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A little of this, a little of that, and a whole lot of blah blah blah....

Saturday, November 24, 2012

RUN! Don't walk!

About four years ago, I was hitting the gym on my college campus most days of the week, determined to train for Bloomsday, a 12k race in Spokane, Washington. I was first beginning the lengthy process of decreasing and eliminating the massively high doses of medications doctors had prescribed to me under hopefully good intentions but overall poor judgment. The process was arduous at best and came to a screeching halt when my body just couldn't take it anymore--the pain, the increasingly overwhelming fatigue of my still-yet-to-be discovered sleep disorder... I stepped off the treadmill and decided to classify myself into the category of People Who Only Run When They, G-d Forbid, Are Being Chased.

In a sense, I was being chased--by the ticking time bomb that is deteriorating health. Running back then felt very much as though I were trying to escape that pending reality. As much as I felt the aspects of my life that were hard or impossible to control were all external, the environment that was becoming hardest to maintain and exist in was my own physical body--very internal. No matter!  Even in my poorest of health and especially as I began to finally, with G-d's help approach wellness, I found other ways to remain active. I found a love and passion for Yoga, for cycling, for swimming and water based activities and eventually, learned to love other forms of cardio, strength and resistance training. Actively and intentionally moving my body helped me regain the strength, balance and function lost in the midst of severe neurological symptoms. Finally, with the help of a trainer and my own focus and determination, I was as much in control of my active movement as I was of my desired stillness.

And then there is the issue of weight--which I have actively avoided discussing on this forum. I was, growing up, always very underweight. I did not even surpass 100lbs until I was nearly a senior in high school. The ill-suited medication regimen I swallowed like a cocktail for over 12 years did quite a number on my body in more ways than one. It didn't matter if I exercised, ate well or entirely the opposite. Despite being told it was not the medications but rather poor choices leading to this weight gain, as soon as I cleaned a few of those culprits out of my system, without actively trying, I dropped 40lbs like a hot potato. It was a lot of weight to lose in a very short amount of time--less than six months. Right around the time I was finally diagnosed with my sleep disorder and began treatment, the pounds started to creep on again. Now I was eating well and working out, but the stress of adrenaline still pumping through my body each night and the lack of restorative sleep took its toll. I decided to continue going to the gym, continue eating well and let go of any further expectations. I worked with the trainer to shift my weight proportions into higher lean muscle mass and lower body fat and did so successfully. Still, by the time I left Washington at the end of July, I'd only actually lost 5 pounds. To my utter astonishment, since moving to New York in mid-August, I've lost over 20 more. This time, however, I sense that my body is finally just letting go and settling into its natural state rather than reacting in shock to being overloaded. (How is that a metaphor for life?!)

And before this past Shabbos, with a new pair of sneakers, I ran my first mile in over four years. I hadn't planned to. I am in Massachusetts visiting family and my father has a small home gym. I'd planned to get in a good long walk and then some Yoga, but a change in Shabbos plans left me with only half an hour to work out. Before I knew what had hit me, I was running--and loving it! And after Shabbos, I hit the treadmill again, this time to run for about two miles. The difference now is like night and day; I am no longer running away from illness, but very much running toward wellness. It is at once exhilarating, exciting and, somehow, calming; healing.

I wish everyone a good week--a week of peace, of wellness and balance. Sometimes we take these things for granted. They come easily, we push the envelope. Sometimes they feel immensely out of reach. We push against that, we draw inward, or give up altogether. They are not far at all; they are states of being that are in fact within and around each of us. And the only difference between a 12k and reaching peace, wellness and balance is that the latter is not a race to the finish; it's all about how you get there. For now, however, I'm going to run, not walk!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Upon Arising...

Sleep: it is a topic near and dear to my heart--and for better or for worse, it's often close to my mind as well. It is just a couple of months shy of my Two Year WellniversaryMy battle with sleep apnea is one that for the most part, I've kept somewhat private. I have used this forum as a means to educate, advocate, and at times process, but there is much more that goes on 'behind the scenes' so to speak.
Additionally, it is not a struggle, thank G-d, I've had to fight alone. As much as I have let them, my family, friends, and medical team have not only been behind me in this battle but very much fought alongside me. And on the front-lines, ever ready to guide me, when necessary, to wage war and also, when necessary, to surrender, is the loving hand of G-d Himself.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I shared how the experience of being so sick in and of itself was something that heightened my awareness of how close I truly am (and already was) to G-d. Throughout the worst of the neurological symptoms and in times of great uncertainty - when even the most menial tasks were a challenge, I didn't have the energy for anything other than to want. To want more. To want health. And to want to live. And once all of the extraneous layers of "me" were peeled away, all that was left was the very core essence of who I am: a person of great passion, fervent love and true kindness. What a gift, albeit in unusual wrapping paper, to be able to see that.

