Disability and Chronic Illness, Personal

What Not To Say to Someone with A Chronic Illness: COVID Edition

This is the next installment of the What Not to Say series on my blog. If you weren’t following me (or didn’t know me) when the previous ones came out, you can find them here, here, and here. These are based on my experience both as a disabled person and an activist; feel free to leave your thought in the comments.

  1. Don’t: “So are you at increased risk for COVID-19?”
    This is an extremely invasive question and one that, due to the amount of unknowns that still remain around this virus, the person may not even know the answer. This question has a tendency to cause more anxiety for the person you are asking it to. It also pressures us to disclose a diagnosis or medical information that we might now be comfortable with. If you are asking it as a way of asking whether you should put your mask on when you approach us, the answer is yes, please do that.
    Also, even if we aren’t immunocompromised ourselves, we are part of a community that has many members at higher risk, and we want to keep our friends safe. Bottom line: You should be keeping everyone safe whether you know that they are immunocompromised or not.

    Do: What level of social distancing are you comfortable with?
    For example, I am in a pod of 4 people, so I am comfortable with them hugging me and taking their masks off when they get into my apartment or car. But with other people, if we absolutely have to be inside, I am not comfortable if someone is close to me without a mask on. Most of us chronically ill or disabled folks have “internal social distance policies” like this and are happy to tell you if you ask us.
  2. Don’t: “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal, so that we can go out and our whole social lives won’t be online.”
    For many of us, the pandemic has allowed us to be much more social. There is so much less missing out on social events because we are too fatigued or the venue is less accessible. More restaurants are delivering and grocery services have stepped up their game. Schools are allowing students to go to class online. These are accessibility measures that we have fought for over the course of many years, and they have only been put in place because abled people need them now. By saying things like this, you remind us of the loneliness that some of us experience when all of our friends go out without us or we can’t make it on the field trip because it involves too much walking.

    Do: “I can’t wait to be able to come over in person again instead of just through a screen.
    Every person wants to feel cared for. The previous comment may have been meant to say, “I wish I could hang out with you”, and this is just a way to say it without it being a bit ableist and insensitive. Personally, I really appreciate people who are willing to come to my apartment or places close to me (or who think about accessibility ahead of time).

    Do: I hope these accessibility measures stay in place after the pandemic is over.
    As much as I sometimes don’t like to admit it, as a chronically ill person, I need abled allies, people who will fight for me and call things out as ableist so I don’t have to be the one doing it all the time. You can be an ally by encouraging your communities and institutions to keep some accessibility measures in place even though abled people are able to go out and about again in some places.
  3. Don’t: “I know what it’s like to be stuck at home now”
    No, you probably don’t. You are able to workout at home, and do many things that some chronically ill or disabled people can’t do. We are still dealing with unpleasant symptoms, and some of the services that we used to be able to have in our homes (cleaning, furniture assembly, in-home care) are no longer accessible to us.
    Additionally, for you, this will end. The definition of “chronic” is incurable. That does not mean that we cannot live amazing, happy lives, but it means that our limitations may increase or remain the same even when the pandemic is over. You will be able to leave.
  4. Don’t: You’re so strong for making it through this time.
    In the chronic illness community on Instagram we have been talking a lot about the words, “resilience” and “strong,” and why they can be difficult for us to hear. We didn’t choose this experience (the pandemic or the disability/chronic illness), and having to live up to the productivity standards of abled people is exhausting for many of us. The use of “strength” and “resilience” tends to romanticize our suffering, portray it as temporary, and hide from really important questions about mortality and accessibility that need to be addressed.
    I don’t always want to be your inspiration (blog post on this coming). Sometimes, I want to sit around and complain about petty things or just lie in bed for a full day. My disability is going anywhere, and being strong takes a heck of a lot of energy.
    Do: “I really appreciate you spending your time and energy on “insert activity or task here.”
    I will be honest; I really just wanted to slip this one in here because someone said it to me, and I loved it. People who recognize that people with chronic illnesses or disabilities may have limited energy are my favorite kind of people (looking at you, Cinci Pod). So what does this look like it practice? It looks like planning ahead, not being late, bringing supplies if we are doing something.
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Learning to Love the Spiritual BS: Prayer, Manifestation, and Affirmations

