Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Besht Knows Best

Sometimes when I want to blog, it is hard for me to think of what to write...nothing feels quite right.  But then there are other times when something hits me and begs to be written.  That's how I felt when I recently came across a particular quote attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (the "BeSHT").  I wanted to write about it right away, but first I wanted to find the original source...and that's where I ran into trouble.  Nowhere could I track down the name of the work in which the Besht wrote/said this, so I dispatched my "research team," (aka, friends who know a lot more than I do) but to no avail.  However, my research team DID feel pretty confident that it was at least a paraphrase of what the Besht actually said, so I am just going to go with that.  And if anyone out there does know the original source, please end the mystery and tell me!  But for now, we'll just call it a slightly modernized paraphrase of the Besht, and I think we can agree that it's still pretty awesome.

"There are times when G-d hides His face.  But then there are times when G-d hides His face and we don't even realize that His face is hidden; we dwell in darkness, and think it is light.  This is a double galut [exile], a concealment within a concealment."

When I read this quote, I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college (which was, I think it's safe to say, pretty much a disaster, thanks to my eating disorder).  I remembered a particular phone call with my parents, in which I stood in the hallway of my dorm, looking out the window, while my parents told me that if I didn't gain weight I would have to leave college and come home.  I could not believe the audacity of that suggestion, partly because leaving college might have been an option for other people, but definitely not for me...but mostly because I firmly believed that my eating disorder was what made my life bearable, and how could no one else see that?!  Incidentally, at that time I wouldn't even admit that I had an eating disorder.  So I exercised a lot--so what?  It gave me endorphins.  So I kept losing weight--so what?  It was cool to watch the number on the scale go down.  Those things kept me going.  Why did everyone else think it was such a big problem?

My perception of reality was so warped that I had exactly zero appreciation of how much trouble I was actually in.  I lived enveloped in the darkness of an eating disorder, and thought it was light.  I have never, before or since, been so completely wrong about anything.

Unfortunately, I think this is a pretty common phenomenon among people actively engaging in eating disorder behaviors--the belief that the behaviors are making life better, when they are actually doing the opposite.  Just recently I was talking with a high schooler who is working on recovery, and she admitted that she felt if she could just be skinnier or prettier, she would have more friends.  Now, this is a truly amazing girl with whom I would totally want to be friends if I was back in high school, and she is making herself sick and miserable because in her mind, using behaviors will lead to more friends.  There it is again--darkness masquerading as light.

Part of the "G-d paradox" is that He gives us opportunities to feel His presence, but because of His greatness we can never truly know Him.  If one believes that we are all, in a sense, in a state of exile from a G-d with whom we can never fully connect, then an eating disorder is absolutely a "double exile"--we become estranged not only from G-d, but also from ourselves.  And because we believe that the eating disorder will bring us out of darkness, we don't realize that it actually is the darkness, that it is making it harder for us to connect with ourselves, with others, and with G-d.

Sometimes, a reality check is needed.  The euphoria that comes with starving and over-exercising is not the same thing as happiness.  The numbness that follows purging is not the same thing as contentment.  The clinical relationships we have with our treatment providers are not actual friendships.  The eating disorder might be a shiny distraction from our problems, but it is not actually solving anything--and it is absolutely, positively, not light.  Don't be fooled.

I will be the first one to say that life in recovery is not, as the saying goes, all sunshine and roses.  But it is so, so beautiful.  I truly believe that, and I am not exactly someone who oozes positivity.  I'm a realist.  And I really know that all the "light" promised by the eating disorder is actually just exile in disguise.  The light comes in recovery, and it is better than any of the fake "highs" I felt when I was using behaviors.  You deserve to live in the light, too.  Once you really experience it, you'll never be fooled again!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Great (Chanukah) Debate

Note to self:  Erev Chanukah is not the best time to go to the Kosher market, unless you want to be packed amongst the entire Jewish population of the neighborhood, all of whom are waiting in line to buy sufganiyot.  Live and learn.  But, hey, it's Erev Chanukah!  The kids are excited, the adults are in good spirits, and everyone is ready to cast some light into the darkness.  What's not to love about that?

Recently, I was doing a little pre-Chanukah reading, and I came across the old machloket (disagreement) between Hillel and Shammai regarding how to light the menorah.  According to the House of Shammai, one should light all eight candles on the first night and decrease by one each night thereafter.  The House of Hillel, on the other hand, rules that one should light just one candle on the first night, and increase by one each night that follows (halacha follows Hillel's ruling).  There are a couple of explanations for their positions:  one suggests that Shammai lights for the days still to come, while Hillel lights for the days that are gone.  Another explanation is that Shammai lights in accordance with the bulls offered on the altar for Sukkot, while Hillel asserts that we ascend--not descend--in matters of holiness.  It's an interesting debate, and as I was learning about it I came across an article by Menachem Feldman of the Chabad in Greenwich, CT, in which he draws a parallel between the different philosophies around lighting the menorah, and different ways to enact change in one's life.

By starting out with a full menorah, Shammai is saying that one has to combat the darkness with all of one's strength, right out of the gate.  If we go at it a bit at a time, our efforts will fail to take hold--positive change requires our complete commitment and 100% effort right from the beginning.  The good news is that every day thereafter becomes a little bit easier; since we've weakened the darkness so dramatically on the first night, on each night that follows we need a little less energy to fight it.

Hillel, on the other hand, is saying that this isn't a realistic strategy.  Now that there's no more Temple and we're in exile, it's hard to muster up the energy and bravery needed to just plunge right in with everything we've got.  We need a new approach, and that approach is:  little by little.  By building on positive change one step at a time, our efforts accumulate until we are at our full strength.  To start, all we need is one candle.  But by the end, all of our light will be burning.  

Recovering from an eating disorder requires a lot of positive change, both behaviorally and mentally. The truth is that there is room for the approaches of both Shammai and Hillel--sometimes it works to commit 100% right from the start; other times it makes more sense to gradually build up to change.  Personally, I found that being in intensive treatment was very "Shammai-esque":  a lot of change all at once, because ripping off the proverbial bandaid is sometimes easier than peeling it off a tiny bit at a time.  But when I was at the liberty to go at my own pace, I was always someone who enacted changes very, very slowly.  Like, I didn't just stop measuring all my food cold-turkey--I stopped measuring one food at a time.  As you can imagine, it took months to phase out measuring, but I did it.  And, in the end, I suppose it doesn't matter how I got there, just that I arrived.

When we're going through recovery, we need to be aware of whether we lean more toward Shammai's or Hillel's style of change and respect our own preferences, but we also need to acknowledge that there is a time and a place for both.  Sometimes, we just need to dive in and take that leap of faith.  Other times, we might choose to do it more gradually.  What I think is so cool about the Hillel-Shammai debate is that even though we have ruled in favor of Hillel, Jewish tradition has preserved Shammai's argument because it is still valuable, even if we don't follow it. There is much to learn from both approaches, so we need to keep them both in our consciousness.  So, as you gather the strength to combat your personal darkness, I wish you the wisdom to know which approach will work for you, and to go with it--knowing that either way, in the end, the darkness will surely give way to light.  

!חנוכה שמח 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving--it's a Jewish Thing

It's here--my favorite non-Jewish holiday, Thanksgiving!  I love it for all kinds of reasons; mainly, it's the first "vacation" of the school year, and I get to visit with my extended family, whom I hardly ever see otherwise.  But my last post was kind of a downer and I just couldn't have that be the lead-in to this holiday, especially because my absolute favorite thing about Thanksgiving is that it's called, "Thanksgiving," which means...gratitude.  I love gratitude.

My first real exposure to making gratitude part of my daily routine came many years ago when my group therapist suggested that I keep a gratitude journal.  I did this faithfully for years, writing down at least three things every day that I was grateful for (I went through a lot of journals).  Then, a few years later I took a professional development graduate course on positive psychology.  Unlike "regular" psychology, which focuses on mental illnesses and how to get people back to a baseline of functionality, positive psychology studies how an average individual can actually rise above the baseline and live a happier, more fulfilling life.  It was a fascinating class, and one thing that stood out to me is how prominent a feature gratitude is in the lives of people who self-identify as happy.  There is a lot of evidence that actively practicing gratitude can lead to increased levels of optimism, self-esteem, and motivation to take care of oneself.  Personally, although I have stopped writing in gratitude journals, I still take time every night before saying Shema to think of things from the day for which I'm grateful. This gratitude practice is one of my favorite daily rituals and it plays a big role in my health and happiness in recovery.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of my favorite features of Judaism is that it has a lot of built-in gratitude.  Every morning, the very first words we say are, Modeh/modah ani, thanking G-d for returning our souls to us and waking us up.  We then move through Birkat HaShachar, in which we give thanks to G-d for, among other things, the ability to see, clothes to wear, being able to walk, and strength when we are tired.  What I love about this is that it is a chance every morning to go back to basics and appreciate all the things that I otherwise would take for granted.  For example, since I have always been able to see, I don't usually take time to think about what a miracle it is that my eyes create images and my brain processes them correctly.  But in the morning, as I look out my bedroom window at the sun rising over the city skyline, I am reminded that the simple act of seeing is something to be grateful for--every day.