And yet, with all my gratitude, all my humility and all of my experience, I had an appointment with my new sleep doctor last week that totally threw me for a loop. I am an expert on my story. Sharing it has earned me opportunities and won me awards. I like to think that, G-d willing, sharing my experience has helped at least one person half as much as experiencing and retelling it has helped me. However, after I finished that part of the appointment, the part I am "good at," the part I am "bad at" happened. The doctor said "sit down, and make yourself comfortable." He opened up my charts and began to read the results of the polysomnogram (sleep study) I had about two years ago. There was nothing inherently bad or good or even indifferent about it--just things I hadn't known, things I had preconceived notions about, things that two years ago would have stopped me in my unbalanced, twitching, pain-riddled tracks.
Thank G-d I didn't know! Thank G-d I had almost two years to get so strong and so healthy that I actually don't have to think about sleep all day and night anymore. Instead of living in irrational fear of what could be lurking behind my sleep apnea, I had the limited information I needed to pursue health and recovery. Now, with the additional information that I have and the information that will come in the following weeks and possibly through a second polysomnogram, I can continue on this truly blessed path toward recovery and wellness.

But alas, I have to be honest. This all looks very graceful and put together in typeface and what really happened is this: I did not receive this news like a mentsch, I received it rather like a silly, stubborn, donkey. I argued with my doctor. I cowered in fear and spent a little time feeling sorry for myself. I had a teeny-tiny-temper-tantrum. And when I was done, and I'd thought and prayed about it, I remembered the first thing I say and truly feel each and every morning upon arising:

Modah* Ani Lifonecha Melech Chai V'kayam Sheh'hechezarta Be Nishmasi B'Chemla Rabah Emunasecha!
*Males would say Modeh rather than Modah

...which means...

"I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great."

I remembered that first morning after bringing home my C-PAP machine. I woke up after 4 hours of straight, restful, albeit assisted sleep. Tears flowed freely onto my pillow but not because I'd had a sleep riddled with nightmares, night terrors and uncontrollable limb movements . Rather they flowed because every morning up until this one I had only spoken those words by rote. On this morning, for the very first time I had not even opened my lips to speak yet and already I could hear them as if in a dream. It was so beautiful, so melodic, and who knows--maybe I was dreaming. But on that morning, for the first time, I awoke in genuine gratitude. And when I did open my lips to speak those words, for the first time, I said them with kavannah (intent, concentration, focus).
That feeling has without fail returned each and every morning since and again each night as I pray before bed. It was there when I'd been up all night raging against the machine! It was there when mornings still found my body tired, sore and moving uncontrollably. And it is there today, when I awake feeling rested, energized and blissfully still. Furthermore, the only thing that any test result or any diagnostic label can really truly define or measure is just how blessed and lucky I am that each and every morning, G-d has mercifully and faithfully restored my soul within me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Parsha Post for Veyeitzei: The Supra-rationality of Tiferes

Our reading of parshas Vayeitzei arrives at a meaningful time this year as the dire situation in Israel continues to leave people around the globe in a state of fear and uncertainty. As an American Jew with family, B"H, in Israel, I know the very best thing I can do from here is focus on study, tefillah (prayer), acts of chesed (kindness) and taking on mitzvot. Knowledge, wisdom, faith, kindness and connection are the ideal defense from where I stand, and while I do not intend to use my blog as a political outlet, I will say with confidence and passion--I stand with Israel today and every day.
This week's parsha is the first devoted to the life and times of Jacob. For a synopsis of the Torah portion, click here. You can also read the full text of Parshas Vayeitzei along with Rashi's commentary by clicking here. For the sake, however, of this post, I want to highlight a significant concept that emerges in this parsha that not only corresponds to the month of Kislev and the story of Chanukah, but also is quite meaningful in light of current events.
Prior to this parsha we were introduced to the first two Jewish patriarchs, Abraham and his son, Isaac. Both were extremely righteous men who devoted their lives, efforts and hearts to spreading the word of G-d. Each had his own unique strength and ability in spreading Divinity. Abraham epitomized chesed (loving-kindness) and utilized this character trait to disseminate Divine concepts to as broad an audience as possible. The strength in this approach was that it required no prior preparation from his audience; all his disciples were on a level playing field. A potential flaw was that in not making any prior demands on his audience, his message did not effect permanent change. Isaac personified the idea of gevurah (restraint/judgment) and required his disciples to undergo a process of self-refinement prior to receiving his message. The unique paradox highlighted by both of these methods was well described in last week's Chayenu in the Parsha Toldos Overview, page 7:
"Whereas Abraham's approach can be conceived of as a downward vector, bringing Divinity 'down' to even the lowest rungs of humanity, Isaac's approach can be conceived of as an upward vector, elevating people so they can integrate increasingly higher levels of Divine consciousness into their lives."