Let’s talk thoughts. Have you ever woken up “on the wrong side of the bed”? and had a bad day because you just knew you were going to have a bad day? Have you gone into a test doubting yourself and then done badly on the test? Why do you think this is? I have long struggled with “positive thinking” and all of the other kind of CBTish things that various therapists have tried to get me to use. Some of those were, in fact, much more related to toxic positivity than they were actual healing, but there was some truth. In this post, I want to talk about the power of our thoughts in our own healing and shaping of our lives. Depending on what background you come from, you can call some of this therapeutic processing, some of it law of attraction work, shadow work, prayer. Whatever the name, it can be deeply helpful in so many ways. For the sake of reaching as broad an audience as possible with this post, I am going to address this same idea of harnessing and surrendering to the power around us from two different perspectives. All of these perspectives follow the same basic formula. 1. Ask. 2. Visualize 3. Let Go.All of these perspectives require that you practice gratitude and deal with your limiting beliefs before you are able to attract what you want into your life.
Prayer
To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement toward Him which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe…. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.”– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man in Search of God

This explanation is for the Jews (or God-believers) among you. Any Jew can tell you that God is the source of all power in the universe. God holds all of the energy in the universe. So here are the steps that we go through when we are trying to shape the universe. While this method is not always effective, it has been used over centuries.
1. We are acting as companions with God. God is in control of the Universe, and yet, as we can see from the stories of Abraham arguing with God or Sarah praying for a child, we are able to somewhat affect the course of what happens in the universe with our thoughts and prayers. While God may “know best”(I’m not entirely convinced by this) and make the final decision, we are not required to completely give up control. We can ask for what we need, but we will be punished if we are not humble enough in our request. We ask in the Amidah and in our personal prayers.
2. We use various metaphors such as the hand of God or the wings of God to visualize God’s protection or we visualize what we are praying for (healing, the parting of the sea, etc).
3. Lastly, letting go. When we are praying to God, we are surrendering our own bodies and selves to God and allowing the power. Take, for example, when we pray the Hashkiveinu at night and ask for a shelter of peace over us. We do not know for sure that we will awaken in the morning. This is the difference between believing in the power of prayer and believing in the power of witchcraft. Prayer takes faith and surrender to the higher being, God that we believe in.

Manifestation and Affirmations
Some of my older readers might remember the popularity of the Secret. The Secret was a movie and book about the idea of the Law of Attraction. Essentially, what you put out into the world, you are able to attract back to you. If you say, “I am excited for a new romantic relationship, and I am worthy of love.” You are more likely to receive a new romantic relationship from the universe. There are a number of theories of why this works: Some people say that this works due to the fact that saying affirmations and manifestations (what you want in the present tense) out loud or writing it down influences your subconscious mind and makes you more likely to act in alignment with your goals. Others say that there are forces in the universe that respond to your intentions being set forward into the world and bring you what you are searching for in return.

How do we do this? My practice is not all that different than prayer: 1. Each morning and night I write out my affirmations and manifestations (more detailed post on this coming next week). There is a lot of ways to do this. You can make a vision board, set intentions, write letters from the perspective of your future self. 2. Then, while I am praying (not on Shabbat), I visualize them coming true 3. I meditate to work on letting them go.


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Learning to Love the Spiritual BS: I Am Surrounded By Angels

On a damp night in Jerusalem, I was walking to the house of our dean, and I ran into a woman who I had called one of my angels over and over again. Half an hour later, our dean ran a meditation that involved picturing someone who had been an angel in your life and breathing in two of the the qualities that they had brought into your life. Of course, past me thought nothing of that experience, but looking back on it, that was one of the first times that I truly started to believe that I was surrounded by angels. Also, if you are one of those two angels, I will send you this blog individually, and you will probably say that you didn’t actually do anything.

