I am curious to know if there is a Biblical source for the healing power of the sun?
We know that Vitamin D is manufactured by the interaction between the skin and sunlight, and that the main role of vitamin D is to increase absorption of calcium in the digestive tract.
Looking to Biblical sources for the sun’s healing power, we find the following episode: In Genesis, the story is told of the battle between Jacob and the angel of his wicked brother Esau. This wrestling match lasted throughout the night with the two opponents locked in a head-to-head competition. As dawn approached, Jacob’s nemesis took a cheap shot below the belt, dislocating Jacob’s hip and giving him a limp.
After the above story, the verse states (32:32), “And the sun shone for him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, asks in his classical commentary: What do the words “for him” mean? When the sun shines, is it not shining for everyone?! He answers by telling us that the sun had risen for Jacob’s benefit, “for him,” in order to heal his hip.
Could this be an allusion to one of the wonderful healing mechanisms that G-d has implanted in the natural world?
The sun is indeed a recognized source of health and healing in the Jewish tradition. In the book of Malachi, it states (3:20): “And the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings.”
We are told that the light that illuminated the world during the six days of creation was removed from the world. The sun is only a minute fraction of this original light (1/60th to be exact). In the Jewish description of messianic times, this divine light will return to the world once again for us to enjoy. If the sun contains such incredible powers to heal, can you imagine what the “original light” will be able to do?
As a 12-year-old boy, I was diagnosed with cancer. After multiple surgeries and radiotherapy, I went into remission for almost three years. The tumor returned when I was 16. After another round of surgery and chemotherapy, I received, thank G-d, an “all-clear,” and went straight back to yeshivah. The thoughts expressed here are an expansion of an idea that gave me strength during those years.
Yutu is walking through the snow in northern Canada, starting out on a fishing expedition to bring food and supplies back to his Eskimo settlement.
As Yutu is walking, he sees a dark object in the snow. Upon closer inspection, it is a thin piece of wood. Yutu notes that while one side is rough, the other side is perfectly smooth. Obviously, someone has worked a while on this. He also notices the shape. It’s not an exact square; it juts out on one side, and has a piece missing from another side. There is some color on the smooth surface. There is no specific design : it looks completely random, as if someone had just dumped paint onto the piece.
He’s totally confused. Why would someone take a rare and very useful resource, wood, and ruin it by cutting it into such a small size? Even more so, why would the person then spend more time and effort on this piece of junk, smoothing and painting it? What in the world was he thinking?
Obviously, if Yutu had ever been in contact with modern civilization and culture, especially in a house with kids, he would have immediately known what you may have realized by now: he was looking at a piece of a jigsaw puzzle! Not a puzzle meant for young children, mind you, but one of those nearly impossible 1000-piece puzzles. Had you shown him the picture on the box—or, even better, the other 999 pieces—he would understand perfectly, and everything would “fall into place.”
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? These are questions only G-d can answer. But perhaps this parable can shed a little light and provide a small measure of comfort.
We are like Yutu the Eskimo, looking at a tiny section of the greater picture. We see only one small piece of a cosmic puzzle with an infinite number of details and pieces. What the full picture is, and how the pain and suffering fits in, we will never know—until Moshiach comes. Then the last piece will be put into place, and we’ll see the completed puzzle.
The point of the puzzle is precisely the fact that you don’t yet see the big picture. Once all the pieces are in place, the game is over. It’ll look nice, and you may even frame it, but there is nothing left to puzzle over.
If we saw the reason why we suffer, and there was a clear correlation between action and consequence (whether positive or negative), we would have no free will. With immediate divine results, only idiots and masochists would ever misbehave.
The reason for, and the challenge of, this world is that we, with complete free will, should choose to do what’s right. If He wanted angels, perfect and totally subservient, we wouldn’t have been created. He made us so that there should be challenges and we should overcome those challenges.
Back to Yutu the Eskimo. Yutu doesn’t have too much time to ponder the sliver of wood. He has a lot of work to do, and the freezing winds are making it difficult to stay outside. He pockets the wood, and gets to work building himself an igloo to house him for the next few days. An hour later, finished with the shelter, he starts fishing.
Lying exhausted on his makeshift bed of snow that night, he finds it difficult to sleep. He’s cold. After tossing and turning for a while, he has an idea. He takes the wood out of his pocket and lights it. With the insulation of the igloo, the fire is just enough to take the edge off the cold, and Yutu sleeps well.
The next day, sitting alone by the ice hole waiting for something to get caught on his line, he sees someone approaching in the distance. Great, something to break the monotony!
The man appears to be looking at the floor, searching for something. Finally he comes within earshot, and Yutu asks him what he is looking for.
This is Jack, a marine biologist and Oxford graduate. He’s doing a study on the sea creatures of the Arctic. Knowing that the Eskimos’ help and knowledge would be a useful asset, Jack learned to speak a fluent Inuit.
Jack explains that he had a 1000-piece puzzle. “Yesterday, one of the pieces went missing.”
After some thought, Yutu tells Jack about the piece of wood he found the day before. Is that what he’s looking for? If so, there’s no point looking for it; he burned it.
At this, the cool, collected scientist becomes enraged and starts shouting. “How dare you? That was very precious to me, and you just go and burn it!”
Yutu, who still hasn’t fully grasped the whole idea of a puzzle, gets confused. “You just told me you still have 999 more such pieces. Why are you making such a big deal about one little piece? Enjoy all the other ones, and forget about this one!”
Of course, anyone who has seen a puzzle knows that when one piece is missing, the whole puzzle is incomplete, almost worthless. The whole unit is ruined.
When we look around the world at the 6 or 7 billion people currently alive—and, closer to home, the 15 million Jews—we may think, “What difference does it make if I study Torah and do mitzvahs? You think G‑d even notices or cares? Either way, there are millions of others; I don’t count.
“And even within my own life, I’ll have thousands of weeks, tens of thousands of days, millions of hours and minutes. Does it really matter if I put on tefillin today? Say Modeh Ani in the morning? Learn another little bit of Torah during my few spare minutes? Does it really make a difference?”
This is a second lesson from the parable. Every person has a part in the cosmic puzzle. We may even have more than one piece. Perhaps every second, every opportunity to do a mitzvah, is another potential piece. Each person has a unique, irreplaceable contribution to make. Once all the pieces are in place, the inner perfection of the world will be revealed. This will happen in the era of Moshiach, about which the verse says, “Death will be swallowed up forever.” May it happen soon.
2/3 of a Mommy
It's been just about a month since Mother's Day, but I'm still trying to work through its after effects. Now there were so many ways to celebrate Mother's day this year. Brunches, flowers, candies, gifts, personalized jewelry, and of course, a good sale, as everyone knows that nothing says, "Thanks for giving birth to me," better than 30% off small appliances.