Both Abraham and Isaac were effective leaders and educators given their audience and the times in which they lived. Jacob, however, epitomizes the concept of tiferes (reconciliation, harmony), personifying the very best characteristics of both his father's and grandfather's methodology. He managed to blend them in a such a graceful way that he is highlighted in six parshiyos as not only the last of the Jewish patriarchs but also as the first and only patriarch to successfully raise all of his children to be completely committed to G-d's will. Jacob saw that to effect lasting and permanent change, he needed to combine seemingly diametric opposites: chesed and gevurah, loving-kindness and judgment/discernment.

How does this relate to the month of Kislev, the darkest time of the year? How does this relate to the story of Chanukah? And how does this relate to the horrendous events that are now occurring in Israel? Switching venues for a moment, I will take you to a maamar (Chassidic discourse) on Chanukah I've been studying by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, called (in English) Victory of Light.  In the introduction and overview to his discourse, the Rebbe highlights the initial split between the Jews and the Greeks. He explains that the Greeks had no problem with the Jews studying Torah or doing mitzvot. As logical people, they saw many of these laws and customs as sensible and even meaningful. The split occurred when the Greeks could not accept the Jews' fulfillment of mitzvot which did not make sense or hold pragmatic meaning.
The very unique factor of the Chanukah oil itself is that in a sense it epitomizes a significant characteristic of every Jew. There are parts of our soul that fluidly relate to G-d in an intellectual and logical way. There are parts of our soul, that like oil, do not mix with other fluids; this is the part that commits to G-d on an intuitive way that is beyond the parameters of logic and reason. This aspect of every Jew is above intellect; it is supra-rational. The Rebbe goes on to explain the correlation of why upon destruction of the Holy Temple, the Greeks went after the oil. The Temple was filled with things of seemingly greater value than oil! Why was it, then, so important for them to contaminate our oil?
"Every enemy goes after the life-source of their opponent--the wells, the food stocks. The Greeks went after the oil. For therein resides the secret of the Jew. These battles of old are still being fought today. In every generation there are Hamans and there are Greeks..."
The Rebbe continues on to explain that today, "the Greek of old is not always an outsider; he is often alive and well within our own minds, waging a persistent battle against our Divine sensibilities (page 16)."
Abraham and Isaac-- both men of great magnitude and righteousness--acted out of logic and intellect. Jacob, on the other hand, epitomizes that oil aspect in every Jew; he acted supra-rationally, beyond the scope of calculation. He was thereby able to relate to G-d and to inspire those around him in a whole new way, through the characteristic of tiferes. At our very best, we combine these aspects of chesed and gevurah and personify this idea of harmony. In times of darkness, of violence and war--whether it be overseas, in our own backyard, or, G-d forbid, in our own minds, we cannot see the value in that which is above our comprehension. We cannot understand the light that emanates from acts that are supra-rational and above logic.  And yet, there is inherent value in that. There is inherent light that emanates only from the disconnect between our rational and supra-rational selves. That is the light which cannot be extinguished. Even and especially in times of great distress and immense darkness, all the layers of ration, intellect and logic are peeled away. All you are left with is the core essence of your Self. You act and exist in those moments out of the truest most beautiful nature of who you are--a G-dly soul. And that is above reason.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Returning to Your Jerusalem

A few days ago, I read the following in a daily email I receive from

"People want to run away from where they are, to go to find their Jerusalem—as if elsewhere they will find perfection. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing there, make that a Jerusalem."