If you’ve read any part of my story (or if you know me in real life), you know that I have dealt with a lot in my life. Chronic illness, trauma, family issues, you name it, I’ve seen it or seen someone through it. In the darkest moments of my life, there has always been someone who has come out of the woodwork and saved me. I used to think that this was a coincidence, but now, I truly think that these were angels, spirit guides, sent by God to bring light to the world. When I passed out on the floor they were there. When the elevator broke and I struggled to walk up the stairs, they were there. On the day that I wanted to go home from camp, she was there. On the day that I wanted to give up, she was there. First of all, if you are one of these angels, thank you.

Second, we all are surrounded by angels. We all have the power to reach out and find the wisdom and support of our angels and guides if we need it. Sometimes those angels and guides take human form. Sometimes, we find them through meditation (like I talked about in my last blog post), or sometime we find them in a random pod cast that we just felt called to listed to on that particular day.) Whatever it is, we are never alone.

Recently, in a spiritual direction meeting, I was talking about the story of Jacob’s ladder. In Genesis 28, Jacob lies his head down to sleep and has a dream about angels going up and down a ladder to heaven, and he hears God speaking to him. When Jacob awakens, he says, “God was in this place, and I knew it not.” This idea, and the idea of angels, always being present in my life, even when I am not inclined to believe that it is so, is one that has completely changed my life. I am never alone because my angels are with me. I can always see them. I can always learn from them. I can always be with them. And for that, and for all God gives me, I am eternally grateful.

Note: When I say, “Spiritual BS,” I mean that I used to think that it was BS not that the world thinks that it was BS. ❤

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Learning to Love the Spiritual BS: 5 Things I learned from Meditating for 50 days

Even after 14 years of therapy of many different kinds, I remained skeptical of meditation. I claimed that I could never sit still, that I didn’t have time, all of the excuses that Dan Harris goes over in his book, Mediation for Fidgety Skeptics (which I would recommend to anyone). Prayer? no problem. Mediation? No way. I challenged myself a few months ago to start meditating every morning because like so many of us, I started learning remotely, and I learned a number of things (note: I am not an expert, just someone who tried this stuff and liked it):

1. The point is not to clear your mind, rather it is to explore your mind.
I’ve read that meditating is like opening a closet inside of your mind. Some people have a lot of stuff in their closet (trauma, other mental health issues) that makes it hard to clean out. Some people have a tendency to find shiny things in the closet and get distracted by them (ADHD, Anxiety). Some people like to clean alone, others in groups. Some like to clean in silence, others with white noise or with music. Same with meditation.

“Silence” is not the end goal. The end goal is to discover things about yourself and the world that you may not have known before you started meditating, to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings and make a conscious choice as to whether or not you want to engage with them. Through meditation, and exploring our minds with curiosity, we are able to discover what we truly want.

2. Sitting still gets easier with practice.
I fidget. Constantly. But I started out meditating for one minute, and then two minutes, and now I am able to sit for about thirty before moving around. If you struggle with this, you can meditate through other avenues–walking meditation and journaling are two of my favorites these days.

3. Guided mediations that you think will be too “spiritual” for you can actually help you to connect different parts of yourself.
Next week’s blog post on spirit guides and angels will address this more, but I opened a meditation by Liza Colpa designed to release overwhelm that guides us through picturing someone or something that brings up pure love for you and asking them for wisdom. Now I know you are shaking your head because trust me, I was too. But all I can say is that after doing meditations like this almost every single day for the last month, i feel better. I feel more secure in what I want to do and who I want to trust.

4. You cannot focus on your breath and your thoughts at the same time, so one can redirect energy.
Recently I just finished reading The Body Knows the Score, in which, when approaching treating trauma and calming down the trauma response, the author suggests a number of deep breathing techniques. Now anyone knows that I am not a scientist, but try it. You cannot be both “in” your body and “in” your mind at the same time. When meditating, you can make this work to your own advantage. Focus on your breath. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four, exhale for five, and pay attention to how you are feeling internally.

