Shalom friends, I don’t usually post my sermons, not even after our holiest of days. But since I shared these words on Yom Kippur, I have been overwhelmed with requests to do so. As you can see, I contront the issues of addiction in our Jewish community, but I also share my thoughts on the Twelve Steps, not only as a framework for recovery, but as a spiritual framework for any seeker in our Jewish community. For those confronting addiction and compulsive behaviors and disorders, I hope that these words will helpful. To our other spiritual seekers and fellow journeyers, I also hope that my efforts will bring strength and fortitude to journey forward with integrity. I am very grateful to Rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Mark Borovitz for opening my eyes to the issues facing our community through a Jewish lens. And to Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, for his many writings and teachings (even though I have never met him).
Addiction is in our Jewish community.
Is this something that you really didn’t know?
Am I sharing a dirty little secret that we aren’t supposed to talk about?
You know I like to tell stories and share a little humor. But there is an important message today. I need to do two things this morning…
The first is to tell you that addiction is not in someone else’s community. It is in ours…but no one wants to talk about it out loud, not even to me.
The second thing is…while we all know about the Twelve Steps, few of us have any idea what they are and certainly not how valuable they are to any religious seeker looking for something to ground them on their journey.
It is still shrouded in secrecy and cloaked in shame. So much so that when individuals and families are facing addiction and compulsion disorders, they don’t feel it is safe enough to share it with their own rabbi or their own synagogue. If someone had, God forbid, a terrible illness, generally I’ll get a call. If you land in the hospital, I typically hear about it. But if someone is confronting an addiction or a compulsive disorder…I seldom hear of it. I do not think it is out of a sense of wanting to protect someone’s privacy. It is about shame and embarrassment. It is about a feeling of failure:
“What did I do wrong?” as a parent…
“Why can’t I stop this behavior?” as the addict…
Its time to help our friends, our families, our neighbors…ourselves…to get rid of the shame… and instead know, that their community cares. Not only do we care, but if we shed a light on these challenges and recognize them as illness, then we show up to care, to respond, to support…without judgment.
“Addiction is a symptom of divided self; an unhealthy dependence on substances or compulsive activities to provide a temporary sense of wholeness and well-being. It is a “dis-ease” of body, mind, soul and spirit.”
As a rabbi, I see it as the result of someone who feels so empty that they fill themselves up with anything that can give them, for a moment, a positive feeling. But, it is a false positive of sorts…it never lasts.
It is our family, friends, and neighbors who face these challenges. Addictions to alcohol, pain meds, meth, cocaine… we have members of our community that, on their own, cannot stop compulsive behaviors like shopping and gambling. We don’t think of eating disorders as falling into these categories…we know of anorexia or bulimia, but what about a food addiction…something you cannot even abstain from.
This is the part of the sermon where I wanted to give you the hard facts, to hear the wake up call. But I couldn’t find any. The only one I could find: estimates are that up to 50% of patient populations in residential treatment are Jews — as are 20% of those calling national drug hotlines (yet Jews comprise but 2% of the U.S. population). Our Jewish community, nationally and locally, still has not invested the time, energy or resources to support our members who find themselves in harm’s way.
We have too many people in this very room who need a community to support them. These are our kids. Yes, our kids from nice families, good schools, who became a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah in this very sanctuary. It is our kids who feel lost. It is our parents who have not yet found the courage to ask for help. It is our spouses who think we haven’t noticed, but…we really have but we haven’t found our own courage to say something.
I said that there are two reasons to write this sermon:
1) It is time for our Jewish community to say that if you are dealing with an addiction, let us be a source of support.
2) Many of us know about the Twelve Steps, but we don’t know anything about them. While they were created by a Christian group, I find them to be a tremendous resource for anyone looking for a simple spiritual framework to guide us. But we can translate them into Jewish Steps.
For those dealing with addictions, I hope this will help.
For those looking for a path of teshuvah, of turning toward a better Self, then I hope this will help you, too.
On Yom Kippur, we focus on Change, Transformation, Hope…they are all within reach. We can break free out of the Egypts that enslave us, whether they are addiction, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, anger, materialism, a lack of self worth, an ongoing sense of emptiness…what have you. Whatever keeps you from being your authentic Self…is your Egypt.
The 12 Steps can guide all of us on our way…
Here are the steps according to Alcoholics Anonymous. While this might include alcohol, other Anonymous groups will have their own relevant versions. As I share these steps, let’s see how we can make them Jewish steps, whether they are towards recovery or towards wholeness. I am convinced there are universal truths imbedded in these steps. You don’t need an addiction to see their value. If they are a framework for healing for those who are so so vulnerable, they can be a framework to help all of us strive for meaning, strength and wholeness.
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
The greatest act of the first step is the recognition that there is a problem. That we are vulnerable. That we can’t always control our urges. Saying that we need to take a first step is not always easy.
I am drawn to a biblical figure that we know little about from the Torah, but the rabbis give him a great achievement in rabbinic literature. It is Nachshon ben Aminadav. As the Israelites were leaving the confines of Egyptian slavery, they were stopped at the Red Sea. How could it be that the God who produced all those plagues, wonders and miracles would bring them to a dead end.