Gratitude also plays a prominent role in the Amidah, which we say three times a day.  The Modim is the eighteenth out of nineteen brachot in the Amidah, and its entire focus is thanksgiving.  I will admit that at the crack of dawn when I daven Shacharit, it is very, very hard for me to stay focused on all the brachot.  But I always make a big effort to focus on the Modim, because to me it feels like the most important part of the entire prayer.  In the Modim, we acknowledge that our lives are in G-d's care and that He works miracles in our world every day--not "burning bush" miracles, but "everyday" miracles:  sunrise and sunset, forces of nature, our physical well-being, etc.

I recently read an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that explains a feature of the Modim prayer that I previously had not understood.  When the prayer leader repeats the Amidah, all the congregation has to do to signal their agreement with the leader's words is to say, "Amen," after every blessing--then, it is as if the congregants had said all the words themselves.  The exceptions are Kedushah, in which the congregation responds out loud, and the Modim.  When the prayer leader repeats the Modim out loud, instead of just sitting quietly and saying, "Amen," at the end, each person in the congregation has to say a parallel blessing, called "Modim of the Rabbis."  Why?  Rabbi Sacks cites the work of Rabbi Elijah Spira (1660-1712), who teaches that we cannot give the responsibility of saying, "Thank you," to someone else to do on our behalf.  Every person has to say it for him- or herself.  I like to think that this is for two reasons:  1) Hashem deserves to hear, "Thank you," directly from each of us; 2) saying, "Thank you" (and meaning it!) will actually make us happier, healthier people.

In a way, Puritan origins notwithstanding, celebrating Thanksgiving is a Jewish thing to do--it's just something that we usually do every day.  But why not take one day a year to do it with friends and family?  Personally, I think it's a great idea.  Believe me, I know that Thanksgiving can be a tough holiday for people with eating disorders.  But remember:  even if you aren't yet in a place where you can enjoy all the food and company, you can do gratitude.  All you need is a sense of awareness.  Try finding three specific things you're grateful for, and maybe say them out loud to someone special in your life.  It just might make the day a little brighter and a lot more meaningful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thoughts on a Hard Week

It has been a rough week for the world.

Seven days ago, I turned my computer on after Shabbat to find out that in the 25 hours I'd been media-free, France had been hit with a horrific string of terrorist attacks, the country's deadliest spate of violence since WWII.  Following that were (at least) 12 other terror attacks across the globe:  Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali, Iraq, Cameroon, and Israel all suffered incidents of terrorism, to say nothing of the ongoing carnage in Syria.  For those of you doing the math, that's almost two attacks every day.  At that rate, I find, it's very hard not to become at least a little bit desensitized to what seems to be an endless stream of horrible news.  By Thursday, I was just scanning the headlines; I couldn't even read the articles anymore.  But then, I saw this:

Whenever I hear about another terrorist attack in Israel, I feel the old block of fear and tension settle into my stomach.  But this one was particularly impactful, for two reasons:  1) The shooting happened at a spot where I have stood many times waiting for buses or for friends to pick me up in their cars; 2) One of the victims was 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz, z''l, a recent graduate of a Jewish high school in my town.  Though I didn't know him or his family personally, I am friendly with many people who did, and the loss has hit our community hard.  For three days, I've been thinking about this boy and about how his family and friends must be feeling.  I've also been thinking about my friends and teachers in Alon Shvut, who lost their friend and neighbor, 51-year-old Yaakov Don, z''l, in the same attack.

From this latest shooting, I have learned a sobering lesson that should have been obvious but that I think I had been avoiding:  the people I love in Israel are vulnerable--they are not protected by virtue of being people I love; additionally, when I am in Israel, I am also vulnerable--I am not protected by virtue of being an American who doesn't actually live there.  How is it possible not to be consumed by fear in the face of such harsh uncertainty?

Rabbi Marc Baker, the Head of School at another local Jewish high school, proposes an answer to this question.  In his weekly message to the community right before Shabbat, Rabbi Baker writes,

"One of the most natural human responses to uncertainty and loss is fear.  Sadness is an important part of a fully lived emotional and spiritual life.  Fear, however, can paralyze us as individuals and disconnect us from one another and from ourselves...

One of my close friends in the Maimonides community wrote to me yesterday, 'People need to be together and communicate at this time and not be alone.'  People need to be together and reach out to one another, letting one another know, 'I am with you in your pain, your loss, your confusion, your shock.'  Sometimes, that is all we can say. 

My friend's words reminded me of the words of the 23rd Psalm and so many other Psalms:  'Lo ira ra ki ata imadi--I will fear no evil because You are with me.'  The Psalm does not say, 'I will fear no evil because I know everything will turn out okay.'  We find comfort and confidence not because we know what will happen in the end, but rather because we do not need to experience our not-knowing alone.

Going into this Shabbat, I turned Rabbi Baker's words over and over in my head.  Personally, I have always found connecting with G-d and with my inner self to be much easier than connecting with other people.  But if I'm being honest, when I am staring down The Unknown, I really need all three--G-d, self, and others--to strengthen me against the fear.  And lately I've been realizing just how critical connection to others is to me in this stage of my journey.  

I consider "community building" to be the Last Great Frontier of my recovery.  As I've said many times, I am probably one of the most introverted people ever.  Socializing is work, and self-confidence amidst a group of peers is not something for which I am known.  And yet, this Shabbat, the only place I wanted to be was within my shul community where we all, to varying degrees, were feeling the same sense of sadness, exhaustion, and pain.  Even when we talked about other things, just being in the presence of others who "got it" was enough to strengthen me against the emotional roller-coaster of the week. It reminded me of how group therapy was once so important to me in my recovery because it was the only time when I was with other people who truly understood.  Today, even though it required some effort, being in community was exactly what I needed, and what I know I will continue to need as I move through life--because no one can do it alone, and I am no exception.

As we all face the scariness of living in an uncertain world and the fear that comes with confronting the unknown, may we find points of connection with G-d, with ourselves, and with others--and may we take comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Wrong Prayer

Today I want to revisit a familiar theme:  taking initiative.  It feels particularly relevant to my life right now, and also (conveniently) is a theme that runs through the last several parshiot we've read.

On a personal note, this theme resonates with me deeply.  I am at a beautiful yet challenging place in recovery--beautiful, because I feel better about my life, my connections, and my body than I have in a very long time; challenging because there is still more that I want, and getting it requires pushing myself in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable.  I have "hung out" where I am for a long time, and while I *could* feasibly stay here and have a healthy and productive life, I know that this isn't where I want my end point to be.  To move further along, I need to give myself a little shove, which means pushing myself socially, emotionally, and also with food. I'm not opposed to any of that on principle, as I am open to the growth--both internal and external--that would happen as a result.  What I am often opposed to, though, is being uncomfortable, which means I sometimes don't challenge myself as much as I should.  For example, I don't like eating when I'm not hungry, partly for the obvious reason of it feeling physically awkward, but also because it reminds me of a time, early in recovery, when I was constantly needing to eat when I wasn't hungry.  It feels like a remnant of an unhealthy era, and it's hard for me to remember that just because I still need to do it occasionally, it doesn't mean I'm back in that unhealthy place.  Because I know that this cognitive challenge sometimes blocks me from pushing myself, I developed three strategies for beating it:

1) Remind myself what my goals are;
2) Reassure myself that I am healthy and doing well in recovery, but this will just help me go farther;
3) Ask G-d every morning to give me the strength to make good choices.

Despite my best intentions, these strategies didn't always work, and I didn't understand why until I read an article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about last week's parasha.

Rabbi Sacks points out that this part of the book of Bereishit is all about taking initiative.  In last week's parasha, Abraham faces the reality that although G-d has promised him both a land and millions of descendants, he currently has neither.  He owns not a single plot of land, and he has only one unmarried son who will continue the covenant.  On top of all of this, at this time Abraham is 137 years old, so it's not like he has decades more in which to fulfill his destiny.  He needs to act--so, he negotiates the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah and its surrounding field, and he also sends his servant to find a bride for his son, Isaac.  In this way, Abraham himself ensures that Hashem's promises to him will be fulfilled.