5. After about a week, you start to feel yourself able to take a deep breath between receiving and reacting
In a world of social media and immediate reactions and a constant news cycle it is hard to not react strongly to anything that is presented to us–this could be an insult from a friend, a bad grade, any bad or good thing. The point of meditation is not necessarily to dull those reactions. Rather, it is to make the reactions a conscious choice. When someone says something brash, can we wait an extra second and not take that thing personally? Believe me, this is hard, but even in the last month or so, I have seen so much of an improvement in my own brain health because of it.

Questions? Comments? Experiences? Leave them down below!

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Accessibility on Zoom: Some Long Overdue Observations

It’s time we start talking about the accessibility issues that arise while we are dealing with more online classes. My school and others have already announced that we will be having classes online this fall. There are probably disabled students in most of your classes, considering that 25% of Americans are disabled. This post is not a full set of guidelines, rather some suggestions that I would like to provide for the world whether you be a teacher/professor or just someone who is interested. If you are a disabled student and have suggestions for something I missed, please comment either here or on Facebook and I will add your thoughts. Thank you to my classmates and friends who helped me to construct these points, as I do not have all of the disabilities. I have divided these observations into categories:

For some with ADHD, Autism, and/or mental health disabilities:

Cons:

1. For those with attention issues, and especially those who have a tendency to shine more in in-class settings, the lack of varied settings can decrease one’s ability to be productive. You may find this also with your typical students, but it is often exacerbated in disabled ones.
2. Your students may be lacking social interaction (or find social interaction through a screen to be difficult due to their disability), and this may make it hard for them to focus in class. Having smaller groups may help a little bit with this. The isolation may also trigger other preexisting mental health conditions that were suppressed by having other people around. 
3. It is substantially easier to get distracted when one is on zoom. You are not in a “school” environment that tells your brain that you need to focus.
4. Over the course of this pandemic, many people have relocated to homes that may trigger mental issues that were not at all a problem when the student was out of the house. This applies especially to college students who unexpectedly came home part of the way through the semester.
5. Not having face-to-face encounters with professors can cause more anxiety and perhaps make student uncomfortable contacting their teachers.

Pros:
1. Distractions and misophonia triggers like pen-tapping or chewing are eradicated by the mute button.
2. It is easier to stim(self soothing behaviors that can include fidgeting or certain sounds) discreetly, and it is easier to get up and walk around when one is struggling to keep one’s attention on the class.
3. Some social anxiety triggers are eliminated when one can just switch off their video or not participate fully in class.

Chronic Illness/Physical Disability:

Cons:
1. Absences that should be excused due to paperwork don’t always get excused, and professors will occasionally encourage students to come to class even if they don’t feel well because all they have to do is attend virtually. If your students are sick, they should not have to be present in class. End of story.
2. It is really hard for many of your chronically ill students to get access to their basic needs right now–abled people who are quarantined are often taking up slots for grocery delivery, meds are slower to be sent out, and it is impossible to get appointments with doctors. School may be the last thing they are focused on right now.
3. The migraines, oh my goodness, the migraines. Staring at screens for long periods of time can be

Pros:
1. If travel or a commute is an issue for your student for whatever reason, the commute is eliminated when one is working from home.
2. There’s no issue with one lying on the floor or in weird positions in a Zoom classroom vs in person where it may seem strange to be lying on the floor.

So what can you do to make your students lives’ better? All in all, the best advice that I have is not any of these specific observations, it is to be kind, compassionate, and empathetic. Many of your students may be struggling and you may not know about it. Many of their plans have had to get adjusted, and that is scary. We want to know that you care. We want to see you trying to accommodate us–that’s really what we care about. Accessibility is always a balance, and we are working during unprecedented circumstances these days. Try your best, and we will appreciate you for it.

And students, thank your professors. They care deeply about you. Share what’s going on in your life with them if you feel comfortable and extend the same care to yourself that you are asking your professors and schools to extend to you. As I hear from more disabled students, I will add things to this post. This is all a work in progress.

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Focus Escapes Me: Struggling to Create During A Pandemic

I’ve been finding it hard to write these days. I keep starting sentences and then not knowing how to end them. i have hundreds of tabs open on my computer filled with unfinished thoughts because I got inspiration and then immediately lost it again. Poems, one stanza away from being finished. Essays being written in 100 word chunks and so so many tabs with motivational content about how to create in a time of pandemic and inspiring stories about all of the authors and artists who created their masterpieces when their cities were under siege or they were locked in their houses due to a pandemic.

But it’s hard to create right now. Anyone who knows me or has gone to school with me over the course of the last ten or so years knows that I use writing and schoolwork as a coping mechanism to deal with outside stress , but much to my dismay, I am struggling to do that this time. Staring at blank documents and notebooks, I know that I will accomplish my schoolwork (because there is extrinsic motivation for that), but I have no confidence that I will ever be able to finish another blog post. I have so many documents in my drafts that WordPress keeps reminding me of them.

It is extremely hard for us to not be able to change our surroundings, but unfortunately, this is the situation we are in. If I can’t focus, so be it. I will take a break and start again in an hour. This is grief; this is anxiety; this is uncertainty. This is executive dysfunction caused by those emotions and situations

This is not a cry for help. I also have no solution. My hope is that by sharing how hard it has been for me to write over the course of the past couple of weeks, I can remind some of you who may be struggling to be “productive,” that it’s okay to take this time to binge watch a TV show, find something fun to do with the people who you are stuck inside your house with, or just sit on your floor and stare at the world outside. It is so important, during times of crisis for us to do the things that make us feel better whether those things would be considered “productive” or not. This isn’t easy for any of us whether you are an essential worker who has to risk their life or one of us privileged ones who can work or go to school from home. Do your best and try to forgive yourself for the things that may be sitting on your to-do list for weeks before they actually get accomplished.

For those of you who have been fortunate never to deal with mental health or executive function issues in the past, I know that this may be new and unfamiliar to you, so be kind to yourselves, and hopefully, we can all find ways to spread love, peace, and joy through the world even when the world itself feels like it is crumbling. Please seek help if you need it.

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Healing Through Narrative: Yom Hashoah, Collective Trauma, and The Current Pandemic

Note: This post was written partly inspired by this post about how the Odyssey can help us through trauma by one of my favorite college professors

On Monday, the Jewish community commemorated Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and over the course of the week, from my professors, friends, and colleagues, I got the opportunity to hear the stories of their families, those who survived and those who perished before getting to safety. The Holocaust, as it is viewed today by many, is a collective trauma to many communities, but especially to the Jewish people. It has affected every piece of Jewish scholarship that has come out at least since 1967 if not since the end of World War II. Dr. Joel Christensen writes, “Collective trauma is not written about widely in Europe and North America, in part, I think, because we are so conditioned toward thinking about ourselves as individuals and not parts of larger trends and identitites. But studies do show that experiences which create “cultural crises” create a sense of threat to who people believe they are are (see Alexander et. al 2004).” And I agree with him, but in terms of the Jewish community, while we don’t always recognize it, we live in a constant state of healing from this collective trauma.

So how do we heal? How do we deal with this crisis that we are all currently experiencing while physically distant? Narrative.

What does that mean? Stories, collective mythologies of cultures, are extremely important, but it is especially crucial that we choose those stories carefully. Perhaps, because we remain in the midst of the pandemic, narratives around the Holocaust could provide a more clear example of what I mean here: I am reminded of an essay by David Blumenthal called, “Facing the Abusing God” which describes God as an abuser, but not always. While I understand that this narrative could be helpful for some, it is dangerous because it condones abuse. It may explain the collective trauma (in this case, the Holocaust, but it does not bode well for the future)

As Joel Christensen points out in his post, The Odyssey can be used in ways that are helpful; and I will add that the Torah can be used in ways that are helpful (but I also see people protesting on the streets quoting verses from the bible). There are pieces of media that we all seem to be experiencing together, like Unorthodox (which has its problems, but that is a whole other post) or Tiger King, but there are also harmful narratives out there, some of which are coming from our own governments.

