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!