In this week's parasha, this theme of initiative continues.  When Isaac's wife, Rebecca, is pregnant with twins, Hashem tells her that she will give birth to two nations, and that the older one will serve the younger.  As the time of Isaac's death nears, he prepares to give his older son, Esau, his blessing.  But because Rebecca knows that the younger son, Jacob, is supposed to be the dominant one, she needs to come up with a plan to make sure the blessing goes to Jacob.  She disguises Jacob to pass for Esau, and Jacob does receive the blessing, thus ensuring that Hashem's plan for the covenant to continue through Jacob is realized.

In his article on parashat Chayei Sarah, Rabbi Sacks writes the following:

G-d promises, but we have to act.  G-d promised Abraham the land, but he had to buy the first field.  G-d promised Abraham many descendants, but Abraham had to ensure that his son was married, and to a woman who would share the life of the covenant...

Despite all the promises, G-d does not and will not do it alone.  By the very act of self-limitation (tzimtzum) through which He creates the space for human freedom, He gives us responsibility, and only by exercising it do we reach our full stature as human beings...G-d gives us the strength to act, but we have to do the deed.  What changes the world, what fulfills our destiny, is not what G-d does for us but what we do for G-d.

When I read this, I realized that every morning I had been saying the wrong prayer.

Praying for G-d to, "give me the strength to make good choices," doesn't get to the heart of the issue. G-d has already given me the strength to make good choices.  I don't need more strength.  What I need is to act on the strength He has given me.  If, at the end of the day, I have not pushed my own recovery forward, it's not because Hashem didn't strengthen me enough to follow through--it's because I didn't take the initiative to do what I knew I needed to do.  The burden is on me, not on G-d.  I have, within me, all the strength I need--I just need to use it.

So, I changed my prayer.  Now, instead of asking Hashem to give me strength, I promise Him every morning that I will act in ways that move myself forward.  As Rabbi Sacks notes, it is not what G-d does for us but what we do for G-d.  I want Hashem to see that I am using all that he has blessed me with to make the best choices for myself in every moment.  It's not a flawless system, but I don't think it's any coincidence that since I've changed my prayer, I have been much more consistent in doing what I need to do.  It's amazing what a little responsibility does for a person.

I think we all need to remember that we have within us the strength needed to live healthy, satisfying, full lives--but it's up to us to use it.  We have to partner with Hashem in the creation of our best selves.  So let's not be afraid to take the initiative and assume responsibility for using all the strength we have!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ideal and the Real

It all began with a thread.

As I was walking to shul this past Shabbat morning, I happened to glance down and I noticed a thread dangling from the hem of my skirt.  It was a long thread--the skirt was knee-length and the thread hung to the lower part of my shin.  I tried to shove it back up the inside of the skirt, but to no avail--I would take a few steps and it would fall down again, hanging there obtrusively.  Going home to change didn't seem like a good option, which left me with two choices:  a) leave it; b) tear it off.  I stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, debating.  On the one hand, "tearing" is a form of work that is prohibited on Shabbat.  Did this include ripping a dangling thread off of a piece of clothing?  I wasn't sure.  On the other hand was the possibility of going to shul with this awkward, easy-to-spot thread hanging off the bottom of my skirt, and I'd like to say that I'm part of a community that either wouldn't notice something like that or, if they did, wouldn't care, but let's be real.  So...I would either do something that probably was a violation of Shabbat but might not be, or, I would be stuck with this stupid thread distracting me and making me self-conscious for all of shul.  In the end, I made my choice:  I ripped off the thread.

I felt okay about it for about three seconds, and then the guilt set in.  How could I put my own insecurity/vanity above the sanctity of Shabbat?  I say that my relationship with G-d is paramount, but then how could I act in a way that disregards His wishes?  I told myself, "This is why I'm a bad observant Jew." Around and around the mental hamster wheel I went, aware that this line of thinking was not helpful since the deed was done, but I was in it...and I felt I deserved it.

So, I sat in shul feeling guilty and ashamed, trying to daven with extra kavanah so that maybe Hashem would know I was sorry and regretted my choice.  And then came the dvar Torah, given by a rabbi in the community who happens to also be a friend and mentor of mine.  Since it was parashat Noach, he said, he wanted to talk about the nature of the covenantal relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people.  Why did G-d destroy humanity through the flood?  Because He was deeply disappointed with their shortcomings, and He wanted to start fresh.  In this way, Hashem was like an artist who was willing to destroy His creation over and over until He gets it "just right."  But ultimately, G-d realized that He had become invested in His creation, despite its imperfections, and He vowed never to destroy it again.  What we can learn from this, taught the rabbi, is that it's not perfection that matters, it's investment.  The nature of our covenantal relationship with Hashem is that we are invested enough to continue to strive for the ideal, and Hashem is invested enough to be accepting of what is real:  the mess and the imperfection.

It's not about perfection--it's about investment.

As I pondered that, my guilt and shame started to lift because I understood that I had ripped the thread in a moment of imperfection, but I was still deeply and passionately invested in my relationship to G-d and my commitment to Judaism.  Hashem wants me to strive for His ideal, but He is willing to meet me at my "real."

This seems to be a message that is also easily applied to recovery.  In recovery, the "ideal" is Zero Eating Disorder Behaviors or Thoughts, but the "real" is, every now and then a slip happens.  Personally, whenever I would make a choice that was not recovery-oriented, the aftermath would always be guilt and a litany of shaming thoughts:  You always do this.  You're weak.  You are bad at recovery. Even today, though I am secure in my recovery, my self-talk often turns negative and critical when I feel I have made a choice that doesn't reflect all the hard work I have done.  But...what if I look at recovery as a covenantal relationship with myself?  Can I say that while I remain firmly invested in striving for my ideal self, I also accept myself in reality and love myself anyway?  100% yes.

That's not to say that slips are "okay," just as it's not technically "okay" that I tore the thread off my skirt on Shabbat.  But neither Judaism nor recovery operates on the "three strikes, you're out" policy.  Instead, they are committed, intimate relationships in which investment--not perfection--is the most important thing.  May we all keep that in mind as we journey on, continuing to strike a balance as best we can between the ideal and the real.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Cheshvan Meets Scaredy Squirrel


In the past month, we've been through seven full days of Yom Tov plus four days of chol hamoed, we've eaten festive meals, we've fasted, we've davened, we've eaten in the sukkah, and we've danced with the Torah.  It's been beautiful.  It's been exhausting.

And's time for Cheshvan.

I love Cheshvan.

Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar with no holidays and no special mitzvot.  It comes in sharp contrast to Tishrei, the month immediately preceding it that is packed full of chagim.  The "official" name for Cheshvan is Marcheshvan, which many people interpret to mean that it is a "bitter" month (mar is Hebrew for "bitter") because of its lack of holidays.  But there's no mar in MY Cheshvan, and to explain why, I turn to a wise and trusted source:  Scaredy Squirrel.

Scaredy Squirrel is the brilliant creation of children's book author Mélanie Watt.  He is also the mascot of my recovery.  Scaredy is a routine-bound, safety-loving squirrel who never leaves his nut tree because he is afraid of The Unknown, with all of its associated dangers.  But one day, a rogue killer bee forces Scaredy to leap out of his nut which point he learns that he is actually a flying squirrel!  He glides through the air and ends up crashing in a bush, where he plays dead for a few hours until he is satisfied that nothing terrible is actually happening in The Unknown.  This realization leads Scaredy to amend his daily routine:

From Scaredy Squirrel, I learned one of the most important lessons of my recovery:  sometimes, you just have to leap into the unknown....and then, you might need to play dead for a while, which is okay.  And that, my friends, is why I love Cheshvan.  It's time set aside to play dead.

Let's be real:  the chagim are wonderful, but ohmygod the overstimulation.  There are the MANY hours of energetic (loud) davening in shul, hours-long meals, and seemingly endless socializing.  As a supreme introvert, I really have to push myself to make it through.  Every year, I look forward to Tishrei with a mix of excitement and anxiety because I welcome the chance to jump into the holiday whirlwind but I also know how stressful it is going to be for me.  And when it's all over, I need some major alone other words, I need to play dead.  

Playing dead is not escapism, and it's not regression.  It's rejuvenation.  It's how we take care of ourselves so we can get ready to jump back into the unknown.  Cheshvan is historically the month in which the Great Flood began, and also the month when it ended a year later.  The flood was intended to cleanse the world and give it a fresh start, and that's what I think Cheshvan is all about.  Play dead, refresh yourself, and then when you're ready, get back out there into the unknown.  After all, Chanukah is right around the corner!

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Does anyone else find this time of year totally overwhelming?  Don't get me wrong--I think there's a lot of beauty in the chaggim.  But (and I'm not sure if this will make sense) me, the sheer magnitude of what these days represent actually precludes me from being completely present to experience them.  The idea that these ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the days in which Hashem will decide, based on our merit, whether we will live or die in the coming year is simply too vast and profound for me to digest.  So, I don't go it alone--I try to dedicate time each day to read the works of other people who are, to put it plainly, more spiritually erudite than I.  And one of my favorite books for this time of year is Erica Brown's Return:  Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe.