Trauma, inherently, removes agency; we lose control over our own stories, our own life narratives, and this is one of the most harmful things about trauma. Here, I think of the Israelite people who have just been attacked by the nation of Amalek before they have reclaimed their story after being enslaved. They are stuck in a story that they are not in control of.

There is a liminal nature to this time as well, in my life, in the Jewish calendar, and in the world. The community that I built a story with over the course of the last eight months scattered across the globe over the course of. We didn’t get to say goodbye. Trauma is often characterized by an unresolved loss, a lack of closure. In the Jewish calendar, we are currently in the period of the counting of the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot when we have left slavery, but we haven’t made it to Sinai quite yet. And in the world, we are together, but apart. Many of us are isolated.

But there is hope. Hope that we will get through this. Hope that we can be resilient in a way that we have never had to be before. Hope that we can find narratives that can bring us together and help us to deal with the current crisis.

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How Do We Gather?: Community In a Time of Crisis

בין כי תישא לויקהל

Between Ki Tisa and Vayakhel

עולם מפסיק להתקהל.

The world stopped gathering

Ishai Ribo (Keter Melucha)

A few weeks ago, Ishay Ribo produced a beautiful song tracking the progression of the world from Parshat Terumah (which was roughly at the beginning of March) to Vayikra a couple of weeks later, and the two lines seen above have stuck in my head as I have listened to this song: I’m not sure that I agree with this. Yes, many in person events were canceled and we were all forced into isolation due to the pandemic, but community, kehilah, lives on. It looks different, but it lives on. How do we continue to hold communities together when we can’t physically be together?

I spent the last 8 months with a community who I deeply care about. But all of a sudden, we were scattered, like exiles wandering in the desert, apart from one another. We used to see one another each and every day, but now, we are unable to do so. But we have coped. I have gotten more check-ins and calls than I ever could have imagined. I have one mentor and teacher who has responded to every text and checked in with me consistently over the course of the last couple of weeks even though she was under no obligation to do so. We have gathered on Zoom to have T’efilah, shared words of Torah in our group chat instead of in person, and tried our best to stay connected to one another.

I somewhat expected this from my HUC family. What I didn’t expect was the ease with which my home synagogue community would do the same. A long time ago, I wrote a post about how much I love Beth Emet, the synagogue that essentially raised me Jewishly, but even now, after 5 years of really not physically being at 1224 Dempster Street, I feel more a part of my community. For the first time, I attended first day passover services and I was able to read Torah. We all need to feel loved at this time, and the Beth Emet community has done just that.

This community has also allowed me to feel needed which honestly, was one of the core things that I needed when I was in quarantine after coming back from Israel, and I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity to be useful (also, what else is a bored rabbinical student to do over Passover break?)

My neighborhood has also banded together in a way I didn’t expect. I haven’t lived here in a while and it turns out that we have some new neighbors. One of my neighbors has started having periodical socially distanced hangouts where we all go outside so that we can catch up and talk to someone who doesn’t live in our own house. it has really created a sense of camaraderie and connectedness that we are all craving during this time of physical isolation.

Lastly, the Classics community: As anyone who knows me knows, I still consider Classics a big part of who I am even though I am clearly studying to be a rabbi, and this year, I have found myself missing the people who I used to be connected with whether in real life or just over the internet, but this period of isolation has given us the chance to really be a community again. Two weeks ago, I dropped into an event that the Brandeis Classics Department was holding over Zoom and had an experience that I’m struggling to put into words. The familiarity of the personalities, the jokes that were incredibly niche (like my former thesis advisor changing his name on Zoom to be Nobody–an Odyssey reference.) Classics Twitter is also a wonderful community. Some of us actually do Classics all day whereas others are like me, still in love with the field but doing something unrelated with their lives. We have had fun, made new friends and really built a community together. Someone organized a Classics social hour every Friday, and now I have another thing to look forward to. This is the kind of community that can’t exist in real life (people on the weekly call range from Greece to California), so it’s even more of a blessing. Also, these people are ridiculous and incredibly fun to be around which is something that we all need.