Nachshon understood that it wasn’t a dead end. If we were going to make it work…if we were going to get to the other side, we needed to take a leap of faith. So he jumped first into the Sea filled with trust and with hope.
I know that I cannot save every person who walks into my study. I wish I could. Even with all the resources I could ever want at my disposal…I cannot save anyone who isn’t willing to take a first step, a leap of faith…to admit that they need some support, and be willing to make the journey forward.
This Day, we are all doing something similar. You are here ready to acknowledge that we can do better.
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
This is where people in recovery programs who do the steps that talk about a Higher Power. I also believe that there is a power far greater than I. I am not the center of my universe and I cannot act as if I am.
It was just this past Shabbat where Moses comes to the end of his life and we learn that the ancient Israelites are going to enter into the Land of Canaan with Joshua. In chapter 31, it said, “Be strong and resolute” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 31:7, 31:23). What a great message when we are feeling at a low point or lost, just like these Israelites must have felt as the only leader that they have ever known was about to retire…be strong and be resolute.
And then in 6 we read, “For it is indeed the Eternal your God who marches with you: [God] will not fail you or forsake you.”
Listen again: “Be strong and resolute.” And before we can once again protest our weakness we are assured, “It is . . . God who marches with you. [God] will not fail you or forsake you.”
This doesn’t mean that God is going to fix everything that is broken. But just as Nachshon realized that he had to do his part, he had to jump in the sea for it to split, we recognize that God has got our back and we will never be alone. Never.
Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky in his book Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery says: “the very act of deciding means that you begin to take back control of your life. // When you change who you are, trying to become what you might be, you enter sacred time and sacred space. There, the old you slowly evolved into the new person you yearn to become.” (17)
What better illustration of teshuvah do we need? We started with Confession, we acknowledged God’s presence, and now we are deciding to turn ourselves over to God. Now let’s be clear. This does not mean that we no longer have a say in our actions.
We can understand its meaning by referring back to our Israelite ancestors leaving Egypt. There were times when, confronted by their new found freedom, they panicked. They lashed out at Moses…the one who lead them out of Egypt! And still, they kvetched and moaned when things got hard. They never had to make their own decisions before this point. It wasn’t easy. But Moses, as best as he could, taught them that they needed to look beyond their own fears and to embrace the opportunities before them.
They needed to find their faith. They needed to learn how to trust in God’s Presence. They didn’t need to be perfect. They just needed to journey forward. I think this step is about walking with God. Not just believing in God. Knowing that this relationship is going to help me make better decisions.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
One of the hardest things any person can do is to engage in real, authentic soul searching. We call this cheshbon nefesh.
Many of us shy away from such an endeavor. If we were more serious, there would be more of us in therapy and more meeting me for spiritual and pastoral counseling.
Instead, we work to much, we drink to much, we pop pills, we eat too much, we cheat, we fill ourselves up with things that are not only bad for us, but they are bad for those who love us.
I find my inspiration from Jacob. Jacob wasn’t the kind, sensitive soul that we sometimes give him credit for. He stole the birthright from his older brother, Esau. He then tricked his blind dying father Isaac out of the blessing that was also designated for Esau. Esau was so angry, he threatened to kill Jacob. After being estranged from each other for decades, they are about to meet. The night before their encounter, Jacob wrestles with a man, purported to be an angel. After a whole night of struggling and wrestling, Jacob makes a demand of his adversary to give him a blessing. Instead, the angel changes his name from Yaakov, which means “heel,” to Yisrael, the one who struggles with God and prevails. I have always looked at this section as Jacob wrestling with his own demons, his own baggage. Even though he has changed from a scoundrel to a leader, he needed to hold himself accountable for his past actions. And perhaps just as powerful as his transformation, is that he walks away with a limp. You see, he injured his hip in this wrestling match. The way I see it is: if we are honest with ourselves as we pursue our own cheshbon nefesh, we might not always be happy with our past actions. We might walk away with a limp…with a wound. But we can walk with our heads high. We will journey forward.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
One of things that make our tradition so unique is the very simple, but perhaps hardest task at hand during these holy days: For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”
In our Jewish system, it couldn’t be clearer. There are no shortcuts to doing the right thing. It isn’t going to be easy. But we have to ask for forgiveness from the people that we have hurt.
We have a tradition that expects us to go to our family, friends and neighbors and say…if there has been anything that I have done over the past year that has caused you any pain, whether it is was deliberate or by accident, I am sorry.
No, Facebook posts and tweets won’t fulfill your obligation.
Let’s put Steps 6 and 7 together:
6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.
7) Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
I am drawn to a teaching of the rabbis that I have shared with you often. The rabbis note that in Exodus, there are references to “the two tablets of the Pact.” While the context seems like it should be referring to a single set of tablets, a teaching emerged to say that there were two sets of tablets that represented this Pact that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai. One set was smashed when he saw the Golden Calf. The other set was placed into the Ark of the Covenant.
But the rabbis say that both are holy and both have to live side by side.