In chapter 1 of her book, Brown explores the significance of the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah:  the story of Hagar.  At first glance, it seems odd that this would be the story chosen for one of the holiest days of the year.  But actually, it comes to teach us an important lesson about faith, especially when juxtaposed against the Torah reading for Day 2:  the Akeida.

Abraham and Hagar both receive the same blessing from Hashem:  that they will give birth to nations.  Hagar's promise of multitudes will be realized through her son, Ishmael; Abraham's will come through his second son, Isaac.  But when Hagar comes up against a significant obstacle--she and Ishmael run out of water while lost in the desert--she gives up too quickly.  She places Ishmael under a bush so she doesn't have to watch him die, and then she bursts into tears.  Despite what Hashem had promised her, Hagar can't manage to find a way out of her situation or wait until one becomes apparent. Only when an angel comes and opens Hagar's eyes does she notice the well of water right near where she sits.

On the other hand is Abraham.  G-d promised Abraham a nation through Isaac, but then commands Abraham to slaughter Isaac as an offering on an altar.  The stark contradiction must have been confusing for Abraham, but he didn't waver in his faith.  He made all the preparations for the sacrifice but at the same time believed that, "G-d will provide the lamb for the burnt offering."  Indeed, as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, an angel stopped him and at that moment Abraham saw a ram caught in a thicket.  Abraham's situation paralleled that of Hagar:  both were given promises but came up against serious obstacles.  The difference is that Hagar lost her faith and didn't have the patience to see her situation through, while Abraham patiently hunted for a solution with his faith intact.

Regarding the differences in the faith of Hagar and Abraham, Erica Brown writes:

"Faith demands patience in the face of a future that we cannot see and the determination to make good things happen.  If we could know the future with certainty, we would not need faith. But because we cannot know, we have to trust in powers greater than ours to guide us.  Our faith is not the passive faith of Hagar's tears but the active joy of Abraham's laugh. We admire his propulsion forward, his drive to create an ambitious, dream-worthy vision even if all of the particulars comprising that future were beyond his immediate understanding.  Faith demands that we engage in a delicate balance of both relinquishing control to an authority above us and acting within our full human capacity to realize our dreams."

In other words, what is needed is a balance of patience and impatience.  Patience to trust that a path toward our dreams will become apparent; impatience to force ourselves to shape our own futures.

During my first few years in recovery, I fully believed that I would be completely recovered "one day," but did not take the steps necessary to make it actually happen.  It is no surprise, then, that many years went by in which I made only the teensiest bit of incremental progress toward this goal.  I was content to drift along and keep wishing, but I wasn't impatient enough to push myself.  And then, of course, I felt incredibly guilty and ashamed of "wasting" all those years.  I developed a concept of myself as someone who says she has goals, but doesn't actually do anything to reach them.  It wasn't until relatively recently that I understood that although patience is supremely important in recovery, impatience also has its place.  If I want something in my life, I have to both actively seek it out and have faith that I will be shown the way to reach my goals.

I think this lesson from Abraham and Hagar is a critical one to carry into the new year.  It is so easy to let a whole year go by without doing much to move toward our goals, and then we end up back at Rosh Hashanah wondering how it is that we are in exactly the same place as we were last year.  In the coming year, may we have Abraham's faith that we can realize our dreams for our best life, and may we have the balance of patience and impatience needed to make those dreams become reality.

!גמר חתימה טובה

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Write a New Ending

DISCLOSURE:  I, the quintessential rule-follower, am about to stray from my pattern of bringing traditional Jewish sources.  This week, I want to highlight a new blog I've discovered:  Momastery (note:  you do not need to be a mom to appreciate this site).  Momastery's blogger is a woman named Glennon Doyle Melton.  She is a recovering bulimic, alcoholic, and drug user, and believe me, she has what to teach us about living with authenticity and showing up despite our imperfections.  And, it just so happens that her message is pretty much perfect (I think) for Elul.  So, hang in there with me, and it will all come together!

My introduction to Momastery was the post, "Rising Strong:  This is My New Ending."  One of the main purposes of this post was to promote Brené Brown's latest book, which I definitely plan to read, but that's not the point.  What is the point is the way Glennon tackles the theme of how we experience "failure"--and how, as adults, we get the chance to rewrite our own stories.  In case you don't want to read the whole post, here is my favorite excerpt:

As I read this, I kept thinking, Yes! Yesyesyesyes.  Not to the cheerleading bit specifically (that actually would have been my worst nightmare), but to the broader theme of receiving the message from the world that we are not worthy, how we carry that message with us into adulthood, and how maybe--no, definitely--it is time to write a new ending to our defining moments of "failure."

From age 6 until college, I never had a best friend.  I had good friends, but no best friend, and what kid doesn't want a best friend?  So, I tried really hard--I did whatever I thought might win someone's allegiance--but at the end of the day, I was always passed over in favor of someone else.  The lesson I extracted from this whole experience was:  There is something wrong with me.  I stopped expecting I would ever have a best friend, and settled on what I considered the next best thing:  having people need me.  If people need you, I reasoned, they keep you around.  And what I knew, in that adolescent brain of mine, was that it was better to be used than ignored.  I remember very clearly how, when I was in my high school biology class, all the "Cool Girls" would suddenly become "friends" with me before every exam.  I knew exactly what they were doing--using me for study help--but I let it happen; in fact, I looked forward to it because in those moments of usefulness I had a taste of what it felt like to be "in."

As an adult, I can look back on that and shake my head and say, That was so ridiculous to let myself be used by girls I didn't even LIKE, but the truth is that even as an adult, I am still vulnerable to this dynamic.  I want people to like me.  But the Core Belief that I've carried around since those childhood rejections is:  People will only like me if I please them and do things for them.  This belief led me straight into anorexia ("Oh, let me just be small and unobjectionable!") and is something that I've had to work very hard to reframe in recovery.

But Glennon gives me an idea.  Why not rewrite the ending to that story?  If I could go back in time and talk to high-school me, here is what I would tell her:

I know it has been hard for you.  I know that.  But you have to hang in there.  One day, you WILL have a best friend.  And in the meantime, know that you are 100% worthy of love and belonging regardless of what you can "do" for other people.  Respect yourself--don't sell yourself just to win someone's approval.  You don't need it.  Not everyone is going to like you, and you're not going to like everyone, and that's okay.  But you don't need to change who you are, or let people use you, just to win friends.  You are awesome,  just as you are.  

The truth is, that's a message I could still use.  And so I am going to carry it with me into the end of Elul as I prepare for the new year--the knowledge that I can rewrite that story and live out a different ending in the present.  From now on, I am going to remind myself of how much I've grown since I was that teenager.  Recovery Headline:  I do not have to buy my worthiness.  I get to be myself--authentically imperfect--and know that I am worthy of connection without changing myself or selling myself out to suit someone else's whims.

I think we all probably have stories like that, stories that we wish we could rewrite...and the thing I learned from Glennon is that in recovery, we CAN.  And there is no better time to do it than right now, at the turning point into a new year.  So:  for what story do you want to write a new ending?  Recognize old narratives that aren't working for you anymore, toss them to the curb, and write a new ending!  You deserve nothing less.

שנה טובה ומתוקה!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Protective Fence

Elul is the month that, in my mind, walks the very fine line between motivating and frustrating.  Motivating, because all the reflection and self-examination can energize us to better ourselves; frustrating, because all the reflection and self-examination leaves us painfully aware that we are having the exact same conversation with ourselves that we had last year at this time (or is that just me?)  Wait a minute, I find myself thinking, aren't these flaws and weaknesses the same flaws and weaknesses I said I was going to work on last year?  And the year before that?  Yes...yes, they are.  Which then begs the question, Why am I not following through?  I recently read a dvar Torah by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman that suggests an answer based on this week's parasha, Ki Teitzei.

This parasha contains 74 mitzvot, and one of them is the mitzvah of the "protective fence":

"If you build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if a fallen one falls from it."  (Devarim 22:8)

This certainly makes sense on a literal level as far as liability goes, but as is so often the case with Torah, there's a deeper meaning, as well.  The Ben Ish Chai, a renowned Torah scholar and kabbalist from the 1800s, suggests that "building a new house" refers to the process of making a clean start for oneself after a period of introspection and self-evaluation.  The "protective fence," therefore, is the boundaries one puts in place to make sure that one doesn't fall off the proverbial roof and slip back into one's old ways.  And why does the Torah say, "a fallen one falls from it"?  Isn't that redundant?  If we follow the metaphor of the Ben Ish Chai, a "fallen one" is a person who has fallen before and is likely to fall again--hence the need for a strong protective fence.