I wish we could pray in person. I wish we could hug one another. I wish that we could harmonize and create beautiful music. I wish I could work with my friends in a coffeeshop instead of over video chat. For goodness sakes, I wish that I didn’t spend all of my time staring at a screen. There are SO many things that I wish. But this is what we have for now. And maybe it’s enough for now to be grateful for the ways in which we can create community and not the ways we can’t. We can still support one another. We can still love one another. There is still hope. Even when we cannot gather in person, humans are social creatures and we can find other ways in which to bind ourselves together.

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Trying to Stay Sane: Tips from a Chronically Ill Person

As someone who has been hospitalized and housebound for a number of periods of my life, I have some ideas of what it’s like to be locked in my house, unable to even walk to the bathroom, let alone around the block like we can now. I know that you don’t need another article about whether or not one should try or not try to be productive during this time, but the more resources that we have on how to stay sane, the better. So here are some haphazard words of wisdom from a disabled grad student in these times:

  1. Find some sort of journaling or meditation practice: the one that I have been doing for the last month or two is based off of one from Crappy Childhood Fairy. Each morning and evening (if this seems too overwhelming, pick one and do it consistently for a week), I start by listing out anything that I am fearful or anxious about or people or systems that I am resentful of. Next, I write out some blessings that I have found. You can call this gratitude if you don’t want to think about blessings or don’t believe in a higher power, the idea is that you are writing out good things. Following this, I meditate for five minutes (I can write a complete blog post about meditation if people are interested). This practice may feel like pulling teeth, especially at the beginning, new habit often do, and there are some days that it’s hard for me, but having this designated time to let my feelings out keeps me from channeling them into unhealthy coping mechanisms or lashing out at the people who I am quarantining with.
  2. Try to feel competent at something. Something that is really difficult about this time is that many of us feel helpless, like we have no ability to control our lives (and we feel a lot of anxiety about another c word). For me, finding something I was competent at involved signing up to read Torah at my home synagogue because that is something that doesn’t take that much effort for me, and it will make me feel tremendously better. Clean something; participate in the trend of baking something. It is hard to create right now, but it is more important than ever that we do the things that we are good at, partly so that all of the emotion we are feeling has somewhere to go and partly for how we feel after. It may be hard in the moment (believe me, sitting down to write this post felt like pulling teeth), but afterwards, you will feel so much better.
  3. Let yourself feel how you are feeling. If you feel like talking to your friends, talk to your friends, but if, like me, you find talking by way of video chat to be exhausting, spend a Friday night by yourself watching netflix or working on your next novel. If you’re upset, let yourself cry. If I have learned anything from 10 years of therapy, it’s that emotions don’t just go away if you ignore them, and its a much better life strategy to allow yourself to feel them. Pain sucks, but it exists, and we have to let ourselves experience it.

At the end of the day, no matter what coping mechanisms you may or may not have, this is hard. It’s hard to live inside, in isolation. It’s hard to be with family sometimes. It’s hard to be prohibited from doing all of the things that used to make us feel whole. I know better than to say something like “It’s all going to be okay.” But there are glimmers of hope in the darkness, and all that we can do in this world is try to find them.

Ableism and Judaism Series, Disability and Chronic Illness, Divrei Torah

Salt To Survive: Vayikra D’var Torah

This week we begin the book of Leviticus with parshat Vayikra. This parsha principally consists of rules about the process of sacrificing on the temple altar. I’ll level with you: this is a hard parsha to relate to our lives or to the world. But I found connection in this parsha through the process of “zooming in” when I arrived at Leviticus 2:13.  

