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!