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!