The idea of a protective fence really resonates with me, particularly in the context of recovery.  Recovering from an eating disorder is enormously challenging, especially when one has to simultaneously exist in the wider cultural milieu.  It's impossible to completely escape food, and it's also impossible to isolate ourselves from other people who have their own issues with food and body.  If we're going to be successful, we need a pretty tough fence.

I started to build my fence when I was in residential treatment twelve years ago, and it has been evolving ever since.  In treatment, one of the big protective measures was eliminating food labels--I never saw the nutrition information of anything I was eating.  We also never talked about weight or specific eating disorder behaviors.  Today, I don't need those protections anymore, but I have put in place others that still serve me well.  Here are some things that are Not Allowed inside the fence that protects my recovery:

  • The gym.  The gym and I are divorced.  It's simple, really:  when I exercise, I do it in ways that feel good and are actually enjoyable, and going to the gym neither feels good nor is enjoyable.  Buh-bye, gym.
  • "Health" magazines.  Nope, I'm actually not interested in the latest 5-minute workout or which "superfoods" I should be eating this month.  Also, who fact-checks these things?  There's a whole lot of nonsense in those pages.  
  • Reality T.V.  I don't object to the concept of reality T.V., but I definitely object to "Extreme Weight Loss" and "Extreme Makeover" and anything of that nature.  Absolutely no, thank you!
Now, none of us can live in a bubble, and we do live in a rather "non-recovery-oriented" culture, so it's unrealistic to think that we can cut out every unhelpful cultural influence.  But I've found that by setting those three things firmly outside the boundary of my protective fence, I'm happier, healthier, and a whole lot more grounded than I was when I had any of those elements in my life.  

But, it's not just what's outside the fence that matters, it's what the fence is actually made of.  And here is where self-talk and support systems come in.  For me, I know that although food and body issues aren't central to my life anymore, I am still vulnerable to anxiety, self-judgment, shame, and loneliness...and when I'm in the midst of any of those, that's when old, unhelpful thoughts and patterns start to creep in. In these situations, the protective fence is key.  I often use self-talk, and one of my favorite mantras is, "I don't have to _____; I get to _____." (Example:  "I don't have to exercise just because other people are; I get to read my book.")  And, when I feel myself going down an old, familiar, unhelpful path that I've gone down in the past, I tell myself, "Rachel, you can do it differently now."  Those phrases help a lot in the moment.  My fence is also strengthened by the many supportive people in my life--therapists, friends, teachers, and family--who provide comfort, encouragement, and connection along the way.

So, as we work our way through Elul this year, let's take time to examine our protective fences and see if there are any holes that need mending.  What do we want to keep outside our boundaries?  What will help our fences stay strong?  May we all find the tools we need to keep ourselves healthy, connected, and growing in the year to come.   

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The G-d Connection

I've been back from Israel for two weeks now, and I've more or less readjusted.  There are some features of life in the States that I definitely missed while I was away; namely, listening to Pandora Radio, using self-checkout lines at the supermarket, and drinking Starbucks iced coffee (cold brew...yes).  But in other areas, my heart misses Israel, and what I long for most of all are the connections with my Israeli friends and "family."  I have a very comfortable, predictable life here in the U.S., and I love comfort and predictability...but those features don't help me when I feel lonely.  And there are times, even as I'm enjoying the routine of my life at home, when the sense of my separation from my friends in Israel leaves me keenly aware of a raw, deep hunger for connection.  Complicating matters further is the fact that my BFA (Best Friend in America) has moved out of state.  Lately, loneliness and I have gotten to know each other quite well.

Still, it's not all bleak.  I have had some lovely interactions with people here at home and have enjoyed reconnecting with them.  But there's one relationship that has comforted me more than any other, one friend who consistently reminds me that I am not alone, and that friend is...G-d.

I was inspired to actively invest in this "G-d connection" by a dear friend of mine in Israel, who has graciously fielded a few "Help, I'm really lonely!" emails from me and whose sage advice, if distilled, comes down to this: keep reaching out, keep making friends, and keep talking to G-d.  She explained to me that she views spirituality as one's relationship with Hashem, and everything we do in that context is all about that relationship.  In any intimate relationship, we do things that we think will make our partner happy; in the case of G-d, that includes rituals of observance.  We also talk with our partner, not just as a means to get our needs met, but as a way to deepen the connection between us.  Similarly, we have davening as a formal way of communicating with G-d, but it's also important to engage Him/Her in casual, intimate conversation.  If we invest enough time and energy into this relationship with Hashem, it can become one of the most important relationships we have.

Jewish tradition strongly endorses "talking to Hashem" in this way.  I learned from one of my teachers about the practice of hitbodedut, a concept developed by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.  Hitbodedut is an unstructured, spontaneous form of prayer in which one talks to G-d about anything on one's mind.  In his work, Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman explains how to do hitbodedut:

"Hitbodedut is the highest and most exalted experience...To pour out our thoughts between ourselves and G-d--in complaints or frustrations, in words of kindness or agreement, and to request and beseech G-d that we will be able to approach closer to G-d in our true behaviors and desires.

Everything in our heart we should discuss before G-d:  Regrets and changes I have made concerning the past...Desires and yearnings for the future...And if I am feeling alienated from G-d--about all of this I should talk with G-d."

I like knowing that I can talk to G-d at any time, in any place, about anything.  And, since it's important in any relationship to listen as well as talk, I can listen to G-d, too, and try to hear what He/She is telling me.

Of course, G-d is not the same as a human friend.  I can't rely only on my relationship with G-d; I need to work on developing more friendships, as well.  My friend and my teacher both emphasized that Hashem is not a substitute for human relationships; however, if I put effort into cultivating my relationship with G-d, it can sustain me and comfort me in times when I feel lonely and in need of connection.

The truth is, I've been "talking to G-d" for a long time.  Growing up without a best friend, I figured out pretty early that a friendship with G-d was one that would never fail me.  And when I was in college, struggling mightily with my eating disorder and the worst depression I've ever experienced, sometimes I used to just lie on my bed, close my eyes, and imagine that G-d was holding me.  But I always felt like I could never tell anyone about this; it seemed a little like having an "imaginary friend"--not something you would want anyone else to know about!  Imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I learned that a) other people do this, too; and b) our tradition supports it.

And so, as I've readjusted to life in the States, I've tried to connect to G-d in a friendly way on a daily basis.  Last Friday I got inspired to clean for Shabbat by imagining that Hashem was coming to visit me in my apartment.  The other day, I went for a walk in a park and told G-d how beautiful I thought everything was.  When I'm bored or lonely, I try to do some Jewish learning.  And every night, after saying Shema but before going to sleep, I take a minute to thank Hashem for all the good things that happened during the day.  None of this has completely fixed the loneliness problem, but it has definitely made me feel more connected and has reassured me that even when I am lonely, I'm never truly alone.

So, if I may offer one suggestion to anyone suffering from loneliness, depression, or isolation, it would be the advice my friend gave to me:  talk to G-d.  Share your worries, your joys, your sadness.  Do things to make G-d happy (they'll probably make you happier, too).  And, as my teacher says:  when we pray the Amidah, one of the reasons why we whisper is because G-d is right in front of us.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Unlived Life

It is officially my last full day in Israel (for now, I keep reminding myself).  Tomorrow morning I have to get on a plane and leave one home, the place where my soul lives, and go to another home, the place where I actually live and have lived for my entire life.  There are people and places in both homes that I love dearly, but I think this actually makes the transition harder, not easier.  Transitions...I hate them...and this one is a doozy.

I hadn't planned to write another blog post until I got home, but I've been thinking about a source I read on Tisha B'Av as part of a shiur on alienation, exile, and redemption.  Full disclosure:  this shiur was in the middle of the afternoon on Tisha B'Av, and due to my caffeine and glucose deficit, I *might* have dozed of a teeny bit.  Consequently, I am not exactly sure what the broader context was for this source...but I think it stands well on its own.  It comes from the book, Missing Out, by the Jewish psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips.  In this book, Phillips explores the concept that we all have two lives:  our actual lives, and the lives we wish we had.  He writes:

"Our unlived lives--the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives--are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives...What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent...We learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like...There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened...the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided.  We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason they were not possible.  And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives."


When I read this, it felt like an indictment.  It felt as though Phillips had peered into my brain and seen the thoughts that I bury in there and try to avoid thinking about.  Lately, my mind has been churning around the gap between my "unlived life" and my "lived life."  I am keenly aware that I am heading back to a life that has many strengths--practicality, predictability, security, comfort--but that also falls short, in some ways, of what I wish I could have for myself. This has been brewing in my mind lately not because I am naive enough to think that moving to Israel would be the gateway to living my fantasy life.  It's  because the people I am connected to in Israel never fail to remind me that the things they want for me--connection, love, family, community, learning--are actually the things I deeply want for myself but usually try to convince myself that I don't need.

