I’d like to define addiction differently than most of us are used to using the word. When we think of the word “addiction,” we think of a pathological state, outside the norm of human experience. An “addict” commonly refers to someone whose life has become unmanageable or unhealthy due to a dependence on some external object or behavior - drugs, gambling, food, sex, people, work - there is no end to what we can become dependent upon.
The Torah’s Perspective
When we look into our Torah as a mirror for human experience, the language of idolatry is where we find this description of dependence. According to the Torah, the pull towards idolatry, dependence, addiction is not pathological in a clinical way, but one of the essential challenges that human beings face as we grow closer to health, wholeness, and God. From the Torah’s point of view, I believe addiction can be defined as a problem of perception. Anytime we believe, on any level, that something finite outside of ourselves will provide wholeness and fulfillment, and we pursue that external object or behavior, we are engaged in an addictive process. From this perspective, addiction can be viewed as a spectrum, where we all can find ourselves to a greater or lesser degree.
The story of the Golden Calf is the fundamental story of the human dynamic of addiction. When the people of Israel, expecting Moses’ return from the mountain at a certain time do not have their expectations fulfilled, they beg Aaron to make them a Golden Calf to worship. Moses was delayed in returning from the mountain, and that delay created difficult feelings for the people. We could guess abandonment, anxiety, a pervasive feeling that things are not right. If we paid close attention to our own daily inner experience, we might find some of the same feelings arise for all different reasons. The people wanted to soothe their feelings - they sought relationship and connection, which they had found up to this point with Moses. They tried to channel their desire for connection to an external object - something that they can control. “Make us a god…” they said to Aaron, and he did. What do we turn to soothe our emptiness, anxiety, isolation? What external objects can we control that we rely on to establish our lost sense of connection?
If we examine the explanations of our sages, we can gain further insight into this dynamic of addiction. Rashi brings the Midrash that when the text says “Moses was delayed,” it was really a problem of erroneous expectation. Moses says he will be back in 40 days within the first six hours of the day. What wasn’t clear to the people was whether his ascent on the mountain that took place in the day was included in those forty days or not. They thought that his ascent was part of the forty days. According to the rabbis, Moses came down exactly when he said he would - which was one day later than people expected.
The difficult feelings the people experienced were due to their experience of time and their expectations of what would happen in that time. And within these unfulfilled expectations, Satan - the testing angel, gave them an experience of chaos and darkness, suggesting to them that Moses is never coming down. Do we notice the concepts of always and never coming into play when we feel alone or anxious? I’ll never find a partner. I’ll never find fulfilling work. She will never pay attention to me. For those of us who struggle with some kind of dependence, when we notice that we are pulled to the ice cream, the cigarette, or the office, because of stress and anxiety, would it make a difference if we truly believed the difficult feelings would pass after five minutes, an hour, two hours, and we just needed to focus our attention on something healthy and nourishing?
The great Torah commentator, Aviva Zorenberg, suggests that this feeling of darkness and chaos that Satan promotes has its roots in our experience as infants. She quotes the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who observes that there is only a certain amount of time that the infant can hold on to the image and feeling of the mother when they leave. After a certain period of time, the infant gets distressed, but that distress is usually mended when the mother returns. However, if the mother is away for a longer time, the infant can become traumatized - their sense of reality as being ordered and connected gets disrupted. This is the same darkness and chaos that the people experienced when Moses didn’t come back after a certain time. Like infants to their mothers, the people’s entire reality and sense of order and wholeness was built around Moses.
The Original Idolatrous Act
Looking deeper into the story, we realize that the Golden Calf wasn’t the original idolotrous act; it was relying on Moses for a sense of wholeness and connection. Back at Mount Sinai, in the very heart of the revelation, the people plea “You speak with us and we will listen; but let not God speak to us - lest we die.” (20:16) The experience of God threatened to overwhelm them - they were not willing to lose control or give themselves over to the unknown. They wanted the experience to be mediated by Moses who they could relate to and trusted, since in their minds, he brought them out of Egypt.
But it wasn’t Moses who brought them out of Egypt. It was God, through Moses. At Mount Sinai, God wanted a relationship directly with the people, but they weren’t ready to let go of control, which the relationship required. They weren’t ready to accept that by entering into a realtionship with God, they align themselves with the ultimate power in the universe, but it requires trust, and being open to not knowing what is next. The people projected God’s power onto Moses in order to stay in control and feel a sense of safety in the familiar. As a result, it is Moses who is the people’s only sense of order and wholeness in the vast unknown of the wilderness. And like the mother who doesn’t return after a certain period of time, Moses’ delay throws their world into chaos.
Letting Go & Deepening Our Relationship with God
Who and what do we project God’s power onto? What externals do we attempt to empower to provide us with a sense that all is right with the world? Do we need peple to act towards us or look at us a certain way, or say a certain thing, in order for us to feel connected? Do we let other people’s thoughts, feelings or actions define us - define our connection with the one true source? Are there behaviors and substances that we endow with the power to make things all right? What are the consequences of projecting God’s power onto those externals? What would it mean to not let any people or things interfere with our relationship with God? What would we have to feel to completely let go of control, to walk forward into the unknown at every moment, and to say to God - “Hineni” - here I am.
K’vod Wieder is a rabbi at Temple Beth El of South Orange County in Aliso Viejo, California, a progressive congregation that is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements. For over 25 years, he has been teaching classes, leading retreats, and counseling students in meditation, prayer, and creative forms of Jewish spirituality. He previously served as the assistant director of Chochmat HaLev - a Jewish meditation center in Berekeley, progarm director for Sonoma County Jewish Federation, director of the B’nai Tzedek Teen Philanthropy Program for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, program director for Elat Chayyim Center for Jewish Spirituality, and trained and interned with Jewish Funds for Justice and One L.A. in the area of congregating-based community organizing. He currently serves on Jewish Addiction Awareness Network’s Advisory Board.