Let me tell you a quick personal story: Last summer, I lay on the floor of the Beit K’nesset with my blood pressure dropping and my heart rate increasing. I have a condition called dysautonomia that can make it difficult for my body to absorb water. What helps is salt. I started pouring a pill container full of salt into my mouth. “Now you might be thinking: ‘Emily this makes you literally the saltiest person I know, but what in the world does it have to do with our parsha?'” And now, you might be thinking ‘jeez, Emily, how did you read my mind? and ‘wow, Emily, you look fantastic today!'” So first, thank you, and second:

Well, it turns out that this week’s parsha, Vayikra, is just as salty as I am!. It reads, “וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח” within every offering you must offer salt, you shall not omit from your offering salt of the covenant with God, with all your offerings offer salt. Why is this line included in the instructions? Why is salt important to the Jewish people? 

As far as I can see, salt, or the covenant of salt has three roles:

First, salt shows the eternal nature of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The other place in the Torah when a covenant of salt is mentioned is in Numbers in relation to the priests.  In Rashi’s commentary on this verse, he mentions a covenant made between God and the lower waters as far back as the creation story. This shows how long standing this covenant is. After all, people have been using salt to preserve meat and other foods for thousands of years. If you want to keep something preserved or usable, you put it in a mixture of salt and water. Like the covenant lasts forever, salt helps to preserve nourishing food forever. 

This mixture of salt and water is not a coincidence. We see salt as the counter-balance to water in a number of different places in our tradition. In that midrash which Rashi references in his commentary, the deal that is made is between the lower waters which hold the salt of the ocean floor and God. And salt needs water–salt on its own is destructive and representative of death,(think about Lot’s wife being turned to a pillar of salt in Genesis and all of the times in which the enemies of the Israelites put salt into the soil in order to make the soil unusable), but when it is combined with water or sacrifices, its symbolic nature changes. 

Second, salt appears in the Zohar as a way to sweeten bitterness just as salt can be added to bitter food to make it sweeter. This role is primarily expressed in the Zohar which says that salt sweetens the bitterness of the world. According to the Zohar, we would not be able to even endure the bitterness of the world if we did not have the covenant of salt. Clearly, some of our rabbis saw the innate need to sweeten bitterness so much so that they inserted it in their commentary on the Torah.

Lastly, salt is used as a healing element.. In Second Kings, salt is used to make a body of water drinkable again, and in Ezekiel, salt is used to turn meat edible again. Ezekiel even says that newborn babies were rubbed down with salt in order to protect them. 

The rabbis may not have understood biology to the extent that we do in the 21st century, but they were certainly onto something. Salt regulates the amount of water we hold in our bodies as well as our blood sugar and blood volume. 

What can the covenant of salt teach us? These three themes: preservation, sweetness, and healing can readily be applied to the tumultuous time that we are living in. Salt is used as a preservative. At this moment, we are trying to preserve our physical health, and hopefully, our sanity as well. I did not expect this connection to be able to be drawn so literally when I started writing this D’var Torah a month ago. Second, salt tempers the bitterness of life–there is a lot of bitterness in this current world: from misinformation, unpleasant feelings that may come out of being isolated to the cramps that we have all developed from staring at our computers for many hours a day. But there are little things that sweeten each day whether that be the backgrounds that we each choose for our zoom calls or a glass of wine on the couch at the end of the day. Lastly, salt is a healing element. This could first of all be taken literally: get your electrolytes, friends! And second, we are all in need of healing at the moment whether that be of mind, body, spirit, or soul. If we were all together, I would have insisted on giving this D’var Torah immediately before the Mi Shebeirach, but alas, we are not, so I ask you to pray for healing wherever you may be. 

That day, lying on the floor, I felt a lot of things, but partly, I felt grateful. Grateful that I had friends and professors who checked in with me to make sure that I was okay, and grateful to have salt and water to preserve my health even when I have to look ridiculous in the process. Salt literally heals me. I hope it can, at least metaphorically, heal you too. Have a great day, no matter where you are. Missing you all.