This struck a chord not only because of my own unique journey, but also because of the common journey we as humans all share. I thought about the aspects of our physical world that we cling to and yet they are only temporary. And that is twofold: inasmuch as we cling so tenaciously to our comforts and 'happiness,' so, too, do we struggle to let go of our fears and our pain. Whether "where you are" is a state of location, a circumstance of obligation, or a sense of mind, it is your Jerusalem. It's not your Jerusalem because it's necessarily what you wanted or how you planned. It's not your Jerusalem because its roads are paved with golden ease. It's not even your Jerusalem because it's permanent--permanence in and of itself is a fallacy! But it is your Jerusalem because in this very moment-- and only this moment--you are meant to be exactly where you are, doing exactly what you are doing.

As I shared in a previous post, Rosh Chodesh Kislev is just around the corner. The new month officially begins tonight. For women especially, it is an auspicious time. We refrain from certain types of work and immerse in extra prayer, particularly in reciting Tehillim (Psalms). Prayer is, of course, a very private conversation with G-d, but my heart is pouring out right now to the many loved ones, friends, and strangers who are suffering from that feeling of disconnect and darkness. For whatever reason, and for many reasons, we can find ourselves in a state of emotional, physical and even spiritual exhaustion. In those times, the walls come down and the heart pours out its song. From the pain you may sit in, it can sound dissonant and be hard to listen. And yet, to me it is the most beautiful song the ears can hear. It is raw, it is genuine, and it is real. 

These states of being can last for moments of a day or even days at a time. And yet, they, too, are only fleeting. However, in those times that we often refer to as moments of weakness, our true strength shines through. We are not weak, inadequate, or unworthy because we feel intellectually, physically or spiritually far from Home/G-d/Jerusalem. We are so incredibly strong because in those moments we are no longer running on intellect, physical strength and emotions alone: it is those times specifically that our soul-power takes over. We run on G-dliness! Even the greatest level of faith is characterized by some level of doubt.

This Rosh Chodesh, as I take some extra time to immerse in my own prayer, I've much to be grateful for. There are many exciting and rewarding things happening in my life right now and I am nearly overflowing with the joy and abundance I feel. At the same time, my heart is open to those who in this darkest month of the year are not feelin' that joy and love. My prayers are focused on that, as well--because as far as you ever feel and as dark as it seems, light is just a breath away and your Jerusalem is already within you. It is there when you are joyful. It is there when you feel strong. It is there when you are certain and self-assured. It is also there when you are sad and when you are afraid. It is there when you feel tired and more than anything just want to rest and be held. It is there--more than ever before--when you let go and give in (even temporarily) to the doubt you feel. For in those moments, when your deepest and truest heart-song sings, then you are in Jerusalem; then you are at Home.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Choosing to Decide & Deciding to Choose

Have you noticed that there are a LOT of decisions to make? And I don't mean just the big ones either. Have you been down the oral hygiene aisle lately? Do I want fluoride in my toothpaste? Tarter control? Whiter teeth? Cavity protection? Gum treatment? Twelve hours of minty freshness?

And then there's the paper goods aisle? That's an utter nightmare! Do I want one ply or two? Now they have three, also! Ultra soft or ultra strong? With lotion? With aloe? With Vitamin E??Quilted, rippled, 1000 sheets...angels, puppies, teddy bears and smiling babies--it's all too much! It's option overload and in the end, you know what? It all goes down the drain one way or another! And with all these choices, which, might I add, we are fortunate to have, is it any surprise that when it comes to the bigger, more meaningful decisions in life that we stand in a stupor unable to move in one direction or another?

Now I think back to the mazes of my early childhood. It was so simple back then to find the part that said "start HERE," locate the "FINISH" sign up ahead and travel via crayon accordingly. Sure, it was scary to think of a page full of purple mishaps, but there really were only two options: move closer to completion or get stuck. Not like today. Now there are 623,954.7 options! We don't always progress in a linear fashion and for many of life's decisions, we don't even know what or where the "FINISH" sign is! There is a delicate balance between acting recklessly and not acting at all. There is a fine line between foolishness and cautiousness. When we are overly cautious, we are stagnant, and that is foolish.

Sometimes it's our own stagnancy that encourages us to make a move. We might grow uncomfortable enough with the current status quo to pursue something (or anything) outside of our "comfort zone." Sometimes it's a gentle nudge from a loving other to get off our tuchus and make a decision. Sometimes, still, it's the stagnancy of others. We see so clearly from the outside how uncomfortable someone else might be in what they deem their own "comfort zone." We see so objectively that this person is neither sinking nor swimming, that this person is barely even treading water. We genuinely want more for those we love and then we can look inward and see the stagnant puddles of muck that have built up on our own journey's path.

