Sunday, March 29, 2015

Life's Continuity

There's no denying it--Pesach is coming!  This morning I made my first shopping-for-Pesach trip, paying more than seems necessary for things like, "kosher for passover instant coffee."  Although the market was a bit of a zoo, even at 9 am, there was a certain camaraderie among the shoppers, as if we all knew we were partners in this annual ritual of buying expensive food that we will consume for eight days and then give all the leftovers to our non-Jewish friends who think Passover food is "yummy."

Despite the routine stress and anxiety that goes into preparing for Pesach, I do enjoy this holiday because it forces me, once a year, to do things a different way...and also because it has so many rich themes to think about.  In anticipation of the seders I will be attending later this week, I spent part of Shabbat looking through my favorite haggadah (which I've referenced before):  A Night To Remember by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion.  Inside the lengthy Maggid section, during which we retell the story of the Exodus, I found this gem of a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

And what is the continuity of my life?  I am like one who left Egypt.
The Red Sea is split in two and I cross on dry ground
With two walls of water--on my right and on my left.
Behind me--Pharoah's soldiers and horsemen.
Before me--the wilderness
And, perhaps, the Promised Land.
This is the continuity of my life.

(from פתוח סגור פתוח)

In this poem, Yehuda Amichai makes personal the challenge facing the ancient Israelites:  leaving behind something undesirable and unsustainable, in favor of something that is uncomfortably unfamiliar but which promises to be better.

When we read the story of Pesach, the language is so dramatic and the events are so epic that it is easy to lose sight of the human experience.  What must it have been like for those Israelites, fleeing from torturous slavery, pursued by a powerful army, and heading toward the unknown?  I imagine that they were afraid, yet propelled forward by the momentum of the journey, sustained by their faith and their hope of the Promised Land.

Isn't this what recovery--or, truly, any painful but necessary transformation--feels like?

You leave what you are familiar with because you must, because you will die if you remain...yet, "recovery" is scary in its own way.  Other people promise you it's going to be better than what you're leaving behind, but you'll believe it when you see it. In the meantime, there are miles of wilderness to trek through.  Sometimes, it's tempting to reverse course, until you turn around and are reminded of how awful it was where you began.  So, you keep going--because that's the only viable option; because that's the journey to which you're committed; because maybe the Promised Land really is there, after all.

And all the while you're making the journey, you're writing the story of your life--from past to present, and hopefully to future.

Leaving the eating disorder behind is like leaving your own personal Egypt, and what follows is just as significant (though admittedly on a smaller scale) than the transformation our ancestors went through.  It's scary to look ahead and see only wilderness...but remember to hold onto the hope that your own Promised Land is there, too...because it is.  There won't be a road sign telling you when you've arrived, but you'll recognize it when you finally do--the feeling that, after all the wandering, you've arrived at a place where you feel genuinely positive about your life.  You'll remember the slavery you came from, and the journey you undertook, and you'll think, "Wow.  I did that.  I've come  a long way."  And then, you'll keep going, because that's the logical next step, the continuity of your life.

This Pesach, honor the journey you've undertaken, and validate for yourself that it is hard, that it is scary...but that something better does wait for you, if you'll continue on to reach it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

For tough days

Some days are tough days.  Those are the days when you feel like you can't do anything right, like you've made one mistake too many, or like life is dishing out more than you can handle.  It's easy, on days like those, to slip into the "shame mindset."  When that happens, your lose your ability to separate what you do and what happens to you, from who you are.  When I'm in the "shame mindset," I often have the following thoughts:

"I am bad at life." 
"What's wrong with me?"
"Is G-d disappointed in me?"

There are others, but those are the Big Three.  They nearly always pop up when I am feeling vulnerable to shame, and they are unhelpful 100% of the time.

Recently I came across a quote that, I think, challenges Shame quite effectively.  I found it on, and it's based on the talks and letters of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (specifically, Torat Menachem 5742 vol. 3, and 5747 vol. 4):

"Two ways you could write your life:

'I am so small, and I make such stupid messes that even if the Creator of this magnificent universe had some plan for me, by now He must have given up.  So I do, too.'


'I am so small, and I make such stupid messes, yet nevertheless the Creator of this magnificent universe will not let go of His belief in me.  So neither will I.' "

For me, making the shift from the first viewpoint to the second is the key to my emotional well-being.    I am human, and I do make mistakes.  I do sometimes get overwhelmed by life, and I occasionally handle things with less grace than I would have liked.  I sometimes have thoughts I wish I didn't have, or I say things I wish I hadn't said.  All of that is real...and normal.  But the important thing, I think, is to remember that G-d sees beyond my day-to-day missteps and focuses on my true self, my inner being, which contains a spark of the Divine--and He won't give up on that.

