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The viruses are real. The bacteria are real. They are real problems, but somatization is a real problem. According to the dictionary somatization is the expression of psychological conflicts through somatic symptoms. In plain English, you take things too much to heart. Today’s word is “somatization”.

I vomit and, at the same time, I cannot eat because my stomach is closed. I do not sleep well, and if I sleep, I have nightmares. I have anxiety at stratospheric levels, especially in the mornings, so that getting out of bed is a true effort because I have not being sleeping enough for weeks, I am weakened because I do not eat or vomit what I eat. I am overwhelmed by my responsibilities and I need to react and the only answer that I can get from my body is shacking.

When I get out of bed, because eventually I can get up, I am irascible, and I do my best to withhold. Clearly I am not the most joyful person. On the other hand, people around me congratulates me giving me positive reinforcement because I am loosing weight, but it worries and anguishes me and I keep quiet so as not seem irascible. Also I am having hives on my skin.

I have an impossible work schedule, an emotionally intense environment, I am self-demanding and quite afraid, in general. I am one of those whose respond to fear is to keep carrying on. Instead of protecting myself, I get into trouble trying to overcome fear. When I see written down I realize it sounds silly but in my head makes a lot of sense.

When I explain all this to friends, they tell me that I am somatizing my problems. It sounds like they are telling me that these things happening to my body are not real rather something else. The viruses are real. The bacteria are real, but what I have is psychosomatic. Then the conversation with my friends moves into a different topic.

I take it too much to heart, come on! If what I am experiencing would be just a flu, nobody would dare to me “Gee! You are being too dramatic!” or “You take that virus too seriously!”. Rather what I am experiencing is relational, job related issues. No bug is causing it. I am responsible for my own illness.

If there is a will there is a way” way of thinking hurts a lot because sometimes you don’t want it and you cannot prevent it. Sometimes you have the will for something but it is impossible to find the way, or there is little you can do, or circumstances will prevent it to happen. Sometimes your head is the one who wants it but your guts tell you something different.

Some people who work on this area tell you to connect to those things and memories that make you feel good. Well, that’s what I did. I have connected so intensely that now my feelings are transformed into red hives all over my face, making them very, into insomnia and into headaches.

It’s okay, I’m not complaining. At least, when something goes wrong, I cannot look the other way because it is written on my very own face every morning when I look in the mirror.

If we could just only stop for one second playing down the importance of somatization and stop blaming ourselves for feeling, then I am sure part of the anxiety would disappear and maybe in its place would enter some fresh air.

 

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A few years ago I was fortunate to learn a beautiful teaching from Avraham Weinberg, the last Slonimer Rebbe. It focuses on the period beginning with Rosh Hodesh Elul and concluding with Shemini Atzeret.

We tend to think of each festival in our calendar as separate entities with their own set of customs, prayers and rituals. The Slonimer has reframed the High Holiday period. He wants us to understand this period as a journey, a pilgrimage of the heart and a period of ego refinement.

Through the month of Elul to the end of Shemini Atzeret we engage in teshuvah. By asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt and offended we move from a place of constriction to open-hearted embodiment of a love that is divine at its source. On Yom Kippur we do this through tefilah, (prayer) and fasting. During Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret we strive to achieve this through joy, dance and celebration. The Slonimer Rebbe develops this idea further by stating that there are two types of festivals. One which embodies “a seal upon your arm,” and the other, “a seal upon your heart.” (Song of Songs 8:6). During Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot we are involved in fulfilling practical mitzvot by eating matzah, blowing the shofar and building a succah. These three festivals represent, “seal upon your arm.”

Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret do not have any practical mitzvot connected to them. They represent a “seal upon your heart, as love is as strong / fierce as death.”

Furthermore during Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah we finish reading the Torah and begin the cycle again. The last letter of the Torah is lamed (Yisrael) and the first letter of the Torah is beth (bereshit)- lev (heart). As we link the end of the cycle to the beginning we set the Torah as a seal upon our hearts and our levavot (hearts) are transformed.

The process that begins during the month of Elul and that concludes with Shemini Atzeret is a time of deepening love. We have opened our hearts, “seal upon your hearts,” to the real possibility of authentic relationship with the mekor hachayim (the source of all life) and all of creation. This relationship allows the divine presence (shechinah) to find a dwelling place in our world. Each and everyone of us, pilgrims, as we journey together from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Shemini Atzeret open up the possibility for a real spiritual paradigm shift in our lives and in the world.

May you all be blessed with health, happiness and insight for the coming year

Each year, we mark the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur as a special Shabbat in our calendar, and we call it Shabbat Shuvah.

The name Shabbat Shuvah, Shabbat of Return comes from its special Haftarah reading, which begins with the words “Shuvah Yisrael” (Return O Israel), taken from the prophecy of Hoshea. It is also referred to as Shabbat Shuvah because it falls during the Ten Days of Repentance.

The prayer service on this Shabbat is the same as on an ordinary Shabbat, with the exception of the additions and changes that are made to the Amidah service throughout the Ten Days of Repentance. As it is Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited.

We are told that this Shabbat was given to Israel as a time for Torah study and prayer, and, although one should always take care not to pass the time idly or in inappropriate conversation, on Shabbat Shuvah one should be especially careful to concentrate entirely on Torah, prayer, and reflection on repentance, thereby attaining forgiveness for whatever unfitting behaviour may have marred other Shabbatot.

Traditionally, there were only two Shabbatot in the year when sermons were delivered. One was Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Pesach, and the other was Shabbat Shuvah. The sermons were extremely long, presumably, because these were the only two occasions made available. Thankfully, this is not the case today, and we can get our sermon dosage in weekly, shorter measures (we can dream, can’t we?).

Many rabbis believed, and still believe today, that the sermon delivered on this Shabbat should be delivered in such a way, that it awakens the people to repentance, to Teshuvah. One of the sources given for their lengthy talks is taken from Midrash Mishlei, where it says; “The Holy One said: When the chacham (wise one) sits and teaches, I cancel and forgive the trespasses of Israel.”

In order to fully understand the importance of Shabbat Shuvah, we need to understand that the entire period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance), is centred around Teshuvah. During the ten days, we are supposed to turn all our thoughts and actions towards Teshuvah. Everything we do should reflect our want and need to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Tradition also teaches us that our fate is judged between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time, a lot of Jews visit the cemetery to ask the departed to testify on their behalf to the Heavenly Tribunal. The words in the Siddur and Machzor support Teshuvah, as we continually ask God for forgiveness.

With regards to this Shabbat, there is very little that happens on Shabbat Shuvah, that doesn’t happen in the rest of the ten days, with the exception of a special haftarah reading and some liturgical changes to parts of the Amidah. But, because Shabbat has always, and will always be the highlight of the week, the importance of the entire period is placed on the Shabbat. In a way, it’s like a last minute plea before God, while in the comfort of the community. One thing is for sure, during these days especially, we all seek the same outcome – forgiveness and compassion. At the same time, we pray that others around the world also get to enjoy a more peaceful and secure existence, no matter who or where they are. Maybe it’s a delicate balance between asking for something that benefits the whole world, and asking for something that is specific to the individual, that will help to bring Teshuvah into our hearts, and into our actions. For each of us, the hope is that the coming year will bring peace for all of God’s creatures and creations, and that starts with us.

As we turn our focus to Yom Kippur, still floating on the high of Rosh Ha-Shanah, let’s remember that Teshuvah is a process, not a moment in time, and that we are blessed to have Shabbat Shuvah as a companion and guide on our journey.

One day a man came into my office. His wife had died recently. She died of cancer after 20 days of battle in the hospital. After the immense pain of the death of a loved one, we face a materialistic society that leaves no space for silence. The first step towards healing when dealing with the absence and the need to attend to the heart it is not to accept any censorship from ourselves nor anybody else in expressing the most intimate feelings. The death of a spouse is probably the hardest and traumatic experience of the many we will encounter along our life.

Facing the death of a loved one

Unexpectedly, death makes itself present into our lives with no excuses nor apologies as it is, in its purest nakedness, before a self also naked. There is, then, neither escape nor any possibility of masking reality.

We try to deny the evidence, but it has happened. Death is too real. The intimate experiences and the complicities created throughout a life together comes to an ended. Life loses its meaning. All the links are broken. A way of living ends forever and with it all the references and marking points.

Only loneliness remains, darkness, anger, sadness, helplessness, despair, emptiness, confusion and pain; an intense pain behind which hides an immense love that transcends the fragile borders of death.

But it is this pain that will drive growth, away from the vain attempt to return to what was already, to accept the irreversibility of the process of death. These will be, then, from that moment on, our new signs of identity.

When suddenly we face the death of the loved one, we are dragged by a real soul storm and we enter a kind of fall into a hole where chaos seizes the totality of our being, where each of the cells of our body It is shaken, and old beliefs jump shattered.

A long road awaits us and it is necessary to travel. A path full of ups and downs, sometimes so subtle that it blurs the path through which we have to journey, reclaimed by whispering siren songs that invite us to march along paths that lead nowhere. Life, for better or for worse and in spite of us, continues its course but we will no longer be the same.

