December 17, 2020


12.18.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

Near the beginning of this week’s parashah, we read the story of Joseph being released from prison.  He had been jailed unjustly, having offended the master of his household.  While in prison, he gained recognition for his ability to interpret dreams.  Word of Joseph’s abilities spread beyond the prison walls.  And when Pharaoh needed a dream of his interpreted, he called upon Joseph, expediting Joseph’s release and returning him to the outside world.

The story of Joseph’s release from prison is not told in detail.  We don’t know how Joseph felt when he first got word he was finally getting out.  We don’t know whether he said goodbye or good riddance to his fellow inmates.  The only thing we do know is that after he is released and before he sees Pharaoh he goes through an important transition: he gets a haircut and new clothes.  He changes his external appearance, making sure he presents himself appropriately when he goes to meet Pharaoh.

For many of us, entering early recovery gives us a new perspective on how to care for ourselves and our bodies.  In the isolation and singular mindset of addiction, we might have stopped showering regularly, brushing our teeth, getting haircuts, and wearing clean clothes.  If we were in the restricted environment of prison, we may have developed a particular habit of hygiene and manner of dress that we would never choose again on the outside.  Or perhaps we tended to the complete opposite extreme: we obsessed about our external appearance, going to unhealthy lengths to try to look a certain way.

Either way, one of the gifts of recovery is an opportunity to bring our self-care back into balance.  We can develop routines of hygiene that keep us healthy and build a sense of pride in how we look and how we present ourselves to the outside world.  We can learn to accept ourselves as we are, letting go of obsessive internal critiques – that we should look differently than we do, be different than we are in order to be good enough.  We can appreciate ourselves as we are, and our hygiene and dress can express our self-esteem and self-worth.

For some of us, this process goes smoothly.  Brushing our teeth helps us start our day; getting regular haircuts helps us feel confident; doing laundry and having clean clothes to wear helps us feel proud.  When we take care of our outside, it helps us feel better on the inside.  But for others of us, we face more challenges.  We can’t seem to make the effort to shower regularly or do laundry; we might be consumed with harmful judgments about our weight or our hair; we might reject the concept of fashion as a classist social construct.

It’s true that external appearances are complicated.  How we present ourselves to the outside world doesn’t just represent our relationship to ourselves, it represents our relationship to the world around us.  When we struggle with our external appearances, for whatever reason, here are some principles that can guide us:

First, we can remember our holy soul. Each human is a unique holy essence housed in a miraculous physical body.  The foundation of hygiene – caring for our health – ensures that our holy essence has a physical place to reside.

Second, we can remember the concept of appropriateness. Making choices about what we wear is like making choices about what we say; just as not all speech is appropriate for all settings, not all clothing is appropriate for all settings.  Presenting ourselves appropriately conveys respect both for ourselves and for the people around us.

And third, we can remember the significance of authenticity. Of course in our recovery we must be respectful of the people around us, yet that respect can never interfere with us being our authentic selves.  We can choose to express ourselves in ways that are both authentic to who we are and appropriate to the situation around us.  Recovery helps us see that we don’t have to choose one or their other; instead, we can do both.

As we care for our physical bodies and make choices about our external appearances, I invite us to remember these principles.  We can remember that our body is a home for our holy soul.  We can express respect for others and ourselves as we present ourselves appropriately.  And we can remember that we don’t have to sacrifice authenticity for appropriateness, that we can be respectful of others at the same time we express our authentic selves.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Miriam