I am blessed to have many loving others I can look toward with admiration. I've friends and family who have shown incredible levels of courage and faith. They have taken great leaps and risks to pursue their paths with vigor and zeal. They make it look graceful, and perhaps, I do, too. I, too, have taken some pretty hefty leaps. I greet each morning with vigor and zeal; I close each night with courage and faith. It is because I have so very much that I strive for so much more. I really do want it all and why shouldn't I? For some time now I've felt I am on the cusp of something so very big. I am spiritually, emotionally and to some extent intellectually aware that I am on the threshold of my dream. It is as though I have arrived at the proverbial three doorways and there is the booming baritone voice of the game-show host bellowing, "And which will you choose? Door number one? Door number two? Or door number three?"

Do you open one door up a crack, just to see what's inside? Or maybe you barge on in, tossing caution to the wind. I am contemplative. I think, I talk, I explore and when the time feels right I ask the questions I do have. I am self-aware enough to realize when I just don't know. I am not inhibited at all in asking G-d for help and guidance. I have many mentors and ten times as many options. The tricky part is deciphering the exact moment at which I've passed the point of fruitful contemplation and entered into the realm of stagnant hesitance. Divine Providence has it that just as soon as I began to cross that threshold, the phone began to ring off the hook. Opportunity was on the other line in the form of conversations with strangers, conversations with friends and even conversations with family. Support, encouragement and inspiration comes in so many beautiful shades.

As I think more about this time of year, about the darkness inherent to the upcoming month of Kislev and about the joy and light of Chanukah, I cannot help but think of how this all relates. A spark needs proper kindling and a nurturing environment in which to flourish as a hardy and vibrant flame. The human spark needs love, connection, education, relationship... The time has come to stop asking"when" and start saying "now." It's no longer a matter of asking "where," but a matter of starting HERE. I will not be overcome by option overload. I will begin today by choosing to decide and deciding to choose!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rosh Chodesh Kislev: Only Through Darkness Can Light Shine Victorious

Long before there were weblogs and Facebook, long before I knew how to turn on a computer at all, I kept track of all my memories and correspondence the old-fashioned way: a pen and paper. I began keeping a journal when I was eight years old. I wrote almost every day in a spiral notebook, followed by another spiral notebook and several dozen more spiral notebooks. One of my greatest pains years after moving across the country was finding out that in the many disasters that surrounded our life in and eventual sale of my family home in Massachusetts, ten years of my journals were destroyed and lost. Nonetheless, after I left home, I continued to write. Pen and paper were almost always my first choice, but eventually, computers took over, and two years ago I gave into the lure and luster of blogging-- of having a permanent, seemingly indestructible location for all of my thoughts. Now, after the recent and sudden death of my second laptop, even more of my writing is lost in the abyss of words said and forgotten. Yet, this blog remains...and more importantly, that which is real and truly important is never lost or forgotten!
This Thursday marks Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the beginning of the new month. Kislev is a month that falls during the darkest part of the year. At least here in the northern hemisphere, the days are short, the nights are long, and the darkness and cold can penetrate your very bones. And yet, Kislev is also the month in which the festival of Chanukah falls, one of the most joyous celebrations of our Jewish year. It is on that first night of Chanukah, the 25th of Kislev, that I celebrate my Jewish birthday. This year will mark my 28th year on this little blue planet, and I pray, please G-d, for many more!

As I was sifting this evening through a few of the spiral bound volumes that made the exclusive cut for what I was willing to ship 3,000 miles across country this past summer, I found a letter I wrote on my 23rd birthday to my former 13-year-old self. It's not necessary to share the entire thing, word for word. The gist was a message telling 13-year-old me that it would be OK. That I would be OK. At thirteen, I remember everything seemed so BIG. I felt so small in that, so powerless. Even at 23, telling that frightened 13 year old to 'keep her eye on the prize,' did I truly know what the prize was? I knew at 13 and at 23 that I lived in a world of darkness. I thought at 13 that I wanted some easier way out of that. I knew at 23 that what I'd really wanted was a way in. At 23, I could already tell my decade-younger self that things would get worse before they got better. What I did not know yet, was just how amazingly grand they would get. I had no awareness of how big that prize truly was and how very worth it in the end of the darkness it would be to finally, palpably feel the light shining upon my face. I did not know that there is great comfort in being so very small in the realm of something so much bigger.
Today, I am almost 28. I am wise enough to admit that I know very little. I am optimistic enough to say I have much yet to learn. I can flip through crumpled pages of faded words and mourn the verses that are long since forgotten. The Truth in it all remains regardless. It can be written in pencil, pen, or in typeface-- through blood, sweat and tears. That which I knew to be True at 13 and at 23 and still today and G-d willing tomorrow is what really matters.

