Monthly Archives: January 2017

Where The Riches Are

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I took a bite of the steaming hot, four-cheese pasta I had ordered in mid-town Manhattan and nodded my head. Yes, I agreed with my friend sitting across from me, this was too delicious to be true. We were out for a girls lunch. A work/pleasure hybrid of a lunch break as my companion was evolving in her Judaism and wanted to talk about her next steps in learning and growth. She was pretty, composed, and very down-to-earth. I had liked her the minute we met weeks before at an outreach event I helped run in NYC. We were about the same age and instantly hit it off with easy conversation that balanced giggles with depth.

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A little background for the buildup. While I’m pretty grounded, I have this weird sixth sense and I believe that I see people’s auras…just a little bit. Just sometimes. The color, the energy. It doesn’t happen often but I have experienced the phenomenon. (Oy. If I’ve freaked you out and you want to stop reading, I totally get it.) Once, many years ago, I told my roommate in school that a black energy appeared to be radiating from her. The words tumbled out of my mouth and I realized mid-stream how strange and offensive they sounded. She got very quiet but spoke after a few moments. “I was institutionalized”.  Then quiet again. Gulp. I wasn’t prepared for that. Since then, I’m more cautious about sharing my observations though I still get into trouble occasionally.

I share this with you because I felt I really had a grasp on my lunch date’s energy. She was admirably calm. She was patient and it was as if nothing could phase or stress her. She spoke deliberately and slowly; she paused before answering. She was like… a warm blue. (In contrast, I speak quickly and often kick myself mid-sentence for not filtering more. Over the years, I’ve conditioned myself to lock my jaw shut and pad my responses with “Can I process that and get back to you in the next couple of days?” I have yet to regret that answer and use it liberally to ensure that I am thoughtful and not rushed.) I digress but don’t worry, the bombshell is coming.

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So there we were, indulging in carbs, enjoying girl talk, speaking of personal development and lofty ideals when my friend cleared her throat. She wanted to confide in me about something from her past. Of course, I gladly obliged and assured her that my lips were sealed. Whatever she wanted to tell me surely wouldn’t shock me. I knew my friend was on her journey in spirituality and connection to Judaism. It was clear that she hadn’t been particularly sheltered though she came from a solid family and a good home. Whatever was in her past couldn’t be so bad.

Then, with her reflective, collected disposition, she described how she became addicted to cocaine and battled to stay clean. She had a stint in rehab and was a real ‘mess’ (her word) through college. I used up every bit of control I had to show no signs of shock. I knew addiction existed and I had met addicts before but her? I just couldn’t reconcile it. How could this composed, even sophisticated, soft-spoken young woman have such a dark, out of control side? I thought to myself, maybe I don’t know her that well. Perhaps she was unstable? Could it be?

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“I hope I haven’t changed the way you look at me”, she said. I vigorously shook my head and worked hard to convince both of us that she hadn’t. As I walked to the subway from the restaurant, I reminded myself that an addiction shouldn’t define a person and that her future wasn’t hinged on her past.

Fortunately, my friend didn’t vanish from my life. We actually grew closer and stayed in touch for many years. I absolutely adore her and she has taught me a lot about how complex human beings truly are. Looking back, I so admire her confidence that day. She fully accepted herself and felt comfortable to talk about choices that would bring most people shame. Since then, she’s married and had many children. I wonder if she would tell anyone what she told me all those years ago but it doesn’t matter. She has a depth of self-acceptance that most of us would and should envy. Perhaps hitting rock bottom and having to climb out of that pit builds self-acceptance.

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Fast forward ten years to the opposite scenario. I was working on campus and had developed a relationship with one of our students. She was a sorority girl who would do coffee with me from time to time. She joined our weekly learning program. Her etiquette was always on point. Based on her Facebook profile, she seemed to have an exciting party life but never spoke of it to me. I always had the sense that she was holding back in the hopes of making a good impression.

One day, after about a year, she and I met at the Starbucks on campus. I could see she was going through something but didn’t want to share. In the hopes of convincing her of the importance of vulnerability, I said to her, “Y’know…you don’t have to be perfect all the time. That must be really draining.” She started crying despite valiant efforts of staying composed. Suddenly, she was mortified that she had dropped her guard, apologized profusely, and excused herself. This poor young woman really wanted to reach out, she spent so much energy acting like everything was okay, and she just couldn’t make peace with herself. She couldn’t accept that she was flawed, like the rest of us.

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I’ve quoted this line before but it bears repeating. My very favorite verse of all time from the Torah is one pertaining to offerings. While I can’t say all laws of korbanos (ritual offerings) are my favorite area of Judaism to explore, this particular point is so profound that (even) I cling on to it. All meal offerings, the Torah demands, must be offered with salt and not honey or yeast (Vayikra 2:11-2:13). Yeast inflates and honey sweetens. G-d doesn’t need us to offer falsely inflated or sweetened versions of our true selves. Rather, we are required to use salt, something that brings out the natural flavors and preserves. (Rabbi Mordechai Gifter)

What a gift. G-d, who is perfect by definition, is requiring us to be as we were created. Flawed. Broken. Vulnerable. Makes sense. After all, He created us that way. But why?? Why can’t we achieve perfection? Why can’t I love myself…once I’m perfect?

