, the series he created in partnership with students at Yeshiva University in NYC.  Each photograph features a head shot of an individual who has a bold message written on his or her arms, face, or chest.  Next to each image is the statement, "I am not my _______," with the blank filled in by the subject's greatest insecurity.  Through the "What I Be with the Jews of NYC" project, Rosenfield addresses head-on the stigmas and taboos that are often prevalent in observant Jewish communities.

Of course, this bold project has been met with plenty of controversy and opposing viewpoints among members of the YU community.  I won't use this forum to discuss the debate, but I will share my personal opinion of the project:

I. Love. This.  LOVE IT.

I can't quite imagine the courage it must have taken each one of the subjects to bear his or her greatest fear to family, community, and beyond, but I am so grateful to everyone who was willing to "put it out there."  Is the project provocative?  Absolutely.  It challenges us to face the reality of who is within our communities, and what struggles reside there.  And, while it might be perceived by some as a gratuitous airing of "dirty laundry," I would argue that "dirty laundry" is everywhere.  We all have it.   I have often felt too "flawed and complicated" to truly belong to any community.  And yet, as I viewed the images in this photography project, I came face to face with dozens of people whose insecurities and struggles mirrored my own.  Many times, I found myself thinking, "Wait, that happens here, too?"  The answer is, YES.  It happens here.  Mental illness; emotional instability; trauma; diversity in race, family structure, and sexual orientation--it all happens, everywhere.  While acknowledging it might be uncomfortable, discomfort leads to growth…and growth, hopefully, leads to inclusion and compassion and mutual support.  

Furthermore, how about that message:  "I am not my _________."  While it's important to be able to give voice to our challenges, it is also critical not to be defined by them.  When we're open about our vulnerabilities, we do risk being seen as, "The person with problem X."  How vital it is, then, for us to practice saying (and believing), "Yes, I have problem X, but I AM NOT problem X."  After all the time I spent in treatment, and all the years in which my eating disorder was front and center in my mind, it has been a huge relief to realize, "I am not my eating disorder."  I also am not my exercise routine, or my perfectionism, or my social anxiety.  The gift of recovery is realizing that those are just pieces of a much larger, richer puzzle that is ME.  And although I want to be able to be open about my struggles, I also want to be sure to project to the world a version of myself that is more comprehensive than just the "Struggle Edition."  We all deserve to be seen and accepted as our authentic selves.  But before we can expect others to be okay with who we are, we need to be okay with who we are.

So, the next time your insecurities start to feel like the core of who you are, practice saying to yourself, "I am not my ______.  It's part of me, but it isn't all of me."  And, the more you practice saying this, to yourself and out loud to the world, the more likely it is that you'll meet others who will say, "I've been there, too."


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Name it!

Recently I attended a learning session titled, "Aaron's Silence and Yaakov's Angel:  Labels and the Search for an Integrated Self."  It was an incredibly rich discussion; the one downside was that it was Shabbat and I couldn't write anything down!  But, I've been mulling over a lot of the ideas for the past week or so, and I want to share a few of them here.

It's clear that names are very important in the Torah.  One of Adam's first tasks is to name all the animals; Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah once they have earned that recognition in Hashem's eyes.  In parasha Vayishlach, Jacob has his famous encounter with an angel, and we see again the significance of names.

Then he [the angel] said, "Let me go, for dawn has broken."
And he [Jacob] said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
He said to him, "What is your name?"
He replied, "Jacob."
He said, "No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the divine and with man and have overcome."
Then Jacob inquired, "What is your name?"
And he said, "Why do you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. (Bereishit 32:27-30)

Although there's certainly a lot to explore in the "Jacob-to-Israel" transition, the discussion we had in the workshop centered around Jacob's desire to know the angel's name, and the angel's refusal to disclose it.  In this episode, the angel is widely understood to represent Jacob's estranged brother, Esau, and all of the negativity associated with that figure.  When Jacob asks the angel to name himself, he is really wondering, "Who ARE you?  Where do you get your power?"  And, while appearing to dodge the question, the angel actually gives Jacob the answer:  his strength comes from being unnamed, from being elusive and unknown.  Unlike Jacob, who allows himself to be seen, the angel gathers his negative power by keeping everyone in the dark about who he is.

This same dynamic plays itself out in our lives whenever there is a problem that goes unnamed and unaddressed.  To name something is to make it known and real.  When there is a conflict or crisis brewing, our instinct might be to pretend it's not there and hope it goes away.  However, by not naming it for what it is, we actually allow it to gain momentum and power in our lives.  When we can bring the struggle out into the light, we diffuse the negative energy it builds up around itself.

My eating disorder went unnamed for nearly four years before I was willing to put a label on it.  I thought, if I keep saying there's no problem, then there will be no problem.  In actuality, my refusal to acknowledge my struggle meant that I did not get the help I needed, which only made the problem more severe.  At some point, I became willing to say that I had, "issues with food."  But it wasn't until I was able to call it, "anorexia," that I actually started to work on recovery.

Communities, too, need to be willing to put names to difficult issues.  An eating disorder in secret is still an eating disorder, just like a battered woman who covers her bruises is still being abused, and an alcoholic who hides the bottles still has a drinking problem.  When we pretend these issues don't exist among us, we actually add fuel to their fires by building up the secrecy and shame surrounding them.  In contrast, when we bring a problem out into the light and say, "Here's what we're dealing with," we diminish the shame and the mystery.

There's significance to the fact that Jacob only triumphed over the angel once night gave way to dawn.  In the dark, evil has the advantage.  But once things are exposed in the light for what they truly are, we become able to avoid traps and pitfalls and can begin to repair what is broken.  My wish for us all, as members of communities and as individuals, is that we not be afraid to name our struggles.  Let's bring light into the hidden corners and allow healing to begin.