First Night, 2010
Almost 28 years ago, two days before the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, I was born. That same evening, Jews everywhere lit the first candle in their Chanukah menorahs. What is the significance? I believe now it is that we are all here to be a light in this world of darkness. I also believe that for a very long time, I went about that mission in an exhausting and ineffective way. You cannot light a room by taking away darkness. You must infuse that darkness with your light. 
Ten years ago, at 18, I boarded a plane headed to northern Idaho. Talk about darkness, this time of year the sun goes down there before 4:00PM! Ten years later, with G-d's help, I live a life of spiritual, bodily and emotional health. It's not effortless nor is it meant to be; it is, however, meaningful and no longer exhausting. I rest peacefully and wake full of vigor and a gratitude that would not be palpable were it not for the darkness I experienced. No longer do I struggle against the natural state of the world around me. More importantly, no longer do I struggle against my own natural state. For I am not a person who struggles with sadness or melancholy. I am not a person who hides beneath a shadow. I am a person of great joy and great light; the struggle ended as soon as I became unwilling to stifle that. The joy began when I allowed my light to emanate from within me, completely uninhibited by fear or doubt.
I've been learning from a Chassidic discourse , Victory of Light, given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. In the introduction he highlights the following:

"...darkness has a purpose. It is an unnatural condition. It is an aberration that exists to awaken our infinite essence, which has the power to transform the darkness to light (page 18)."

When I think about it, even on my birthdays, my parents would always dim the lights as they carried in my cake with its candles all aglow. They, like all good parents, did not want me to ignore the darkness. They did not wish to shield me from its existence. They did want me to appreciate the light, and it is so much easier to appreciate those tiny little flames in a dark, dark room.
Whatever this time of year may symbolize for you, I pray that we all find warmth, light, and joy. May we all merit to shed a little light in a time of great darkness and to celebrate the many blessings we are fortunate enough to obtain.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Beloved of my Soul...

So here's the deal. This is it. G-d and I are in a relationship. We have been for quite some time, but it's complicated. So complicated, in fact, that Facebook can't begin to categorize it let alone describe it. Sure, it came with a proverbial owner's manual: you may have heard of it, it's called the Torah...
Texts upon texts have been written, studied and reviewed to try and better understand it. Men of great stature and minds of great capacity have sought to describe it. At best, when it comes to understanding and describing the one of a kind relationship we share with G-d, analogies must suffice. Rather than saying what it is, we must relate what it is like. 
My relationship with G-d is multifaceted and my service to Him is complex. It can at once be like the love a child feels toward her father and at the same time, like the reverence of a servant toward her master. I express my love through mitzvos; that is my service to G-d. That is my party-line connection straight to the Source of my purest joy, greatest comfort and overall serenity. And yet, my service is complex in and of itself. There are mitzvos I do out of desire and pleasure, like that child to her father. And there are mitzvos I do out of obligation and commitment, like that servant to her master. That does sound complicated indeed!

Av Harachaman: The Merciful Father

I will begin with a parable. The father carries his infant into the exam room. He holds this child close, gently in his arms. The child looks lovingly at the familiarity of his father's face and without realizing what is happening, or why, he feels a sharp and sudden pain. He has been given a vaccine. Instantaneously, those eyes just filled with love now well with tears and the infant begins to cry. Just as immediately, he looks to his father for comfort, and is soothed by the same loving arms that carried him into the exam room in the first place.

Wait a minute--was this compassionate father not the very man who knowingly carried the infant into the exam room where he would get a shot? Did he not know it would hurt? Did he not foresee that this helpless child could no more understand the reason for the pain he would endure than he could resist the urge to cry out so in that brief but shocking moment of agony?
And yet, the compassionate father brought his son to this place knowing he would experience the sting of the needle, knowing he would cry out, knowing full well that shots are scary and hurt--all because he wishes to protect the boy from something much more painful and severe. He cannot tell the child in a way that he could understand why he must endure this act. He cannot even prepare him for the pain he will experience. He cannot take the hurt away or even feel it for him. All he can do is continue to hold the boy gently and close; all he can do is be present in his moment of distress and draw him near in comfort. He can also have the clarity and understanding that this, too, is for the good--that even though it hurts in this moment, it is an act of genuine love and compassion.
The boy will not remember the pain of this shot nor will he likely remember many of the scrapes and stings of childhood. He will, however, remember for all time the feeling of running into his father's open arms. In that, he will have peace. In that, he will feel comfort.

Draw Your servant to Your Will

I've often loosely equated the difference between my relationship with G-d prior to becoming observant versus after becoming observant to the difference between dating to fall in lust versus dating for the loving commitment of marriage. In the former scenario, everything is hunky dory so long as the feelings are intense and positive at all times. In the latter, the reality that emotional intensity ebbs and flows is made tolerable by the realization that the reward is far greater than effort required to move gracefully through a gentle current or a tidal wave.  
Every relationship has its own unique character. That character is defined by and comprised of the two separate entities uniting now as one. That character is not measured by what you do in the moments of intense infatuation. It's not even necessarily measured by what you do in the moments of intense distress. It is, in fact, measured by what you do in all the seconds, all the minutes and the hours in between. It's what you do when maybe no one else is looking. It's what you do when you're tired or hurt or afraid. It's what you do when you actually don't feel like doing anything at all.
Likewise, my service to G-d is not consistently an act done out of joy and pleasure. There are times my soul feels as if it is on fire and I long for the depth of that connection. My prayers are heartfelt, my eyes are open and my intentions are holy and pure. There are times I am tired or busy or distracted. My soul feels like it is on the back burner and my prayers feel a bit detached and forced. My eyes wander to the pile of things I've decided are more pressing in that moment, but it is in those very moments, nonetheless, that I do pray. 
It is in those moments of distance, detachment and distraction that I know how much those prayers matter. It is like that brief conversation in which you put down what you're doing just to say, "I'm here. I'm thinking of You." You may really be thinking of the dirty dishes in your sink, but the fact of the matter is, you put the sponge aside, dried off your dishpan hands and picked up the phone to make the call. If there is meaning and value in a mitzvah done out of joy and desire, how much more so is there value in one done purely out of obligation and unfaltering commitment. In those moments, I almost always find that action precedes motivation. Just as seamlessly as my feelings seemed to waft away in the hustle and bustle of this material world we live in, the very act of slowing down to an utter halt and reaching out from so deep within seems to bring me right back to center. And once again, that fire is burning at full force; even scrubbing kugel off the bottom of a baking dish now takes on more meaning.

A Perfect Service

"Every Jew must serve G-d both as a son and as a servant." (Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 41)

And so this relationship with G-d, in all its complexity, in all its depth, and in all its vital potential is, at the end of the day (and in every moment between) a glorious and graceful balancing act. It is a delicate dance of feet intertwined with the physical world we live in and the G-dliness we strive to infuse it with. We are the vessel; He is the abundance with which we overflow. We are the moon; He is the sun by which we are visible. Together, we have the power to illuminate the darkest nights and the most dismal days. With G-d, we are never alone. At times our very souls are on fire! Through mitzvos we connect--out of love, in joy, with pleasure and a burning desire. Sometimes, the flame burns so very low and can seem to all but extinguish. In those moments, through mitzvos, we connect--out of commitment, out of obligation, maybe out of habit. And in those moments, our longing is so real we cannot even detect its very presence. We are at once the child seeking the comfort of our loving Father's arms and the servant honorably fulfilling our Master's will.

Yedid Nefesh

Every Friday night, as we welcome the holiness and sanctity of the holy Shabbat, we sing a truly beautiful song, Y'did Nefesh, Beloved of my Soul. Shabbat is a time of intense holiness and strong connection to G-d. Many have the custom to sing this again toward the end of Shabbat during seudah shlishis, the Third Meal. As Shabbos comes in each week, our souls are very much alive with that longing for G-d. By Saturday afternoon, as the hours fade and the sun begins to set, we become acutely aware of the pending split between the holy and the mundane. It is in that crucial hour that we sing again, from the depths of our being, knowing full well that the Heavenly gates are wide open. We are comforted by the beauty and passion of these ancient words. And yet, for the many eons that have passed since these words first poured from praying lips, the meaning behind then remains truly timeless:
I cannot ask that I never feel pain, hurt or fear. I cannot ask to comprehend why and when I do. I trust that everything is from G-d, and everything from G-d is good. I merely ask in times of distress for the comfort of my Compassionate Father's arms.
I do not expect to always feel a joy, radiance and vivacity in my service to G-d. I do not expect that my emotions, intentions and actions will always coincide nor that my energy will always maintain the same  level of intensity. I trust that when I feel distant, He will draw me near. The essence of a true and complete love is inherently beautiful and surprisingly simple: companionship. And... him  Your friendship will be sweeter than the dripping of the honeycomb and all taste.