The whole point of this life, the one that begins the moment we are born and ends the moment we die is our quest for correction, our journey to perfection. I’m awed by people who try to make an impact and be an “influencer” under the guise of perfection. I have no desire to emulate that. I want to embrace this life, accept every part of myself, and understand that the creased, bent, and fractured pieces are where the riches are.

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Adult Friendships

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Adult Friendships
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Some friends and I in Jerusalem, 2011 (I’m on the far left)

Well, this is embarrassing. For years, I’ve been telling a few choice family members and acquaintances that I find it extremely difficult to establish friendships as an adult. Sometimes, I smile facetiously and announce that I have no friends at all and sometimes, on a good day, I concede that perhaps I have one or two. I must be the only person in the world who feels this way because, so often, listeners respond with an air of disdain. It’s as if they’re thinking: Sorry that you have this problem. Luckily, we don’t.

What was easy at 13 seems so daunting at 33. Do friendships have an expiration date? How much investment is required in a friendship? If we talk this much, share this much, connect this much…are we friends??

How did I have so many friends before adulthood? For me, adulthood began when I got my first full-time job in New York at 21 years old. Before that, I was able to prioritize friendships above all else with nearly endless time and care. Once I began working, I just didn’t have the energy to stay awake late with a friend on the phone. I was too tired to go out with friends unless it was the weekend or a special occasion.  I would often get home from work very late and the thought of using up my little downtime on socializing was too much to bear. I just wasn’t interested. After all, I had to wake up the next morning and work a long day! I was leading a very full life, albeit alone.

Marriage and children only served to reinforce my challenge. Today, now that I work full-time while juggling a young family, I’m thankful for a bathroom break undisturbed (still a rare occurrence). Showering and sitting down for a meal are luxuries. I don’t walk into a store unless it’s for groceries (don’t worry too much though, Amazon has cured me of my other shopping needs). Friends?? Impossible!

But maybe we need to define our terms before I write myself off as a recluse. What are friends anyway? Are they the people who will bail you out of jail or pick you up from the hospital? I would argue that any kind soul would do that for you, friend or foe. Here are three reasons you may call someone a friend and a little push back on that definition from yours truly.

You’re friends because of….

  1. Shared interest, stage of life, or community. Examples: We both have babies and we spend lots of time together on the playground. We love sports and play basketball every morning. We are next door neighbors. In all three cases, these friendships likely take up most of our quota for “friend time” and, I would argue, count the least. Why? Because they’re dependent on something external to exist. Judaism teaches that a love dependent on something is only as strong as that thing. Move out of your neighborhood, stop playing basketball, no longer go to the park and your friendship will disappear.
  2. History. I have friends who I rarely/never speak to but love and they have a special place in my heart. We went to school together or we spent summers together, we talked and talked, sometimes about nothing and other times about everything. While these friends are very important to me, many of them play a big role in my rear-view mirror but don’t really know me as I am today. If I was in trouble, I wouldn’t call them because there’s a lack of familiarity with our adult versions of each other. I have tried to rekindle these friendship over the years and end up awkwardly stumbling in and out of connection.
  3. A safe space. These are the friends that we can really spill to, feel safe with, and share our innermost thoughts without fear of being judged. This category is the one I am most inclined to give credit. There’s just one problem. In a time when privacy is as undervalued as it is today (how many times have you signed off on the privacy terms and conditions of your favorite app?), we may indeed feel “safe” with any supportive, open people in our lives. Also, feeling safe or confident to share is a function of our own self-confidence and not a reflection of friendship necessarily. I have seen some gut-wrenching posts on Facebook and I continue to be surprised by people’s raw vulnerability on scaled social media sites.

You may disagree with me and consider any of the above definitions as entirely reasonable. If that’s the case, I too have friends (yay!).

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Two special friends who visited me in San Diego, 2007 (I’m on the far left again)

Until I have an intuitive understanding, I will have to rely on my intellectual understanding of how the Torah defines friendship. Judaism has a lot to say on the subject but the most compelling teaching, for me, is the story of David and Yonatan. Yonatan was the son of King Saul whereas David was just a young shepherd from a large family who became prominent through a remarkable series of events. Their backgrounds had no overlap, they didn’t have similar interests, yet the Mishna describes their friendship as loyal and devoted, dependent on nothing, and everlasting. Even more remarkable was that Yonatan was the heir to his father’s throne but David took it over- a move that should have made Yonatan jealous and yet he was entirely supportive.

So the Torah defines friendship in very simple terms.

Friendship is simply an outpouring of constant love and loyalty. It may start out as connecting with someone because you both love golf, attend the same school, or share cubicle space. But that does not make a friendship. Spilling your deepest, darkest secrets doesn’t make a friendship either. Being friends with someone in your childhood or teenage years of angst is also not the magic bullet.

The answer comes down to the question: Will you allow your relationship with this person to exist superficially or will you opt to go “all in” and choose to care for him/her deeply? Do you choose to love that person? Do you choose to help that person and invest in that person? Will you allow them to help you?

The lesson for me is that friendship is a choice to prioritize a person outside of myself or my family. In this light, I am starting to wonder if maybe I have more friends than I thought.