I still find it impossible to lie, even to strangers, about my daughter But the most popular gift in my neighborhood was a t-shirt. Around the corner from my apartment, a boutique was and is still selling T-shirts that declare to the world how many children the wearer has. On stylish, burnout cotton, the tops are emblazoned in trendy print, "Mommy of 1", "Mommy of 2", etc. Everyone had one. Now that Mother's Day is past us, the brunch specials are over, my omelet and mimosa are but a pleasant memory and my discounted blender is installed happily in my kitchen. Meanwhile the t-shirt's have hit the clearance rack yet I am left with a dilemma – which one do I buy?
Living in New York City, I spend a lot of time in public. Having a ridiculously adorable baby with me tends to invite a lot of conversation. Depending on the length of the bus ride, eventually, people will get around to asking me if this is my first child. Yet one good look at the amount of wear and tear on my baby carrier and stroller and one can gather that no, this is not. When I tell strangers that Izzy is my third child, the natural inclination is to ask about my older two. "I have a son who just turned four, and a daughter who died when she was almost five months old." Silence. No one knows how to react.
So, do I get the "Mommy of 3" t-shirt? Should I be wearing a trendy conversation piece begging strangers to ask where my third child is when I'm out with my boys? No, that's not the kind of awkward interaction I want to invite on myself. Yet, I still find it impossible to lie, even to strangers, about my daughter. I refuse to pretend she never existed or use a nebulous answer regarding her whereabouts to gloss over the fact that she died. So, the "Mommy of 2" shirt isn't for me, either.
Every day, no matter how pleasant, no matter the occasion, will be a day without my daughterThere's no "Mommy of 2/3", shirt, but that's the one I need. Better yet, I need a t-shirt that says, "2/3 of Mommy", because each of my children is a piece of me, and one piece is gone. Some days, that is very obvious and the easiest way to communicate this to the rest of the world would be to have it on a t-shirt. The grief of losing a child is devastating to a parent's psyche and there are many ways in which I'm "not all there." My thought processes are fractured, concentrating is harder than it used to be and I'm not as quick on my feet as I once was. Most profound, though, is the incompleteness of my happiness.
Thank G-d, we recently welcomed into the world our third child, a son, Yisroel Simcha, or Izzy for short. When I was pregnant with him, I told my husband that I wanted to make a big deal of his birth. I wanted balloons, a big party for his brit, the whole shebang and I got it.
I thought that creating a big celebration would lighten my heart and maybe even repair it. The sadness of grief found its way into my joy and took up residence, redefining joy for me. Every day, no matter how pleasant, no matter the occasion, will be a day without my daughter. Even the happiest moments for me, no matter how bright, will always be tinged with darkness.
Sometimes I look at my living family and feel so filled with love that I could radiate with it, overwhelmed with joy to the point of spilling incoherent tears because these people are just so amazing. But even those heavenly moments of crazy-lady love are so augmented by the constant presence of grief that happiness is now a completely different emotion than it once was. Happy feels different now. This ecstatic adoration of the man I chose and the men I made is not a single color of joy, but an iridescent emotion, glimmering in varying shades, depending on the light.
I don't know if that can be condensed onto a t-shirt, or run through a discounted blender, but my mimosa will be commemorating all I've had and all I have left. I'll drink to all of my children, wherever they are. Happy Belated 2/3 Mother's day to me.
Playing It Safe
I was eating healthy - all whole grains – and walking daily. Yet the fetus I had been carrying passed away in the sixth month of pregnancy without warning, despite the fact that I had been playing by all the rules. Tragedy struck when I was doing everything right. Since then I have come to re-examine the rules that I live by - the cautious, and safe routes that I had trodden faithfully - in the fictitious belief that they would protect me from real pain. When tragedy finally came, these rules could not protect me, and it forced me to confront the real costs of playing it safe. How much had I missed out on, I wondered, as I traveled the safe route?
Tragedy struck when I was doing everything rightReal life comes with suffering, but it also comes with very possible and permissible pleasures, like ignoring the mess, and sitting right down on the dirtiest part of the floor to build mega blocks towers with my kids. Like standing on a chair to take the Purim costumes out of the closet, and using them to transform a Shabbat morning instead. Like telling my Shabbat guests to kick the toys aside as they come in, since before the meal I was saying my prayers instead of tidying up, and the kids are just going to make a mess again as soon as the meal starts.
This past Thursday, I went away with a friend, despite the shopping required for both this week's Shabbat, and a major event I was hosting the following week. Both the shopping and the cooking got done, and despite the simple food, everyone enjoyed Shabbat. The pleasure of this Shabbat didn't come from gourmet food. It came from a mother who had chosen to take a day for herself with a friend in order to be relaxed on Shabbat, and ready for major work and organization after Shabbat.
It's the pleasure that comes when you stop playing it safe. I am no longer too busy to learn Torah and attend classes. (Perhaps I never was since I always found the time to read a novel or a magazine that didn't really take me anywhere.) Since learning that I cannot avoid suffering, I have also decided not to avoid what makes life worthwhile.
I have convinced my husband that this year we really should go away as a family for a few days, despite the fact that we still can't afford it. Instead of a hotel, we are going to stay by friends up north, but we are going.
Losing this baby made me realize that the things that I am waiting for may never happen, both good things as well as bad. But in the meantime there is the gift of this day to be savored and shared with the people I love, especially these two miracles who for months now had to put up with a mother who was just too tired…. - it doesn't matter for what. Fill in the blank. Playing it safe made me tired.
There are rules, real rules, called mitzvot, which give structure and meaning to our lives. These are the rules worth keeping. But there are other rules, the ones we make up ourselves. We usually make them up during childhood in order to help us feel safe. These are the ones worth re-examining. My rules made me tired. Perhaps yours make you feel sad, or dull, or old. Perhaps they tell you that you need to have a certain amount of money in the bank in order to be prepared…
It's time to start living the life we already haveNow is the time to re-examine these old scripts and look at the ways they are holding us back. It's time to stop preparing for whatever we are hoping for or fearing from the future, and start living the life we already have.
This year I am not the mother of that hoped for third child. That's already a given. But I still have a choice. My choice is between fully living this given reality, or playing it safe and just going through the motions while I wait around.
I recognize her face, but I don't know her name. Had she not stopped me, I would have nodded and continued on. But she grabs my arm, and demands, "Are you still going to the gym, because I haven't seen you." "No," I acknowledge. "Why?" she insists, "I mean besides all the usual excuses." I am tempted to answer. Tempted to watch the smug certainty slide off her face as she confronts my unexpected tragedy. But I just smile. "I have my reasons." She studies me for a moment, both judge and jury. "I believe you," she declares, as she finally releases me.
"You can't stay six months pregnant forever"This woman remarked on only my behavior. But it is only one of several encounters lately that have left me wondering about the way women consider other women's bodies to be public property. Usually the script reads like this. "You've lost weight." The conscientious observer remarks approvingly. To which I remind them gently, "I was pregnant. I'm not pregnant anymore. You can't stay six months pregnant forever."
This is a no man's land, a land where weight loss is truly a loss. I would happily trade places with my burgeoning neighbors, but I didn't make it to the third trimester. Instead I delivered a stillborn at the end of the second trimester, and returned home to begin the process of becoming un-pregnant, without the accompanying adjustment to motherhood. It took about seven weeks, until I felt the accompanying rush of vitality that usually characterizes my non-pregnant states.
Still every time someone remarks on my weight loss, I am overcome with a renewed sense of loss, perhaps because these comments are always intended as a compliment. This is true even for people who are aware of the loss, as though they have forgotten the impact pregnancy has on a women's body. But pregnancy is not the only private process that impacts the body. Sickness, grief, pain and marital disharmony, can all lead to weight loss. Weight loss is not always a cause for celebration. Sometimes it's a reason to cry.
The body itself is clothing for the soul. As I write this, I wonder about the way women seem to consider other women's bodies to be cut off from their personal stories. The Torah anticipated this problem, and provided a way to wake us up to the reality that the person we are passing on the street is more than just a body waiting to be judged on its aesthetic appeal. The laws of tzniut (dressing modestly) teach us that the body itself is clothing for the soul. By de-emphasizing the body we are declaring, I am not a body. I am a soul wearing the body's clothes.
This is a powerful message to declare about ourselves, but it is not intended to only apply to us. Taken one step further, the process of learning to view other women as internal beings, each with their own rich personal heritage, is to grant every woman we meet a gift that allows them to transcend the narrow confines that society attempts to imprison women within.
Visualizing Our Reality
Thirty-six degrees Celsius. Another morning I take my temperature. It's the same, thirty-six degrees Celsius. Day after day, morning after morning. It stays the same. I can't tell you how much I want it to change. To go up. A rise in temperature would be a sign that I ovulated which would mean that maybe, just maybe I could be pregnant again. But the temperature stays the same.
Thirty-six degrees Celsius.
I go through phases. Some months go by and I don't bother taking my temperature. It's almost a relief, to wake up and not know what the thermometer would say. I've tried hormones, I've performed treatments. I take herbs and try different alternative medicines. I know that something has to work. Some things do appear to help, some things don't.
Some days I feel like giving up, and you know what, on some days, that's okay. I am so very grateful. After many trials and tribulations, I am so fortunate to have two healthy children. And I feel blessed every second of my life. Yet some days I get hopeful that maybe I will be blessed with more. So I take out my trusty thermometer. It tells me the truth, it won't betray me.
Again the thermometer reads: thirty-six degrees Celsius.
I can't remember who told me, but I once heard that if I wanted to become pregnant then I would have to visualize it happening. I close my eyes, I meditate. I imagine my belly becoming round, my body full and feminine. I try to feel the kicks as my baby moves within me. I pray so hard for this dream to become true. "If nothing else, know Elana that it can happen.
In the past there were two times that I took my temperature and it didn't say thirty-six, but 37.7 degrees Celsius. One rise in temperature was my son, the other my daughter.
People ask me, "What helped? What did it?" Was it the treatments? The herbs? The acupuncture? "Everything" I answer. It was everything and nothing. Each action was another drop of water needed to fill the cup. Without a single one of those drops the cup wouldn't be full.
I sing with my children a beautiful song of hope. A song that Jews have been singing for centuries, "I believe, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Mashiach. And even though he may tarry, I still will wait for him each day to arrive. I believe!"
There was once a king of Aram who sent warriors to a certain location to ambush the Israelites. Elisha the Prophet warned the king of Israel not to pass by that place. The king avoided that area and was saved. This happened many times. The king of Aram was furious and wanted to know who the spy was, who was revealing all his military secrets to the king of Israel. His advisors explained that it wasn't a spy, but Elisha the Prophet who through prophecy knew what was going on. The king of Aram then wanted to capture Elisha. He found out Elisha's whereabouts and at night surrounded the town with a large brigade.
Elisha's attendant woke up the next morning shocked to discover that they were in grave danger. "Alas my master, what shall we do?" He asked in panic. Elisha told him, "Do not fear, for those on our side are more numerous than they are," (II King 6:16). G-d opened up the attendant's eyes and he saw the brigade of Aram surrounded by an army of angels standing on the hills with chariots and horses capable of destroying the enemy. Aram attacked and Elisha prayed that they should be struck by blindness. They were and he escaped.
A great rabbi, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, asked, "Why did G-d send the army of angels if in the end they didn't do anything and played no role in the miracle?" He answered that from here we learn a very important lesson. As long as Elisha's attendant was afraid, no miracle could take place. Faith was lacking. He couldn't imagine any way out and his fear paralyzed the forces of Divine deliverance.
The first thing that Elisha had to do was calm his attendant and show him the truth: G-d was protecting them! When G-d saw that the assistant trusted in Him and no longer feared Aram's warriors He could then act on his behalf and save him.
"I believe, I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Mashiach. And even though he may tarry, I still will wait for him each day to arrive. I believe!"
I walk to the Kotel otherwise known as the Wailing or Western Wall. It is the only physical remnant that we have of one of the exterior walls of the Holy Temple. I see stones. There is no building, no glory. I close my eyes and visualize. I imagine the Holy Temple rebuilt, standing tall and majestic. I see an end to all suffering, a gathering of all Jews, and a time of peace and rejoicing. I light Shabbat candles, I visit the sick. I take care not to spread gossip or slander. I fill the cup with drops of water. I take my temperature…One day it will be 37.7 degrees Celsius again. I believe!
I hardly knew her. Miriam was a thirty-something professional - we sat in the same office, and had worked side-by-side for about a year. She was always very nice, intelligent and charming, but we were never close since she lived in another community and we didn’t travel in the same circles. I guess we were just so busy with our own lives, and since our lives were so different, they never coincided. While we really enjoyed working together; talking about this and that, we just never had all that much in common: After all, her whole world seemed to revolve around her work, whereas my career was my family; with the office but a small part of my life.
I'd always thought she was happy: everything in her life was going just as she'd planned - she loved her job and was advancing up the corporate ladder, she had a caring and successful husband, and they had just bought a beautiful home. Everything was going right. Everything was perfect. Or so I thought.
What had I said in the past? How had I been insensitive? And then, one day, out of the clear blue, as we stood around the coffee machine, she suddenly burst into tears. Startled, I tried to calm her, and when she felt a bit better she poured her heart out to me.