In a way, sensing the gap between my lived and unlived lives is a step in the right direction.  When I was engaged in the struggle with my eating disorder, I didn't have a fantasy life.  I couldn't see beyond where I was to imagine what could be.  I hated my life, but I felt no sense of agency and didn't believe I had the power to make it any better.  In recovery, I do have the ability to visualize what I really want.  I also understand that whether or not I end up actually living that life is up to me. The sense of possibility is exciting but comes with the weight of being responsible for making it happen.

At the end of the shiur, the lecturer left us with this question to ask ourselves:

"How can I bridge the gap between the life I an preoccupied with in my mind, and the life I'm actually living?"

That is the question I'm wrestling with as I prepare to leave Israel and reenter my "real life."  I don't know the answer, but I do know that actively seeking one is the next step for me in my process.  I feel lucky to be in a place where I am able to envision more for myself and believe that it is possible.  I've worked hard to get to this point, and now it's time for me to push ahead.

Thank you to everyone in my "Israeli family" who has reminded me to keep my eyes on the prize of a wholly fulfilling, nourishing life.  B"H I will make some progress toward that this year, and I'll report back to you next summer!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Power of Connection

Well, friends, there's good news and bad news.  Bad news:  I have only five days left in Israel.  Good news:  I have five whole days left in Israel!  I keep see-sawing back and forth between being sad and depressed about leaving, and being determined to enjoy all the time I have left here.  Let me tell you, it's emotionally exhausting.

What will I miss most?  The people, and the connectedness.  How are those different?  Well, there are many individual people in Israel whom I love--friends and teachers who each occupy their own little section of my heart.  Additionally, aside from the people themselves, there is a larger sense of connection that I feel when I'm here, a sense of being part of a Jewish community, which is something that I don't often experience back at home.

My sense of belonging to a greater community in Israel is mostly thanks to the summer program at the Pardes Institute, which this year brought an exceptionally dynamic group of Jewish adults together to learn.  I took two phenomenal classes:  one on aggada, and one on the writings of Rav Soloveitchik.  It was in this second class that I began to learn about the teachings of one of modern Judaism's great philosophers, and I was particularly impacted by the way he explained loneliness and connection.

Rav Soloveitchik writes:

"Quite often a man finds himself in a crowd among strangers.  He feels lonely.  No one knows him, no one cares for him, no one is concerned with him.  It is again an existential experience.  He begins to doubt his ontological worth.  This leads to alienation from the crowd surrounding him.  Suddenly someone taps him on the shoulder and says: 'Aren't you Mr. So-and-So?  I have heard so much about you.'  In a fraction of a second his awareness changes.  An alien being turns into a fellow member of an existential community (the crowd).  What brought about the change?  The recognition by somebody, the word!"  (from an essay delivered at the 78th annual meeting of the Conference of Jewish Communal Service)

Alone in a crowd among strangers...I feel like this often, which I don't think is all that unusual, but it's still an uncomfortable feeling.  The beautiful thing about being in Israel, however, is that someone nearly always breaks through the loneliness and establishes connection.  At Pardes, it happened when I walked in on the first day and was immediately overwhelmed by the huge number people milling about.  As I looked around, I made eye contact with a staff member whom I knew from previous summers, and she came over with a warm, "Hel-lo!" and a hug.  Connection established!  Secure in the knowledge that I had been recognized, I felt brave enough to track down other familiar faces and even start conversations with some new people.  A few days later, a woman with whom I'd exchanged about two words since the start of the program approached me and asked if I'd be her hevruta because she'd really been wanting to learn with me.  Really? I thought.  Why?! We did learn together, and I never found out why she'd wanted to, but it didn't matter--she had recognized me, we connected, and I wasn't just one anonymous person out of a hundred anymore; I was Somebody who mattered.

For me, being part of a larger community is one of the best parts about being in Israel.  But, supreme introvert that I am, sometimes community gets to be a bit much and I need to scale it back.  That's where friends come in.  At home, I have a handful of acquaintances who are good for surface-level interactions, but only one really great friend.  This is due in large part to the fact that during college and graduate school--prime friendship-making years--I was devoted nearly exclusively to my eating disorder and didn't have time, energy, or brain space to make friends.  In recovery, my life has opened up considerably, but I still find making friends challenging due to some underlying issues (lack of confidence, social anxiety, etc) with which I'm still wrestling.  In Israel, though, I get the chance to try things differently (I am on vacation, after all), and I have been rewarded with several precious friendships born out of genuine connection.  I'm not sure exactly why it's easier in Israel...maybe it's because the relationships are facilitated by our shared love for Judaism; maybe it's because I'm braver here...but whatever the reason, the results speak for themselves.  On this trip I was able to reconnect with all of my friends from previous years, but I also got lucky and made some new ones.  We had long conversations (often on long walks) in which we talked about our journeys both in Judaism and in life in general.  We aired our insecurities and found validation when the other person inevitably said, "Me, too!" Inside these connections, I felt seen in a way I rarely do, and it was an incredible feeling.

Rav Soloveitchik explains it this way:

"Friendship--not as a surface-relation but as an existential in-depth-relation between two individuals--is realizable only within the framework of the covenantal community, where in-depth personalities relate themselves to each other ontologically...In the majestic community, in which surface personalities meet and commitment never exceeds the bounds on the utilitarian, we may find collegiality, neighborliness, civility, or courtesy--but not friendship, which is the exclusive experience awarded by G-d to covenantal man, who is thus redeemed from his agonizing solitude."  (Lonely Man of Faith)

So.  As I prepare to leave this place that I love, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the people with whom I've felt those existential, in-depth connections.  Thank you to Pardes for creating an environment and community in which such friendships can be born.  Thank you to my true friends, old and new, for reaffirming for me the beauty of genuine friendship and showing me that I am capable--and worthy--of developing those connections.  I will take the strength you've given me back home and try to use it to form some friendships there...because really, relationships are what make life in recovery worth living.  And, b"H, may we meet again next year in Israel!

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Walls Come Down

"In order to understand, I destroyed myself."
-Fernando Pessoa

I recently came across this quote and was struck by how clearly it connects to the space of Jewish time we're currently occupying:  the Nine Days of mourning, which will culminate with Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.  There are many tragedies in Jewish history that have fallen on Tisha B'Av, but the two primary ones are the destructions of both the First and Second Temples.  We can imagine what once was the most sacred structure in our tradition, crumbling to the ground in a pile of debris.  And yet, as I look out at Jerusalem today, I am struck by the magnificence of what has been rebuilt and the ways in which Judaism is still vibrantly, unquestioningly alive.  

What happens when the walls come down?  That's the question that Alan Lew tackles in his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.  As he explains, at the moment of complete destruction, you can no longer deny the problems that have weakened the foundation.  And he's not speaking only of buildings--this is about us.  On an individual level, Tisha B'Av is when all the protective walls of denial that we've so carefully constructed in our lives come tumbling down, and we are left to face the hard truth of what remains.  He writes:

"On Tisha B'Av it is as if this emptiness has broken loose from its bounds and swallowed everything up.  The Temple burns...This image touches us deeply because we are always under siege, and we are held there by our attempts to hold off the emptiness we intuit at the center of our lives."

Once the walls we've built to ward off emptiness collapse, what are we to do?  One option would be to wallow in the rubble.  Another option, suggests Lew, is to examine honestly what remains when the walls come down, and figure out where to go from there.  There is something strangely liberating about complete collapse, because it allows us two valuable opportunities:  1) to acknowledge that we are in crisis; 2) to rebuild.

I remember very clearly what it felt like to be under siege.  It was being in college and spending all my time either studying or exercising, not socializing; it was slaving over rituals involving tiny amounts of food; it was studying abroad in Spain and calling my parents every day, crying and frightened.  On one such phone call, my mother remarked, "Maybe it's a good thing you're so miserable, because you'll finally do something about it."  She was right; the siege was unsustainable...but I wasn't yet ready to change. 

And then, in the fall of my senior year, the walls came down and I collapsed.  It was messy and ugly and scary, but it was also a gift, because it allowed me to admit that I needed help.  The edifice I'd so carefully constructed to conceal the anguish I felt lay in ruins at my feet.  There was no more room to hide and deny.  As Lew explains:

"We spend a great deal of time and energy propping up our identity, an identity we realize at bottom is really a construct.  So it is that we are always living at some distance from ourselves.  We live in a fearful state of siege, trying to prop up an identity that keeps crumbling, that we secretly intuit to be empty.  Then Tisha B'Av comes and the walls begin to crumble, and then the entire city collapses.  But something persists--something fundamentally nameless and empty, something that remains when all else has fallen away."

Recovery, for me, has been a process of examining that part of me that survived collapse, mining it for strength, and building a new life around its cultivation.  It's a process that started on the day I left college to enter residential treatment, and it continues to this day.  And the result of all that hard work of rebuilding is a life that is richer and more fulfilling than the one I had before.  The fundamentals of who I am haven't changed...but the way I interact with others, with myself, and with G-d definitely has.  I know myself better now than I ever would have if I had not had to endure the destruction of my walls.  

We will all find ourselves at times in our lives when the houses that we've constructed for ourselves crumble to the ground.  When this happens, the key is to view the destruction as an opportunity to clear out the debris and fully examine what remains at our core.

"Tisha B'Av has a hot tip for us:  Take the suffering.  Take the loss.  Turn toward it.  Embrace it.  Let the walls come down...And Tisha B'Av has a few questions for us as well.  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?"

As we make our way through this time of national mourning, I hope we can each look inward, as well, to see what Tisha B'Av means for us on an individual level.  Remember: you can survive the falling of the walls.  It won't break you--it will hurt, but in the end it will make you stronger.  My hope is that we can each allow for a little destruction, so that we get to experience the possibility and freedom that come along with rebuilding.  


Sunday, July 12, 2015

When Things Get Real

I often think of Israel as my "happy place."  At home during the winter, as I dig out my car from under multiple feet of snow, I fantasize about the perfect summer weather in Jerusalem (80s and sunny every day!).  When I am feeling lonely and disconnected from community, I think fondly of all the warm relationships I have with my friends and teachers in Israel.  When it's Shabbat at home but doesn't look like Shabbat because everyone around me is driving and going in and out of stores, I long for the true peace and quiet of a Jerusalem Shabbat.  When I talk to other people about my time in Israel, I always look so happy that they inevitably ask, "Do you ever think about moving there?"  At which point, I sigh and explain why it's not in the cards right now; people appreciate the logistical and practical issues but usually give me a look that says, "But you'd be so happy there!"

It's true that Israel is a special place to which I feel deeply connected, and in which I experience a happiness that I don't often get in other places.  However, my "sunshine and roses" outlook on Israel is heavily influenced by the fact that I've never been here for longer than six weeks at a stretch, and I'm always here on vacation.  In other words, my time in Israel is not "real life."  No wonder it's so great!

I am now in the middle of my fifth summer in Israel (4th consecutive), and a few days ago I got smacked in the face by an unexpected visitor--reality--and it came dressed in its usual guises: depression and anxiety.  While these emotions are not unusual in my "real life" back at home, I have rarely (never?) experienced them for any significant length of time in Israel.  But there they were, undeniably.  For a couple of days I moved through my life as if I was viewing the world through a curtain of gray gauze.  I was desperately hungry for connection, yet I felt I couldn't connect to anyone.  Empty time made me an anxious mess; I felt a compulsive need to fill every minute with any sort of activity, if only it would distract me from feeling lonely and sad...and yet, there were times when all I had the energy to do was lie on my bed and stare at the wall.

If I had been at home, I would have known that all I needed to do was wait it out, and the dark mood would pass.  But since I was in ISRAEL, all of these tough emotions were accompanied by "judging":  You're not supposed to feel this way in Israel!  You're ruining your time here by being unhappy!  You can't be happy anywhere!  Did these thoughts help?  I'll let you guess.

In the middle of my low mood, though, I made a realization:  The reason I had access to all these feelings was because Israel was no longer a novelty; rather, it had become more like "real life" and less like some kind of utopia.  I understood that the more time I spend in one place, the less realistic it becomes to expect that all of that time is going to be happy time.  That isn't because I'm incapable of being happy; it's because when I'm real, my emotions--all of them, not just the "good" ones--make themselves known.  In a way, these rough past few days have been a sort of compliment to the State of Israel:  "Congratulations, you are now Real Life."

And, in the spirit of being my full, authentic, emotional self in this second home of mine, I used some tried-and-true coping skills to pull myself through:  I cried; I took a nap; I opened up to a couple of great one-to-one conversations; I watched the birds; I sat and read in the sunshine...and, wouldn't you know it, the dark mood passed, just like it eventually always does in Real Life.

This experience has reminded me that no place is the "perfect" place, and that the more time I spend in Israel, the less likely it is that it will all be happy time--but that's not bad, it's just authentic.  Recovery works the same way: it's not all positivity all the time, and there are unhappy and difficult times even when we're genuinely doing well, because that's how life goes.  In the end, I suppose it's a good thing that I finally experienced unhappiness in made the place more real to me, and confirmed that even though it's not Utopia, I love it anyway with my whole heart.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Countering the Inner Critic

I'm Israel!  I arrived last week and have enjoyed a beautiful reunion with many of the people and places I love in and around Jerusalem and, more specifically, the beit midrash at the Pardes Institute.  Today was the first day of classes, and this afternoon I finally got to dive into a fascinating class on aggada, or Talmudic stories.  It was an amazing two-and-a-half hours in which I began to explore Talmud from a new angle and also learned a bit about myself in the process.

There we sat in the beit midrash, my havrutot and I, poring over a piece of aggada.  It was a very engaging text and we got really into it, tossing around ideas as we explored.  Through our discussion, I came up with a way of understanding the text in which I felt pretty confident; not only did it seem to make sense, but it was actually kind of clever.  I felt great--here I was, not two hours into being back in the beit midrash, and already I was cracking the aggadic code.

When we went back into the classroom to discuss the text with our instructor, I was eager to participate (unusual for introverted me, but I felt that good about my theory).  As the discussion went on, though, it became apparent that the way I had read the story was actually completely incorrect.  Very slowly, I inched my hand back down and hoped that the instructor hadn't noticed I had raised it and wouldn't call on me.  A thought raced through my mind:  Whew!  It's a good thing you didn't actually SAY anything!

But then, I noticed other thoughts that followed:

You don't know what you're doing.

You're not smart.

If you don't say anything, at least you'll never look stupid for saying the wrong thing.

I'm not proud of those thoughts, but I am proud that I immediately recognized them for what they were--my critical voice--and my response to them was different than it would have been in the past.  In the past, I would have vowed never to open my mouth in that class again.  I also would have spent the rest of the afternoon berating myself for being "bad" at learning Jewish texts.  Instead, I noticed the thoughts and feelings I was having and managed to come up with some rebuttals for each of the self-critical thoughts:

You don't know what you're doing.  Well, in some ways that is technically correct.  I don't really know what I'm doing.  I didn't grow up studying this material and do have relatively little background in Jewish texts--only what I've cobbled together over the past three summers at Pardes.  I'm not supposed to understand this perfectly yet.  Everyone starts as a beginner, and that's just what I am--a beginner.

You're not smart.  Actually, I am smart.  I earned great grades in school; I have a college diploma and a Master's degree; I'm successful at a cognitively demanding profession.  I'm just not educated in this particular field.  No, I'm not an expert in Talmud or Tanakh.  But I do have a great brain that's full of knowledge about other subjects.

If you don't say anything, at least you'll never look stupid for saying the wrong thing.  This was the hardest thought to combat, because on some level I do believe it.  But I then I remembered what Hillel says in Pirke Avot:  "A bashful person cannot learn." That's something I definitely believe as a teacher, but haven't always believed as a student.  But it's true...if I don't take any risks, I might not experience public failure, but I also won't grow at all.  I have to be willing to ask questions, be wrong, and "look stupid" in order to really learn...and I do want to learn.

Then, of course, there's this gem from one of my favorite go-to websites when I'm feeling down,

And the thing is, I am enjoying it.  I loved that class and can't wait until it meets again, and I'm excited for all the other classes that I'll experience this summer.  I feed off the energy of a buzzing beit midrash and love diving into material that is new and challenging.  And being a beginner is okay.  Not knowing is okay, and being wrong is also okay.  Being scared and bashful and ashamed--that's what's not okay.  So I am going to try hard not to be those things this summer.  I'm going to go ahead and learn, most likely making some missteps along the way, but I'm going to enjoy it and know that this summer I'll have grown in more ways than one.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Shabbat Blues

I guess I'll begin by thanking you for your patience with me, as I've been something of a delinquent blogger of late.  What can I say?  The month of June is a crazy one for teachers, and sadly, writing of any kind (except progress reports) just hasn't been happening.  But I think I've also been putting off writing this post, because it's a sad one for me to write, and I don't like sad things.  Avoidance!

But, here we are.  The sad truth is, a dear friend of mine--my best friend in America--is moving out of state.  In my entire life, I have had only two friends whom I would call Best Friends; one whom I met in college and who has since moved to Israel, and this other friend.  And because I am, perhaps, the world's most introverted person, I don't have many "backup friends" to fall back on.  On nearly every Shabbat afternoon for the past few years, this friend and I have had a "walk date" (both of us have usually hit our limit for sitting and schmoozing by mid-afternoon). Since I've had a hard time finding a comfortable peer group in the Jewish community where I live, those walks have been the grounding center of my Shabbat experience and, in my mind, are one of the most beautiful friendship rituals we created together. I said goodbye to this friend of mine last night because she's away this Shabbat and I'm going to Israel on Tuesday, and by the time I get back, she and her husband and baby will have moved away.  When I think about not having her in my daily life, the only words I can think of are words of sadness:  Loss. Empty. Void. Lonely. Grief.  And for the first time in a long time, I find myself dreading Shabbat.

Of course, the greatest irony in the whole situation is that I was able to sustain a deep friendship with this woman only because I was mentally and physically healthy enough to do so; however, recovery also means that I'm now deeply feeling all the painful emotions that come along with the separation.  And since this Shabbat will be my first official one without her, I'm anticipating that there will be a lot of "feeling" going on...which could be a problem because Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy, not a day to be sad.  It's generally considered "inappropriate" to feel or express sadness on Shabbat, which is why, for instance, we don't sit shiva on Shabbat.  But if anything, recovery has left me less able to dictate my emotions--whatever's going to come, just comes.  How am I really supposed to avoid feeling sad on Shabbat when my friend's absence is going to be most acutely felt?

Well, as it turns out, like most things in Judaism, sadness on Shabbat is not such a black-and-white issue.  It's true that one is generally supposed to avoid experiencing sadness on Shabbat; however, there are times when crying is considered okay, particularly if doing so helps a person to feel better.  One example is that of Rabbi Akiva, whose students found him crying on Shabbat following the death of his son.  The students questioned this behavior, reminding Rabbi Akiva that he, himself, had taught them that Shabbat was supposed to be a time of delight.  Rabbi Akiva replied by saying that it was his oneg (delight) on Shabbat to indulge his sadness.  Similarly, Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema) rules that crying on Shabbat is acceptable if it helps the person to feel better by releasing the sadness from his or her heart.  This makes practical sense to me, because I know that when I try to squelch my emotions, they don't actually go away--they just simmer until they inevitably leak out in some unfortunate way.  On the other hand, if I accept how I'm feeling and inhabit the emotion by giving it air time, the result is like a wave:  it comes in strong, peaks, and ebbs away.  Although crying is painful, it is also wonderful...the release, relief, and calmness I feel afterward usually leave me glad I allowed myself to do it.

When I brought up with my teacher this issue of missing my best friend on Shabbat and worrying that I wouldn't be able to stop myself from being sad, her response was, "Be kind to yourself."  I think I am going to take her advice, and the teachings of Rabbi Akiva and the Rema, to heart this week as I go into Shabbat.  While my intention won't be to make myself sad on purpose, if it happens, I'm going to let it happen.  Suppressing emotions never ends well.  On this and every Shabbat, I hope we can all experience our feelings and move through them so that on the other side we can feel peace.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Moment of Clarity

I feel a bit guilty that it has been almost a month since my last post, especially since this time of year contains such great material:  counting the Omer and Shavuot.  The truth is that I just haven't had in me the energy or space to write anything--life has been a little nutty lately, leaving me with few leftover resources.  But I wanted to make an extra effort to write today, on erev Shavuot, because this really is one of my favorite Jewish holidays...and as an added bonus, it's my Hebrew birthday--a good time for contemplation.

One of my favorite Jewish moments of the year comes early in the morning on the first day of Shavuot, when those of us who have succeeded in staying up and learning all night make our way out into the courtyard of the shul for Shacharit.  As dawn breaks and the birds start singing, we stand together as we hear the Ten Commandments being read.  That moment of standing in community, re-receiving Torah under the early morning sky, always gives me goosebumps.

I love that moment because it is both simple and significant.  On the one hand, the Ten Commandments are some of the most elemental Jewish teachings; on the other, they are some of the most profound.  When we hear them being read, all the background chatter seems to fall away as we "zoom in" on what is most important.  That's one of the things I love about Shavuot:  in the middle of one of my life's busiest seasons, it offers me the chance to tune out all distractions and focus on the essential elements of my relationship with Hashem, my values, and my spiritual life as a whole.

Lately, I have strongly felt the need for a "background noise buffer."  Spring always seems to bring out people's body insecurities; the combination of beautiful weather and summer clothing apparently kicks people's diet-and-exercise mentalities into high gear.  I don't know if that's actually a scientifically proven phenomenon; what I do know is that lately I have felt surrounded by people who feel a need to talk about what they eat and how much they exercise.  As a person in eating disorder recovery, I've worked hard to get out of that mentality and I'm proud of the fact that I don't live my life by those rules anymore...but I'm not immune to peer pressure, and I'd be lying if I said that all of that talk didn't get to me at all.  While it doesn't make me actually question my values, it does sometimes make it harder to live them out proudly.  Taking time to refocus on my true priorities is the only way I can remain confident in my own choices, particularly the ones that seem to go against the mainstream cultural tide.  Refocusing provides me with an opportunity to realign myself so that I am living true to my values.

The same thing happens on Shavuot when I hear the Ten Commandments.  In that moment, I remember that my relationship with Hashem, along with everything I learn within the context of that relationship, is my true North Star.  In that moment, everything else falls away and I am free to reconnect to what's most important.  By the time Shavuot comes around, I badly need that moment of clarity, and I imagine we all do.  It's so easy to get distracted and thrown off course...we all would benefit from a moment free of background noise, a moment in which we reaffirm what it is that is truly at our cores.  This Shavuot, may we all have such a moment, and may we carry it with us along our journeys!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Second Chances

Some days, I wish for a reset button. Every morning, I ask Hashem to help me make the right decisions and do the right thing in every situation…and I really do try…but sometimes, I fall short. There’s always a reason: I was tired; the situation was too hard; I felt uncomfortable; it didn’t seem important—but in the end, I always feel badly when I know I’ve not lived up to my values. I’m especially sensitive about “making mistakes” in recovery, mostly because I feel as though, by this point, I really should have my act together. Even though I know recovery isn’t linear, and I know no one does it perfectly, and I know that even recovered people are entitled to have struggles now and then, I am still very quick to judge myself harshly for anything I perceive as a “failure.” Though I’ve come a long way in terms of being compassionate toward myself, sometimes it's hard to give myself a second chance.

As it turns out, Judaism understands the importance of second chances; in fact, there is an entire holiday devoted to exactly that.

A year after the Exodus from Egypt, Hashem told the Israelites to bring the korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) on the 14th of Nissan, "in its appointed time" (Bamidbar 9:3). However there was a group of men who were unable to bring the sacrifice because they had recently come into contact with the dead and therefore were ritually impure. Upset at being excluded from this important ritual, these men approached Moses and said, "We are contaminated through a human corpse; why should we be diminished by not offering Hashem's offering in its appointed time among the Children of Israel?" (Bamidbar 9:7) Moses took their petition to Hashem, Who saw that these men deeply wanted to participate though they were temporarily unable to do so. In response to these men, Hashem created Pesach Sheni—a, “second chance holiday," one month after the original sacrificial offering, for the members of the community who had been previously unable to participate.

What are we to learn from Pesach Sheni? Perhaps this holiday is Hashem's way of reminding us of the power and possibility of change--if we do teshuva and truly want to "start fresh," it is never too late to do so. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, wrote:

"The theme of Pesach Sheni is that it is never too late! It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was ritually impure, or far away, and even in a case when this impurity or distance was deliberate--nonetheless it can be corrected."

This is a message we would do well to take with us in our journeys through recovery. Slips, setbacks, speed bumps--whatever you want to call them--are bound to happen, but they don't need to be cause for despair. There is always a chance to make a new start. Even if we gave into the eating disorder urge deliberately, the good news is that there is always a next meal, snack, or other food/body-related opportunity to try again.

Recently I was privileged to talk with an awesome group of teenage girls, all of whom are struggling with eating disorders in some form or another. In the course of the conversation, one of the girls admitted that she had recently used behaviors after a long stretch of being behavior free. It was clear that she felt ashamed and was nervous about what the other girls would think, but she needn't have worried...almost before she had even finished speaking, the other girls were reassuring her that, a) they had experienced exactly the same thing; and b) it is never too late to get back on track. One member of the group offered up the following quote: "Every day is a new beginning." And, it's true--we always have the power to make different choices, to move forward, to try again.

Pesach Sheni reminds us of the power of hope and the value of second chances. This year, on Pesach Sheni (and every day!), let's allow ourselves to make use of the opportunity that Hashem gives us to change unhelpful patterns and make new, positive choices. After all, every day is a new beginning!