We will need to be born again to peer fearfully into an unknown, strange and threatening world. How to start writing the blank page that fate shows us unexpectedly? How to orient ourselves in the middle of a desert without a compass guiding us? How to navigate in a windless sea that pushes the sails?

Then, we become aware those values on which we have based our existence are insufficient to face the new life situation. The impact of close death questions our way of seeing and being in the world and demands to start over, but not at any price or in any way, but consciously integrating the new contents that will be present.

It imposes a process of adaptation that we call mourning and whose natural development is more than often hindered by the imprint of the cultural model in which we live.

Grief your way

Our materialistic culture aims to direct our lives birth to death down to the smallest details. It dictates the norms by which the people’s behavior has to be governed; establishing its own scale of values and indicating the criteria on the appropriate or inadequate way of facing the grieving processes. In short, our society tries to put a hard corset around how to express our most intimate feelings.

This way of adaptation does not help to transcend the problem that involves the process of mourning, nor does it respond to the myriad of questions the journey poses. It does not solve the problem nor help integrate it.

In fact, we know that no problem has a solution at the level at which it occurs Instead we need to take some or many more steps backwards to distance ourselves and gain some broader perspective. This process will bring us closer to real and lasting solutions. In this context, grief is no exception. The pain process that grief brings helps to acquire those higher perspectives where it finds its meaning.

Fortunately, in the most intimate deepest parts of our being, there is still room for hope. In nature nothing happens by chance, not even death. It is meaningless to say we come into this world to live most of the time fighting for subsistence and after some few decades we just disappear. Nature is wiser than that!

Each one of us is a small light hidden behind innumerable layers. This light, sustained by hope, becomes more clear as we journey along the path, allowing glimpses of unexpected realities, even in the hardest moments.

This is one of the goals of mourning: to integrate in the heart the transcendent dimension of life and death. Only with the heart do we come to glimpse the hidden background of reality. Reason takes a secondary role here. It’s about feeling more than analyzing. Feeling is the basis to appreciate the new perspectives that are opening up with the passage of time that the process requires.

When a loved one leaves us forever, the pain can seem unbearable. The process to elaborate the grief and to finally accept the new reality the death is not easy.

The journey of grief is an invitation to review and to renew old structures that no longer serve us. All along this journey in our daily activities we will be confronted with the new reality several times a day. We tend to associate them with memories, moments of solitude, phone calls, etc. but the reality is that any unforeseen circumstance can trigger a crisis episode.

The predominant emotions associated with these moments are:

    • Anguish

    • Pain

    • Sadness

    • Despair or impotence

    • Rage

    • Emptiness

    • Loneliness

With time they will slowly fade away combining with moments of acceptance and hope, as well as other moments of serenity. During those times we will feel with certainty that all is well, but for now that’s far away from us.

Daily walks and exercise in general, meditation, being in the present “here and now” as much as possible and talking about these feelings, all these can be helpful to work detachment and reach acceptance.

Try to have moments of solitude and allow yourself to experience the closeness with oneself. Talking from the heart with family and friends about our feelings can be bring some relief.

How to grief the death of a loved one

1. Establish moments of conscious silence in which to work inner calm and mental quiet by observing our own experiences as if they were those of another person and taking the appropriate consequences. Simply observing, without fighting against anything, only watching and waiting patiently and confidently in the inner wisdom.

2. To remain attentive and open to the new that unfolds within us and to the more human and enriching perspectives that will appear in our conscience. This will generate an improvement in our self-esteem and a more hopeful attitude of the future. It means making ourselves aware that behind external appearances there lives a soul that tries to communicate and that we can access from a receptive attitude, leaving aside prejudices and also distancing ourselves from cultural conditioning.

3. Become aware that in this chaotic state of mind, an infinity of thoughts of different origins will intermingle. Some will come from the cultural context in which we have been educated and in which we live; others, the demands imposed on us by our ego, and even some others will come from our deep selves. It is necessary to develop, then, a certain power of discrimination to know how to differentiate them adequately.

4. Observe all sorts of living beings in any of their expressions trying to capture not only what they express but what they try to express. A priori is not so evident. An observation from the heart.

5. Adjust the physical and psychological needs to what they need, without falling into the trap of self-pity. Precisely, due to the delicate moments we are going through, it is more than ever necessary to pay special attention to the needs of our body and our soul, without hesitating to request the right help if the situation requires it.

6. Try to be humble enough to recognize your own limitations and imperfections as a way to accept the imperfections of others, being willing to learn from any person or situation.

7. Remain in an attitude of active listening, attentive to what the spiritual world suggests. It is not about doing anything, not even having expectations of anything, but of being actively present and open to what our interior or our tangible or intangible environment want to communicate.