Everything was going right in her life... except for one thing. She was not getting pregnant.
Miriam told me she and her husband had been trying to conceive, never expecting any problems, but after trying for over two years - nothing had happened. At first they'd laughed it off as 'work-induced stress', but after a while they realized it was a more serious problem. And so, while everything else was going so well, this one thing was certainly not. And this one thing was what they desired more than anything else.
"I thought of nothing else," she recalled to me. "I would be sitting in a meeting with a client and would be thinking about having babies. I remember once one of our co-workers made an innocent remark about going away for the weekend with her husband and leaving the kids with her mother. She was nervous about the kids missing her, and about her mother's ability to cope with three little ones. She smiled at me and said, 'You are so lucky you don't have these problems.' I gritted my teeth, smiled at her, and then went to the bathroom and cried for two hours."
I felt so terrible that someone said that to her, and then realized how easily I could have been the one to have. What had I said in the past? How had I been insensitive? It never even occurred to me that this was a painful topic. Never having had any inkling that she struggled with fertility problems (in truth, never having realized that anyone struggled with fertility problems) I was not aware of what a painful issue it was in so many lives.
I was taken aback - here I had worked next to this young woman for a year, we'd chatted casually about all kinds of things, and I had had the feeling that her life was proceeding just as she'd planned. Yet all along she'd been feeling deep-down miserable, and just hiding it well. And then, one day, over coffee, she could keep it in no longer - out it poured...and to someone she barely knew!
At first I didn't know how to react. Ironically, I had always been a bit intimidated by her. Miriam was a real powerhouse. Next to her, such a successful career woman, I felt like an ordinary housewife. Little did I know that it was what I had that she valued most. But Miriam seemed to need someone to confide in, someone objective and somewhat removed from her personal life; and I had a responsibility to listen. While I did not know why she picked me, I figured that if she had, I owed it to her to try and help in whatever way I could.
She told me she had started seeing a medical professional, a fertility specialist, who kept sending her for more and more tests - with no results.
"You just don't know what to do, who to talk to" "I was overwhelmed; I would go to the doctor's office to do an ultrasound test to see when I was ovulating, and then rush to work. Many times I came late, and though the boss was very understanding I felt bad having to explain to him and to all my co-workers why I was always late and often grumpy. And then when I started on medication I felt worse physically, as well. And after all that, I would get my period - I was a total nervous wreck."
But just getting to a doctor, she explained, is not enough. Apparently each doctor has a specific specialty, and a doctor who helps one couple may not be able to help another. Miriam said she's met many couples who spent endless hours pursuing unsuitable doctors and inappropriate, time-consuming, anxiety-provoking treatments. Sometimes they would wait for months just to get to see a particular doctor only to be told that they should stop trying, that they were too old to conceive.
"You just don't know what to do, who to talk to", she said. "And I couldn't speak about it with anyone around me - my immediate family felt bad for us, didn't want to bring up the subject at all; my younger sister was wrapped up in her own kids; and it was obviously too personal a matter to discuss with professional colleagues. All my friends either had their own children to keep them busy, or weren't even interested in becoming pregnant... and they certainly didn't want to hear about my troubles. I felt all alone, as though I was the only person in the world with such problems - I had no one to turn to. "
Well ... I was certainly flattered that she'd decided to confide in me, a virtual stranger. - it must have been an act of sheer desperation on her part. But I was also flabbergasted: here was a problem I personally - thankfully - had known little about, an issue which, for many, is all-consuming and even life-determining. In retrospect, of course, I should have realized how overwhelmingly difficult it must be to have trouble conceiving, especially in our community. After all, Judaism places incredible value on family life and raising children. And it is impossible not to have your life revolve around your children once you have them. From the moment of conception on, your lives are forever changed.
I'm ashamed to admit I'd not really given the whole subject of infertility much thought. I guess I had just taken it for granted that people had babies when they chose to. Once Miriam and I started speaking, I began to wonder who else I knew who might have been affected. It had never occurred to me that maybe some people that I thought just must not have wanted might have very badly wanted children and couldn’t have them. I never thought to be sensitive when meeting someone and immediately asking, “So, how many children do you have?” I started wondering how many people might have extremely painful stories to relate about my thoughlessness.
The first thing I did after Miriam and I spoke was to search the computer to learn more about infertility. Sadly, Miriam and her husband are far from the only ones - they are just one of the thousands of couples who experience problems conceiving. In fact, about one in seven of all couples may have problems with fertility at some point during their married life. And it appears that the numbers only increase as the couple gets older. This means that around 15% of couples may not become pregnant after trying for twelve months. Some will subsequently conceive without any intervention, but most will require some medical assistance. It is unfortunately a rather widespread problem affecting many...and I was basically unaware.
One in seven of all couples may have problems with fertility at some point during their married life A few months after the 'coffee-machine incident', Miriam arrived in the office one day looking much more at peace than I'd seen her in a long time. She had finally found a medical professional whom she trusted, one who was a source of tremendous emotional support and comfort for her and her husband and was guiding them through the entire process of fertility treatments. He was helping them put things into perspective and regain control of their lives. With the positive feedback she was now receiving, she was continuing treatment with greater confidence and a renewed sense of hope.
Miriam continues to thank me for ''being there' when she needed me; the truth is, I have learned a lot from her and have a lot to thank her for. I have learned to be more aware, to open my ears and my heart to others. And if someone should choose to confide in me and to express her feelings, or if someone just appears to be overwhelmed and in need of some support, I will try my best to listen, to let her speak freely of her frustrations and disappointments.
Because of Miriam I have started volunteering at a center for couples with fertility problems, sharing with these people their hopes and concerns. There are hundreds of couples like Miriam and her husband, most suffering in pain and in silence. They may well be our neighbors, our friends, people we go to synagogue with; and we may often be oblivious, or insensitive, or too absorbed in our own lives to share their worries. Through this incident, I have become determined to help, in any way I can. And not just by providing information about infertility to those who suffer from it, but to those who fortunately don’t, so that they will hopefully become a source of support and strength to those who do, rather than a source of pain and sorrow.
Most importantly, I have learned to count my blessings and never to take anything for granted. I hope and pray that one day I will be able to join in the happiness of Miriam and her husband, as well as the other families trying to conceive, so that I can be there when they do become pregnant, and give birth to a healthy baby, and gratefully welcome a little one into their homes.
By my last year of high school, I had only one thing on my mind. Only one thing got me up in the morning. It was the promise of college radiating on the horizon—a fancy, expensive, ivy-covered kind of college.
Starting my junior year of high school, my parents took me on college tours up and down the Northeast, from one grassy quad and quirky town to another. At each school, students would lead the tour, and in my young eyes, they radiated a promise of renewal. I would shed and undercurrent of doubt began nudging its way up out of my subconscious the scaly, tight skin of the girl I had been up until now, and a new woman would emerge. As this promise solidified in my mind, it became my future redemption. It would come. The universe owed it to me. I would flee this small town and its hold on me, and I would be reborn. But freedom was still a year away, and the waiting began to eat away at me. I wrote my college essay months before it was due, then re-wrote it and re-wrote it again. Applications became like chain mail—heavy metal loops cutting into my nerves, protecting me from my present reality.
With so much riding on this dream, an undercurrent of doubt that I would be accepted began nudging its way up out of my subconscious in the form of bouts of anxiety. I would wake up at night in a cold sweat feeling like I was dying, sure that my body would fail on me at any moment. I lost all trust in my organs, skin and bones to carry me through the world. They became my tormentors. I thought I was hiding it well, keeping up my face of serene, hard-working composure until an old friend stopped me in the hall one day and said: “What happened to you? Why do you look so sad, so small?” Like a cornered creature, I panicked even more.
When I wasn’t in it, in the place of fear, it became comical. A twinge in my arm, and I was sure it was cancer. Once I told my brother and he looked at me in disbelief, quickly hiding his laugh at the look of terror on my face. But you can’t be serious, he whispered. Finally, finally, I begged my mother to see a therapist. Until then, I had thought that doctors are only for when you are too sick to move or for a checkup, not for your mind. I ended up going to the school counselor. I remember stepping out of the rushing, between-classes hallway into her small, still room, sitting down and saying a few words before the tears came. The ford buckling in the simple quiet of that room, the simple concern in her voice, the space to be real for a moment with myself. All the pressure on my shoulders tumbled off for a moment into my hands, where I could begin to see them, recognize their form. Simply telling someone about the doubts and fears making a racket in my mind quieted their shouts and made them seem a bit less powerful.
The pressure that year subtly built a reality around me that I could not achieve. If the dream of that success failed, then everything was lost. So when the day came that I sat on the familiar carpet in the entrance to my childhood home and slowly tore through one rejection letter after another until I was left sitting in a puddle of paper scraps and my own tears, the entire world had to be reborn. When a single reality is uprooted from its foundation of truth, then the very concept of the possible alters forever. I left so much on that carpet, with the letters and drying tears. I walked away with the deep realization that I can only control my life up until a point, and beyond that point lies the glorious possibility of a Will beyond my capacity to comprehend. It would take me another year-and-a-half to tentatively call that power G-d, but the experience of complete lack of control over my future made that calling within the realm of my new world.
Where did all my anxiety go? All the fear of my body? It vanished in a second from words written on a faded, yellowing page. Where did all my anxiety go? One day after school my mother handed me a book. Someone at the library recommended this, she said, unaware that she was holding my redemption. Unaware that at that moment, she was a messenger of G-d. Hope and Help for Your Nerves, the title promised. Before all the disorders and diagnoses, there was simply a case of weak nerves, and that is certainly what was plaguing me. As I read about the conditions of the patients in this book, I saw a portrait of my own misery and, really, of my own mind. Each of my symptoms, which I was sure were completely original and fatal, were transcribed in this book. As intensely as my fear had plagued me, the realizations from this book washed them away. It was all in my mind. Full stop. Nothing could have made it so clear to me how much my reality, in a very tangible way, was being created every moment by my thoughts and reactions to the world around me.
These experiences in my formative years planted the seeds that would make possible a complete renewal of my spirit and mind; I would ultimately be able to exchange my previous values—and their vision of success—for the rich, soul-sustaining beliefs of my ancient Jewish tradition. The two worst things in my life—rejection from eight colleges and crippling hypochondria—became the birthing ground of the two most transformational life lessons I have ever learned. First, that there is a finite limit to the control I can have over external circumstances in my life, and that this is for my ultimate benefit. Second, that I do, in fact, have tremendous influence over my reality by how I react to those circumstances.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe describes a similar apparent contradiction in a talk about the power of trust and faith in G-d, or bitachon. A Jew has to hold two conflicting approaches at the same time in regards to the future. The first approach is that no matter what happens, whether it appears good or bad, a Jew truly believes it comes from G-d’s goodness. The second approach is to expect the absolute best possible outcome in a way that it actually appears good to the person. The first approach acknowledges that ultimately, only G-d knows what is truly good for us—i.e., we will receive exactly what G-d wants us to experience, and this is outside of our control. However, the second approach adds a disclaimer, so to speak, that when a person has complete faith that the future will hold revealed good, then G-d brings that reality to fruition. This is summed up in the Yiddish expression, Tracht gut vet zein gut: “Think good and it will be good!” Our thoughts, good thoughts, can affect our reality in a real way.
On the flip side, perhaps my incessant fears about the possibility of not being accepted to college led toNegative thoughts close off our expansive, creative minds that very outcome. Negative thoughts close off our expansive, creative minds and all the good they can bring. Thank G-d, after this experience, I was determined to see the positive in life. My state school had sent me an acceptance letter in the winter, but at the time I thought I was above such a thing. With a newfound humility, I decide to give it a chance and make the best of it. Turns out it was the absolute best place I could have gone to college for a number of reasons—the main one being the warm and sizable Jewish community on campus, where I was given opportunities to travel to Israel, study Jewish texts, and eventually, live with Orthodox roommates and become shomer Shabbat. It is so clear to me in hindsight that I was meant to go to that school even though it took some bumps in the road to get there. Sometimes, we are blessed to see darkness turn into light!
I am running, running, on the racetrack, trying to get to the finish line so I can finally sit down with my feet up, to enjoy the satisfied pleasure of accomplishment. My feet ache, the sun’s rays are burning, and a headache is forming and gaining strength. I wish that my path wasn’t so long—and that the weather be cooler, that I would be stronger, that the headache would wait until I could sink into oblivion on my cozy bed.
Frustrated, yet driven to achieve my goal, I keep going, and going, and going, and going some more . . . and then I trip, slip and findI suddenly land with a thud on a surface deep down under myself tumbling down, down, down into the dirt. Into the dirt?! How can that be? Solid ground is solid ground—my track has no pits, my shoes are not tools able to drill. Without finding answers to my dilemma, I suddenly land with a thud on a surface deep down under.
The darkness is deep and thick; not a bit of sunlight reaches this unfamiliar strange place. Eerie sounds can be heard in the background. The smell is dusty and musty, like an airless cellar that hasn’t been cleaned in years. I gingerly touch the ground beside me; I feel the roughness of pebbles, the scratching of thorns scraping my skin and gritty dirt lodging under my fingernails.
I am terrified; fear fills my head, then my chest, arms, legs, and soon, my entire body is gripped with overwhelming, choking, powerful fright. What will become of me? Will I perish here of hunger and thirst? Will I go insane from lack of stimulation? How could anyone ever find me or help me if I don’t even know where I am—if this is a newly discovered place that does not appear on any Google maps?
I think of the sunlight, the carpet of grass, the joy of moving and progressing, the company of other kindred souls; will I never have those pleasures again!? I didn’t even know they were pleasurable, just as I didn’t know it was possible for the ground to betray me and deposit me in this forsaken location.
“I can’t! I can’t!” I scream. “I can’t deal with this! Is anyone there? Can someone hear me? Did anyone else fall down with me? Is there any way up and out?” I scream and scream like a madwoman until my voice is hoarse.
A madwoman? I am gripped with a panic that seizes me tightly in its deadly embrace; I can’t breathe. “You’re going crazy!” pronounces the panic in a chilling whisper. Crazy? No! No! Anything but this! I am normal, you see. I am not “one of those” who have issues or missing screws. I am a productive member of society, a good person who tries her best. I don’t deserve this shame, this pain, this . . . this . . . I don’t even know what to call this environment, this experience; I never saw a word in the dictionary describing such a thing. What will everyone say? What will everyone think? Will anyone want to marry my children? “Stop it!” I shout at the panic. “Go away and leave me alone!”
Slowly, the panic subsides, but in its stead comes sadness. I cry and cry from the depths of my heart, and when the tear supply is used up, I sit spent, drained, with a heavy sadness filling my heart and mind.
Think! Think! Maybe there is something to do about this. My mind is fuzzy, and amid the fuzz I find a rational thought—my cell phone is in my pocket! Cautiously, praying that there is service here, I call my husband, and he answers. The sadness inside does not allow me to feel joy at the ability to communicate with the outside world, at the hope of freedom in the future. But I manage to say, woodenly: “Jack, I am stuck! I fell into a deep hole, not sure where or how. Please try to find and rescue me. There is no food or light here, and I really want to come home!”
A silent pause. Then he responds with a confused edge to his voice, “Judy, I’m not sure what you referring to . . . I see you through the kitchen window, picking up the garbage the kids left on the lawn. Um, maybe you are very tired and should go rest in bed? Did you eat anything today? Maybe you should eat a nutritious meal so you’ll feel better . . . ”
“Are you crazy?!” I yell back. “Maybe you are hallucinating! I am not in our yard; I can’t be in two places at once! Meanwhile, I need you to feed the kids something for supper and make sure they end up in their beds. You also need to go shopping because by tomorrow there will hardly be any food left. If you don’t do the laundry tonight, then everyone will have to wear smelly clothing from the hamper, and their teachers will think they come from a dysfunctional home.”
This time, Jack raises his voice slightly, and speaks slowly like to an old man who is hard of hearing. “Maybe you forgot that I don’t know how to cook or do laundry, and can only manage shopping if you make a very detailed list. If the kids are hungry, they know where to find cereal and milk, and when they are tired enough, they’ll fall asleep. Don’t worry so much!”
Frustrated and hopeless, I begin to cry again. “Don’t you care about me and our children? I’m your wife, remember? Can’t you at least do what I explicitly asked for?”
“Judy, it seems we are speaking different languages. I’m not sure what you are trying to say. Can we continue this conversation later? I have a phone call to make. If you still need help later with the laundry or shopping, then give me detailed instructions and I’ll try to help out.”
I sit stunned, tempted to call back but afraid to hear more of the same. What’s going on? Does he love me? Is he normal? Maybe I am crazy.
I dial my mother’s number. “Ma, the strangest thing happened to me. I fell suddenly into a deep pit and have no idea how to get out. ICrawl out of this tunnel? How? called Jack, and he says he sees me in the yard, but I know this forsaken place is not my yard! He said I am not speaking the same language as him! Maybe you can organize a search party and try to find and rescue me?”
“Oy, I’m sorry to hear that, honey. I fell into such a pit years ago, after Susan was born. It’s actually a tunnel with openings in both directions. It’s tough, but try some deep breathing exercises to relax and energize yourself. The roof is too low to stand up in, so crawl slowly in a straight line, and eventually, you find your way out. Within a few months, you’ll be back home, and hopefully, you won’t fall in again. Don’t be concerned about your children; they’ll survive one way or another, just like mine did.”
I hang up, my thoughts racing in so many directions. What is my mother saying? Crawl out of this tunnel? How? Does she really get what is happening? Does anybody?
My fingers mindlessly dig through the dirt; I am way past caring how dirty I am, way past caring about anything at all. Absently, I find myself holding a hard metal object. I rub away the dirt to determine what it is and find a gold coin, stamped with the words “HUMILITY” on it. I guess I have no choice but to be humble when I’m so low down. A thread of sanity compels me to put the coin in my pocket, and I whisper: “If I’m here anyway, it can’t hurt to pocket a valuable item. Maybe one day if I ever get out of here, it will be helpful.”
I ponder my situation in a vain attempt to make sense of the senseless. I finger the coin in my pocket, and it brings a touch of calm to my empty heart. Yes, empty. I never knew that within me is a core—an emotional foundation around which all else is built, from which everything I am and do draws strength. And now, in its absence, I appreciate and oh-so-desperately crave it.
At the thought of how messed up I am, my spirits plummet again, and the anxiety monster grips my chest in a suffocating squeeze. Vaguely, I hear a familiar beep. My cell phone. A new text message. Someone cares enough to connect with me.
I look at the screen and see a message from my husband. Judy, I did some research and found a therapist with great references who might be able to help you. I will ask her to visit you to get started. Good Luck.
I swallow the lump in my throat and text back. OK. Thanks for arranging. Will try my best and keep you posted. Then the tears come. Me? I need a therapist to help me be normal and functioning again?
Help! I can’t deal with this, this . . . I don’t know what to call it, but whatever it is, I can’t deal with it! “Oh, G-d! My Father in Heaven! You created me; you created all the billions of people, the trillions of creatures, plants and everything else. Only You have real power, see what happened to the power I thought I had! I don’t know why You gave me this unbearable affliction, this impossible test, but there surely was a good reason that I don’t know. And surely you can take me out of this dungeon! Oh please G-d, I know you love me, and I love You, too. You’ve given me everything from the moment I was born, and even now, whatever I do still have is from you! Please, free me! Save me! Heal me! Help me get out of here!”
Spent, I lapse into silence. An expression floats through my mind—one I heard many lifetimes ago, and only now do I begin to understand. There is nothing more complete than a broken heart.
Suddenly, something hard hits my shoulder and bounces to the floor. What’s going on, are there acorn trees in this hole-in-the-ground? I look around and see a brilliant sparkle, so incongruous on the bare brown dirt. I lift the object, and to my surprise, it’s a diamond. Engraved on its surface are the words: “Connection to your Creator.”