I once emailed a special teacher of mine at a time when I was mentally "spinning" about whether or not I should view challenges or obstacles that pop up in my life as G-d's way of punishing me for "bad" things I may have done.  ("I mean, I know the world doesn't work that way, but what if it does?!")  Her response was exactly what I needed in that moment, and I have carried it with me since:

"No one knows how Hashem runs the world, and the most important thing we can do when we don't know what to do is to ask ourselves, "What do I imagine Hashem wants from me right now?'"

The journey is long, and there will be mistakes, large and small, made along the way.  There will be hardships, some of which we will understand, and some of which we won't.  The important thing is to not give up on ourselves, and to try our best, in the moment, to do what we think G-d would want us to do.  It's a perspective that keeps us moving forward, rather than stagnating or moving backward.  We can only do the best we can do, and that looks different from moment to moment.  But it's always good enough for Hashem.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Do I have to feel joy?

Well, it's that time of year again:  Purim time.  Last year I introduced the Purim Challenge, whereby I attempt to find some point of connection to this holiday (not one of my favorites).  So, seeing as Purim is once again approaching...let the challenge continue!

This year, I'd like to focus on the theme of joy.  Purim falls in the month of Adar, a month in which we are supposed to make an extra effort to feel joy.  The Talmud says,

משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה
As Adar enters, joy increases (Taanit 29a)

(As a side note, this verse has been put to music in the form of an incredibly jaunty tune that was stuck in my head the entire time I wrote this blog post.  The. Entire. Time.  Listen here!)

Although the Talmud does not prescribe exactly how one is supposed to increase one's joy during Adar, it's generally accepted that one is supposed to find a way to feel extra happy during this month.

Which brings me to The Challenge:  Joy.

If you asked me for a list of emotions I associate with myself, joy would probably not make the cut.  My eating disorder was deeply entangled with clinical depression, and even from my position in recovery, I still go through periods when my mood dips low.  It's fair to say that even when I'm feeling generally positive about life, I just don't tend toward the extreme end of the happiness continuum.  I often feel content, and I am easily delighted,  No.  Mandated joy is not going to be something I can connect to, and indeed, I think this is one of the main reasons why I am not a huge fan of Purim:  all the gaiety and revelry is just a little bit much.  And, as someone who does not readily experience joy, there are few things I find more alienating than watching everyone else experience joy, leaving me to wonder, "What's wrong with me, that I don't feel like everyone else?"

So, I asked a friend and teacher of mine about the joy theme, and she said that if I was interested in different Jewish views of joy, I should look to Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).  At first, I thought she was joking, because Kohelet is not what I would call a joyful book (perhaps this is why I actually really like Kohelet).  But I took her suggestion and reread Kohelet, and I noticed that interspersed among the cynicism there actually was a fair amount about joy.  It wasn't what I would call, "Purim Joy," but it was a joy that felt much more palatable to me:

"I have observed the task which G-d has given the sons of man to be concerned with:  He made everything beautiful in its time; He has also put an enigma into their minds so that man cannot comprehend what G-d has done from beginning to end.

Thus I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and do good in his life.  Indeed every man who eats and drinks and finds satisfaction in all his labor--this is a gift of G-d." (Kohelet 3:10-13)

I love this.

This, in fact, is how I experience joy:  marveling at the beauty and order of the natural world; feeling fulfilled after doing a good deed; being satisfied when I have worked hard at something and it all comes together.  What I learn from Kohelet is that "joy" doesn't have to be full of loud exclamations of glee; instead, it can be a quiet but deep sense of appreciation for everything good that is in one's life...and a recognition that all of it comes from Hashem.  It's a more subtle version of joy, but it's one that resonates with me...and I like the idea of Adar being a month when I make an extra effort to feel it.

However, I am still acutely aware that even that more nuanced version of joy sometimes feels out of reach, and the pressure of being "ordered" to feel it can be a bit overwhelming.  If that's true for you, then start small.  Find one thing in your day, or in the world around you, that you can appreciate and that makes you feel grounded, grateful, or satisfied.  If you're someone in the position of caring for a person who feels far from joy, know that all your attempts to connect and bring light into that person's world are not going unnoticed.  When I was battling depression, my family and friends never stopped asking me to do fun things with them--even when I repeatedly turned them down.  They knew that at some point, I would be ready, and they wanted me to know I was always invited.  That small act of faith and love on their part made a huge difference in my feelings of connectedness and security...and I bet it's the same for your loved one.  This Adar, take your cues from the great authority on joy--Eeyore--and his buddies:

Image found on