How should we define success? It is an elusive term. Is it simply ticking off the boxes of a predetermined goal? Is there a difference in how success should be defined? As we approach another year, how should we measure this past one? Throughout the ages, humankind has always created physical or metaphorical idols. Try as we might, we can never rid ourselves of them. An idol is an idea or a thing that should have relative value but has, however, been elevated to an absolute. The problem with idolatry for the monotheistic religions is that idols/idolatry creates a sense of delusion, can enslave a person and ultimately dehumanizes us.

In today’s world, we do not necessarily have the idols that we conjure in our imaginations, of towering statues or images that we worship. These modern idols share characteristics with these more traditional idols. One of these most intoxicating qualities is success. From our early years of life, children are challenged to be successful in their classes and games – they have to win, and if not it is a tragedy or failure. In school we are measured by how well we have done in our exams – not if we have gained knowledge. We are comparing ourselves to others around us and not striving to be better than our own self. As we continue our educational trajectory in our life in college, we are pushed to our limits to obtain a degree in a profession with the idea to be successful in our future profession – not necessarily in life or in our relation with people. Money and fame, together with success, seems to define the ultimate absolute goals of a person. All these are relatively important, for sure, but they should not substitute the higher moral values. True happiness, for instance, is not obtained or achieved by accumulating more diplomas and certificates to prove that we are a successful person. My success is only real when it is perceived as a temporary, relative triumph; never as an end in and of itself. The reason for this way of thinking is that once I have accepted a successful endeavor and overcome a tough test in life, I might think that I have reached the top of the mountain, and there are no other mountains to climb. I would settle for the minimum, be satisfied with little gains and stifle my need to grow and challenge new goals.

All success therefore, should be partial, temporary and never final. We try to reach the stars but know that we will get only to the moon, and that is more than a success. There are always more heights to conquer than we can perceive. Nevertheless, to be grateful for the little steps forward, to learn to value the greatness of small things, to have helped a person just with a small smile, is a success in the heart of a person – knowing that tomorrow I can and should bring some happiness and love to another person. If I can inspire others, open someone’s mind, reach into my soul, connect with someone on a deep level, those are all successes that we lose focus on, because they are all the beginning of a process, not the end of a journey.

Success therefore in our lives is not necessarily about reaching the goal, but maybe setting the goal and taking steps to accomplish it, and measuring the quality of the journey. How will you reflect on your success this past year? How will you plan for success this coming year?

Recently I learned about a convention of redheads in Israel at the aptly named Kibbutz Gezer (Kibbutz Carrot). 200 redheads converged for a weekend of activities and events for redheaded Israelis. Over 900 wanted to come they had to limit number to 200. only 1% of the Jewish population is redheaded. I can just imagine the feeling of being like everyone else, having nothing that distinguish them from the rest of the crowd.

In our Torah portion this week we read a plethora of laws stretching from the mundane to the most central principles of the Torah and in among them, a law all about individuality and its importance. The parashah contains the rule forbidding us from ploughing our fields with an ox and a donkey together. Most interpreters understand this law as being about preventing animal cruelty. The ox and the donkey have different strengths and to require them to plough together would be cruel and inflict pain and suffering on them both. But Rabbi Artson suggests a different perspective. He says that it is teaching us about the importance of being who we are, of embracing our individuality and celebrating what makes us unique. He writes: to harness them together would mean that “one animal would constantly feel pressured to adopt the standards of the other,” (Bedside Torah pg. 323) rather than be true to who they are in their individuality.

In our world, we believe that there is a cult of individuality, that we are all taking selfies, posting on Facebook, sending tweets, letting people know who we are and in the process demonstrating the ways we are different. But sometimes this gives a false sense of celebrating difference because if we look closely at the Facebook pages, the selfies, so much of it is about being the same; conforming to the norms around us and being like everyone else. There was a wonderful video doing the rounds on Youtube where a father filmed his daughter, unbeknownst to her, taking a series of selfies, trying to get her selfie pout exactly right. I am sure she only sent out the best selfie and deleted the rest. These moments which appear to be spontaneous are often far from it and instead of reflecting who we are, it shows who we are when we are trying to be like everyone else. I heard someone comment the other day that as much as instagram is supposed to be casual, un-posed photos, how often do we see an instagram shot with someone’s mouth full or their eyes closed and all the other mistakes we would expect in photos which are spontaneous? We harbor a false sense that we embrace difference when in fact much of social media has instead provided us with more means of showing how we are all the same, leaving very little room for individuality.

Our parasha this week reminds us of how important it is to embrace who we are; our differences and our uniqueness and to celebrate those parts of us as well. It can be difficult to be outside the norm but God created each of us to be someone special in the world and if we take someone else’s path then we are not becoming who can be. May we all find our way and celebrate who we are.