The minutes pass slowly. Before long, I see a woman approaching me. She doesn’t look like she fell here in the way I did; she appears poised and confident.
“Hi,” she begins softly. “I am so sorry to hear that you are stuck in such a painful unpleasant situation. I have helped many people in your situation before; this type of fall is not as uncommon as you might think.” She pauses, apparently waiting for a response.
“Sounds good,” I venture hesitantly. “But how exactly can you get me out of here?”
“I have a toolbox”, she responds, “with many tools that you can learn to use in order to climb out of here. But it will take commitment on your part, and I cannot guarantee how long the process will take. Are you interested in working hard together with me?”
“Yes.” I respond simply. “Yes, I am.”
“Way to go, Judy! With an attitude like this, you can do it! You are amazing!”
And so the journey begins.
It takes many moments, hours, days and weeks. complete with setbacks, growing pains and lots of patience. But slowly, I climb higher and higher, towards the light at the end of the tunnel.
Suddenly, I am back in the fresh air! I look at the carpetSuddenly, I am running of soft green grass and breathe in the delicious, nourishing air. I test my legs; to my delight, they’re in working order. I break into a run, and suddenly I am running, running on the racetrack, and then the thought hits me like a thunderbolt: It is the energy, the running, the moving towards a goal that is in and of itself the greatest pleasure in the world.
“Master of the Universe,” I whisper. “Thank You for releasing me from bondage, for bringing me back to the joys, pleasures and pains of a healthy growing life! Please help me always to be able to connect to You, to my family and to my inner world from this place of clarity I have reached.”
In the warmth of the sun, I feel G-d hugging me tight. So I go inside to pass on the hugs to my beloved family, who has been looking forward to my return.
I have to admit, I'm easily brought to tears. I don't know whether it's because I'm overly emotional, overly sensitive, or both, but these eyes of mine, they fill like wells in a heartbeat.
I sat before one of my students. A woman who four months ago was living, or I should say dying, on sixty calories a day. Now, with a lot of help, I repeat, a lot of help, she's at her minimum weight, looks stunningly healthy, and has eyes that amongst their sadness also shine forth with life.
At times it is one step forward and two steps back A guitar lay next to her. "Play me something," I requested. Transformation. I saw metamorphosis, thinking back to the girl who came to us four months ago and to the woman who picked up the guitar now.
"The entire world is a very narrow bridge. A very narrow bridge. And the principle is not to ever be afraid." She sang these beautiful verses of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and I cried. I couldn't help myself. My eyes became wells of tears as I joined in with her, "The principle is not to ever be afraid."
A year ago I started working with young women who have eating disorders. It is not an easy job. I have moments where I want to quit. I tell myself, "I'm not qualified for this. I'm not strong enough for this. I just can't do it." My boss tells me, "If you don't, who will?"
At times it is one step forward and two steps back. What do I do with them? I teach them exercise, I do reflexology on them. In between I always share with them a bit of Torah—it's not the body alone that is starving, but also the soul. I relate to them the words of our Holy Sages. I take them to the graves of righteous individuals (tzaddikim) and share with them stories: stories of hardships and stories of survival. Everyone has their story; I have mine.
I explain, "The Sages tell us that the righteous fall seven times and get up." I relate in the words of my teacher, "It's not that the righteous are righteous because they are the ones who can pick themselves up, but the fact that they fall enables them to become righteous." The only way to ascend at times is by means of descent.
I tell myself, "The statistics are not good. The chances of full recovery are slim. G-d I can't do this, but You can. With You there are no statistics, no numbers. Let me be Your messenger and heal these precious women." Suddenly I feel less afraid. Whatever I do, I am not a failure.
"The entire world is a very narrow bridge. A very narrow bridge. And the principle is not to ever be afraid." Imagine our forefather Abraham with his wife Sarah. G-d came to him and told him, "Go. Leave everything that you know and go." "To where?" "To the place that I will show you."
They went and what did they do? They revolutionized the world. Two people. Rashi explains that Abraham did acts of kindness and converted the men while Sarah did acts of kindness and converted the women. What if Abraham had said, "I can't do it. I'm not qualified for the job"?
They revolutionized the world. Two people I remember when I was eighteen years old traveling alone in Europe. I arrived in Venice. I saw by the historic synagogues a sign that read, "Chabad. Kosher Pizza." I hesitantly walked in, "Shalom Aleichem! Welcome!" boomed a loud voice. It was not the first time, nor will it probably be the last time, that a friendly voice called out to me in some far-off place. His smile said it all. "What can I do to help you, my fellow Jew?"
Yes, what can I do to help you? I wish I had all the answers. I wish I had a magic wand that would make all the suffering and pain of my students go away. Unfortunately I don't.
I'm not a prophet, I'm not a magician, I'm just a simple Jew with a heart and two hands to extend to another. I'm probably not qualified, but then again, maybe it doesn't really matter. After all, the principle is "not to be afraid, at all…"
When I told my grandmother that I was training for the Wellfleet Road Race, a hilly five-mile loop held annually on the Fourth of July weekend, she made a face like there was stink in the room and said, "I only run when chased." I understand the sentiment. I had held a similar disdain for running most of my life, witnessing the sweaty, heaving runners at end of the road race with confusion and pity. This is your idea of a beach vacation?
But recently I joined them, a new and committed convert to the joy of running, forgoing a lazy morning on the ocean for a heart-pounding jog along the shore. To be one of "them" is a genuine surprise; but the deeper revelation in running is in its surprising power to teach the mind about recovery from depression and anxiety.
I felt better leaving the gym than I had going in, every single time I'm someone who struggles with her mental health. In the winter of 1993, after a series of life threatening episodes of mania and depression, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of seventeen. In the fifteen years that have passed, with the help of lithium, therapy, and other healthy practices, I've led a fulfilling and sane life. But every winter, without fail, I get depressed again. Not the kind of severe and suicidal depression I used to have before I was diagnosed; treatment keeps that at bay. Instead I suffer a milder version, perhaps because the time of year reminds me of traumatic memories, perhaps because the days are so short, or perhaps because it's simply the natural melancholic part of a broader cycle of life. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, winter brings a certain hopelessness and fatigue, irritability towards other people, and a desire to stay in and dissociate to daytime television with a jar of chocolate spread and a spoon.
This year was different. This year, in January, the idea of being fit enough to run five miles along the coast of Cape Cod by July motivated me enough to join a gym, and the lessons I learned about my body and my mind kept me motivated until race day and after.
My earliest discoveries on the treadmill were dramatic; I found that running created immediate improvements in my mood. I felt better leaving the gym than I had going in, every single time. Running asked me to get out of my head and into my body. I slept better on nights when I had worked out. The toning and weight loss are happy-making, as is the ensuing sense of pride and strength.
