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!