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!