More profoundly, running meant movement when I felt stuck. A depressed person often feels like he or she will be in a rut forever. Running teaches otherwise. And with each and every time that the body recovers from being out of breath, the mind learns that getting knocked out isn't forever, that if you can keep breathing, and relax through it, you'll soon be ready to run again. In depression, you forget that you've ever been or could ever be any better. Immersing yourself in the physiological power of recuperation can help your mind remember that a state of depression is not a permanent state.
Finding the right pace in life, regardless of how fast other people seem to be going, can be crucial When you're training for a race, you get new concepts about pace. Training has taught me that if I find the right speed, I can build endurance and run for over an hour. If I push too hard, or run with speedy impatience, I may self-sabotage. For people who are going through a tough time, finding the right pace in life, regardless of how fast other people seem to be going, or how far we feel from our goals, can be crucial.
Ultimately, I was surprised how mental running became, how often I used coping techniques that I had learned in therapy to self-coach to keep going. Like many people with depression or anxiety, I often become overwhelmed by feelings or sensations. In training, I've learned to calmly soothe the inner voices urging me to stop running, to remind myself that I'm safe and comfortable, and that an unsafe or uncomfortable feeling could simply pass if I allow it.
Of course, running won't solve the deep seeded issues that cause depression or anxiety; for instance, running doesn't get you a more satisfying job or relationship, and running can't be relied on as a treatment for serious mental illness. But as a companion for life's emotional or psychiatric difficulties, running is a true friend. Over time, it can deliver a new view of self, literally and figuratively, which leads to an improved worldview, too.
The race itself? You want to know how it went? Okay, I'll tell you. I won. Just kidding. I finished. I finished with a smile on my face and a good attitude, ahead of two grossly overweight individuals, and a handful of walkers, but behind ninety percent of the runners, dozens of senior citizens, and another handful of walkers. I'm slow. But I finished in the best shape of my life, admiring my fellow competitors, and with the desire to do better. That's winning enough.
Editor's Note: In Chassidic thought, there is a concept called Ratzo V'Shov, literally to "run and return," which beautifully parallels the theme of Lizzie's article. One way of understanding this concept, is that running is what keeps us going, brings us higher, and makes us achieve, move and grow. And the return aspect is then integrating that inspiration into our life when we are not going so fast. It is running (physically, emotionally or spiritually) for the sake of integration as opposed to running in order to escape.
After my mother passed away, I often found myself standing at the kitchen counter, mindlessly eating one piece of cake after the next. I wasn't even hungry, but I kept on eating. I did not own a scale, so I wasn't aware of how much weight I'd gained – until my skirts became too tight to button.
I looked for a bereavement group; I needed help. The local Jewish community center advertised a new group, but registration was so low that nothing ever materialized. I called a nearby synagogue which I heard sponsored bereavement groups and was told the only one they had was for widows and widowers. I called a therapist I'd found online, but her fees were out of my budget.
Michelle wasn't warm and fuzzy. Then my friend, Cindy, casually mentioned that she had started going to a weight loss group on Thursday mornings. I needed something, so I decided to join her.
After the first meeting, newcomers have a "get acquainted" session with the leader. Michelle wasn't warm and fuzzy. She did not hug me or offer sympathy and condolences when I told her my story. She gave me the new members' booklets and talked about the freedom her program offers. There were so many choices and options of foods to eat, different programs to follow.
"I don't want freedom," I almost cried. "I need structure. I'm falling apart. I need to have something to follow and hang on to."
A tall, slender woman with hair pulled back in a severe, high ponytail had heard our discussion. "Jolie," she said gently, "no amount of food will ever fill the hole that's there from the loss of your mother. Believe me, I've been there."
I knew she was right, and I began looking for a way to stop using food as my source of comfort. I decided to commit, at least for a few weeks, to Thursday mornings with Michelle's weight loss group. It became my support group, my therapy.
Michelle grew on me. She was funny, well prepared, and clearly cared about her members. Each week, she came with huge flip charts with lists of advice and pictures she'd pasted on. At Chanukah, she had pictures of steaming latkes. She encouraged us to go for broke and have two "real" deep-fried potato pancakes, which were far more satisfying than stacks of fat-free, dry ones. Also, this would help avoid feeling deprived and going berserk later.Before the 4th of July, her flip chart was filled with American flags with a red, white, and blue banner, "Declare Your Thindependence!"
At the end of each meeting she'd beg us, "Promise me you'll stick to the program this week! Say it with me: If it's meant to be, it's up to me."
Little by little, my waistline decreasedI didn’t talk much, but I did listen. Michelle taught us a mantra: Think about what you want most, not what you want most at the time. She spoke about balance. She spoke about priorities, and putting taking care of yourself on your to do list. She spoke about taking care of our bodies, which she called our “homes.”
Judaism, too, obligates us to take care of the bodies which house our souls. Michelle talked about filling your soul with good music and ocean breezes, not just food. I came to realize that caring for my body helped to heal my soul.
Little by little, my waistline decreased as did my sense of loss and being lost in the world. I had a safe place to go every Thursday, where we didn't talk about loss and grief, death or bereavement. We talked about life, the good life – a life of joy, of balance, of achievement, of conquering the impulses which can control us.
I incorporated the tips I'd learned at my meetings: not going to social events hungry; chewing gum after a restaurant meal to help stay away from rich desserts; keeping a "safe environment" by not having around high calorie foods that would certainly tempt me; and forgiving myself when I over-indulged.
The added bonus was belonging to a new, friendly sorority. I got a chance to chat while waiting in line to weigh in, and after the meetings I would hang out with new friends and old friends who'd joined as well. The weight loss group became a social group for me, but one without extra responsibilities, unlike Cub Scouts or the synagogue sisterhood. It taught me to take responsibility for myself. I always left feeling good.
After several months, I finally met my goal weight. After another six weeks of consistently not gaining, I was entitled to become a "life member." I told Michelle that I had made my way back to "life." I was called to the front of the room, and received my awards. Then Michelle asked me to say something. Although several of the regulars were life members, I had never seen the special ceremony, so I was caught by surprise. I told the truth. "I was so annoyed," I admitted, "when I kept hearing your voice saying, 'Don't think of what you want at the time. Think of what you want the most' and 'nothing tastes as good as feeling thin feels.' But I listened to that voice. I stuck it out, and lost 18 pounds, and lightened my heart."
Yes, I still miss my mother terribly, and sometimes I turn to food for comfort. But, I have turned the corner, and have found a new sense of peace, as well as my old waistline. Sometimes salvation comes from unexpected sources. Now I keep my eyes, mind, and heart open to new possibilities and for personal growth. That's how I keep my balance.