Monday, February 2, 2015

The Carob Tree

It is one of the great ironies of life in New England that I just shoveled a foot of snow off my car for the third time in a week, and in two days we will celebrate Tu B'Shevat--the "new year of the trees."  The incongruity is striking, especially since all the trees I can see are coated with a thick, fluffy layer of white.  But, I love Tu B'Shevat, if for no other reason than because it promises warmer, sunnier, blossom-filled days to come.

Yesterday, a dear friend and I hosted a Tu B'Shevat seder at our shul in conjunction with an incredible organization in Israel called Livnot U'Lehibanot, of which we're both alums.  To support our efforts, Livnot provided us with beautiful Tu B'Shevat seder booklets, full of insights into the spiritual meanings behind all of the symbolic fruits and seeds we eat to celebrate the holiday.  One stood out, and I've been mulling it over since:  the carob.

The Hebrew name for carob is חרוב (charuv), which has several different meanings, all related to the themes of destruction and hardship.  This sounds depressing until you learn that in Judaism, struggles are seen as steps toward greater elevation and growth--not as reasons for despair.  The carob tree, therefore, represents resilience and the determination to stay the course through challenging times.  Additionally, according to the Talmud, the carob tree takes 70 years to bear its first fruits; cultivating a carob tree requires dedication to the cause despite not seeing results until far in the future.

Is it just me, or could carob be the ultimate symbol of recovery?

If there is one thing I can say about recovering from an eating disorder, it is that it often takes a long, long time.  Maybe not 70 years, but it can feel like 70 years when you're slogging through appointments and treatment programs and creeping toward health inch by painful inch.  Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to just give up, rather than continue the slow fight toward a life that you can't really visualize but that everyone says will be "better."  Remaining committed to recovery requires a belief that the challenges faced now will lead to a fuller and happier life later.  The entire process cultivates resiliency, courage, and faith--and the reward for sticking with it is a life that nourishes you, just as the carob tree nourishes those who are patient enough to grow it.

But what about carob as a symbol of deprivation and struggle?  How does one feel positive about that?  Well, Judaism teaches that although carob trees represent destruction, their roots extend deep down to the source of water underneath the earth:

"Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Shimon said: 'Carob and sycamore roots spread down to the groundwater.'" (Midrash Rabba 13:17)

What does this mean?  Perhaps it teaches us that sometimes, things have to fall apart before you can address the issues that are at the root of the problem.  Here is a quote that I love from the Livnot booklet:

"Sometimes when things break down, hardship serves as a red flag, telling us that the essence of our existence was out of tune all along.  According to Jewish spirituality, we are meant to practice seeing every experience as an opportunity to grow.  Sometimes we want to create and to make the world better, but the energy for our effort doesn't come from the right source.  One cannot expect to make peace only because of the fear of war, or to build strong relationships out of the fear of being alone.  So, we find ourselves in an endless struggle.  Instead of paying attention to the source, too many times we try quieting the symptoms.  In this case, we need to go through a process of deprivation, where all our tools are broken or abandoned, in order to connect our roots back to the groundwater."

My eating disorder was a huge red flag that something was very, very wrong.  At the time, I had no words--or even clear ideas--to explain what the real problems were.  The only way I could communicate that I was unhappy was through my body.  It wasn't until I had completely fallen apart, that I could start to get at the real issues at play.  But even then, recovery didn't happen just because I knew I didn't want to live with an eating disorder for the rest of my life.  In other words, treating the symptoms did not actually solve any of the problems.  Addressing the true roots of my unhappiness has required a lot of therapy and self-examination--all hard work that couldn't really begin until the symptoms were under control.  Despite the destruction that anorexia brought to my life, I am grateful that the struggle of emerging from my eating disorder allowed me to really see where my system was broken, because the process of repairing it has left me stronger than I otherwise would have been.

This Tu B'Shevat, I wish for all of us the strength and determination of the carob tree.  May we have the courage to stay the course and bring ourselves back to the groundwater that nourishes us!