We have our broken pieces, too, side by side with our strong Selves. We can’t ignore our past. Jacob tried, but at some point, even if it was later in life, he figured out he had to confront his past actions. We can’t just give them to God and hope that God will take the burden away. We can give these things up, let them go, free ourselves, by being willing…truly willing to change.
And that is walking humbly with our God.
Do you know this quote? “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”
And with God’s help, tapping into those reserves of strength, conviction and resilience that we all have been given, we can find amazing strength.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
These two steps, while there are nuances between them to be sure, exemplify crucial elements of teshuvah. We must approach the person we have wronged and make amends, whenever possible.
There are ways to make amends, too, even if it is not possible or safe to go to the one we have hurt. Mark Borovitz, one of my heroes, stole thousands and thousands of dollars from strangers and friends alike. After two stints in prison, he realized his crimes, his emptiness. He even robbed his own daughter of the father he was supposed to be. He can’t change any of that. But he fully realizes that he can still do teshuvah to acknowledge his wrongs and do better. Borovitz became a rabbi. He likes to claim that he is the first rabbi to start rabbinical school after prison. He is the Spiritual Leader at Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles. A 150 bed in treatment facility that uses Jewish values and hopes to treat people in recovery. They even have their own sober congregation, Temple Beit T’shuvah. He and his wife, who is the CEO and clinical director, could not have picked a better name. His service has been paying back everything he stole through acts of chesed and tzedakah.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro shares something that can be liberating. “We have to accept the past, learn from it, and eventually let it go so that we can make what we can of the present.”
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
The truth is, whether or not we face an addiction, we need to always be mindful of our actions. There are going to be days when we fall, when we miss the mark, but our sages tell us that we are not required to complete the task, but we must not evade it. We don’t have to be perfect.
However…Rabbi Harold Kushner said it best: “When we do something wrong, because we are human and our choices are so complicated and temptations so strong, we don’t lose our humanity. But we lose our integrity, our sense of wholeness, of being the same person all the time. We create a situation where a part of us, our good self, is at war with another part of us, our weak and selfish self. We lose the focus, the singleness of purpose, that enables us to do the things that matter to us. That is when we need the religious gift of forgiveness and atonement (making our split selves at one). But should we ever conclude that there is no point in trying to be good because we can never be good enough, that is when we lose everything. Being human can never mean being perfect, but it should always mean struggling to be as good as we can and never letting our failures be a reason for giving up the struggle.”
Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
Ummm… THAT is what we are doing here.
Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all of our affairs.
This step reminds me of the quip I shared my very first year here. Playing on the idea that we all know that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year…a prominent rabbi I know challenged that idea…it is the day after. It is tomorrow. We are great today. What about tomorrow when our choices matter the most.
There are resources today that we have never had for Jews confronting addiction. Aside from a huge alphabet of Anonymous groups: FA, AA, NA, OA, EA, there is a Jewish group that meets in East Cobb. There are numerous books to be grounded in a Jewish spiritual tradition. This is the third year that there will be a sober birthright Israel trip for young Jewish adults in recovery. And now, for the first time, Atlanta has a new Jewish program to join in partnership with other recovery and treatment programs…Jewish Family & Career Services has launched HAMSA, Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse. A hamsa, of course, is the symbolic representation of God’s hand protecting us. This new effort is already underway to advance Jewish clinical support as well as substance abuse prevention programs. I promise you will be hearing more about it.
These steps are some of the best resources for someone who confronts addiction. But remember, I share them for two reasons. One is, they are basic understandings of human behavior that are timeless for all of us.
The other is…it is time to break the taboo about addictions and have the conversations in public: In the pew and in the school.
Are we ready now for rebirth?
“Be strong and resolute.” Maybe this year can mark a new way of our being in the world. Maybe with the help of Torah, tradition, and community—maybe with the help of God—we can overcome the obstacles that have kept us from becoming our best selves. Maybe now we are ready to go through those Gates of Repentance with the sense of hope and confidence that are the core of its message.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky adapted our text for the traditional Travelers Prayer to make it a little clearer for those on this particular journey:
“May it be Your will, Adonai, My God and God of my ancestors, to lead me, to direct my steps, and to support me in peace.
Lead me in life, tranquil and serene, until I arrive at where I am going.
Deliver me from every enemy, ambush and hurt that I might encounter on the way and from all afflictions that visit and trouble the world.
Bless the work of my hands. Let me receive divine grace and those loving acts of kindness and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all those I encounter.
Listen to the voice of my appeal, for you are a God who responds to prayerful plea.
Praised are you, Adonai, who responds to prayer.”
 The text for the steps were taken from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s and Dr. Stuart A. Copans’ Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning From Alcoholism and Other Addictions—Drugs, Food, Gambling, Sex…, 2nd ed. VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.
 Based on Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 36b-37a.
 Referring to Shabbat Shuvah.
 Genesis 32.29.
 Gates of Repentance. NY: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 251.
 See Exodus 25.16, 34.29, 34.1; Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 8b.
 Micah 6.8.
 I am not certain of the source. I have found conflicting sources.
 Kushner, How Good Do We Have to Be? 174.
 The New HAMSA Program: https://yourtoolsforliving.org/services/counseling/substance-abuse-awareness.
 Adapted by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky.