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!