Beloved of the soul, Compassionate Father, draw Your servant to Your will. Then Your servant will hurry like a hart to bow before Your majesty. To him Your friendship will be sweeter than the dripping of the honeycomb and all taste.

Majestic, beautiful, radiance of the universe my soul is sick for your love. Please O G-d, heal her now by showing her the pleasantness of Your radiance. Then she will be strengthened and healed and eternal gladness will be hers.

All worthy One -- may Your mercy be aroused and please take pity on the son of Your beloved, because it is so very long that I have yearned intensely to see the splendor of Your strength, only these my heart desired, so please take pity and do not conceal Yourself.

Please be revealed and spread upon me, my Beloved, the shelter of Your peace that we may rejoice and be glad with You. Hasten, be loved, for the time has come, and show us grace as in days of old.
*English Translation of Yedid Nefesh taken from

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Shabbos Schmooze: Parshas Vayeira--The Original Before & After Shot

This week's parsha is one of two parshios focused predominantly on the life of Avraham. According to an overview of this week's parsha in this week's Chayenu*, these portions distinctly divide the account of Avraham's life into two spiritual phases. It is the original 'before' and 'after' shot, if you will. The first, Lech Lecha, refers to the period of time prior to Avraham's circumcision. Lech lecha, if you will recall from this post, translates in English as "go, go to yourself." It as an account of Avraham's journey toward his true self and only in this week's parsha, Vayeira (meaning "G-d appeared to him") does Avraham begin his life as a Jew.

*Chayenu is an amazing weekly publication of Daily Torah Study that a friend and learning partner encouraged me to subscribe to--I have NOT regretted that investment at all and highly recommend this to anyone looking to rev up their level of learning and study.

I have shared often with many people that Lech Lecha is my favorite parsha and I would classify Vayeira as a close second. I think, as a ba'al teshuva, I am strongly drawn to the positive midos (character traits) that Avraham exemplifies as not only the first Jew, but in a sense, the original ba'al teshuva! To get technical, G-d actually appeared to Avraham three times in Parshas Lech Lecha, so to imply that He only appeared to him after his circumcision, beginning in Parshas Vayeira is not entirely accurate. What can be taken from this explicit distinction, however, is the idea that prior to undergoing circumcision, Avraham's journey toward discovering his true self was very much self-directed. Only after circumcision, only after for the first time fulfilling a commandment that was specifically directed from G-d, does Avraham reach this new level of spiritual connection in which "G-d appears to him and elevates him to a level of spiritual life beyond the reach of human effort (Chayenu, Week of Parshas Vayeira, October 28-November 2, 2012, page 5)." The very act of Avraham performing his own circumcision is exemplary of his entrance into this new relationship with G-d. There is a level of selflessness and faith I cannot even begin to comprehend in being able and willing to inflict that level of pain on oneself for the sake of fulfilling G-d's will.

I could never begin to compare myself to Avraham. I could pray, strive and toil to be a person even one billionth as holy. There are unique concepts in the story of Avraham, particularly in this parsha that I can loosely relate to, however. As a ba'al teshuva, I am often aware that my own life story could seemingly be divided into before and after, into lech lecha and vayeira. In some ways, the change is physically obvious. My daily life is different in palpable ways. Where I live, how I live, how I dress, how I eat, when and where I work and play are all distinctly affected by my choice to live, breathe and walk Orthodox Judaism. Some changes may be less obvious and more subtle. My relationships with others, my relationship toward myself and my relationship to G-d have all distinctly changed. The peace and contentment I feel within greatly enhances my ability to connect in a peaceful and content manner with others.

Much of the journey up until now would not have been possible without a leap of faith. Sometimes that meant facing a test or tribulation. Sometimes that meant sitting in some significant discomfort. Oftentimes, our comfort zone in and of itself is just a manifestation of what's familiar--not necessarily what's comfortable at all! There will, G-d willing, be many more miles of faith to leap, of trials to endure and discomforts to tolerate. However, I have crossed the threshold of life before finding my true self and entered into the times in which my path is clear, my hopes are strong and my actions and intent are backed by the solidarity of my connection to G-d. Many parts that were once a struggle are now blissfully effortless. It is very much that "level of spiritual life beyond the reach of human effort." If I were asked how and why that is, my answer would be very simple: Hashem li v'lo ira. G-d is with me, I shall not fear.

Good Shabbos!