My name is Jeff and I am in long-term recovery from drug addiction. My Judaism greatly adds to my recovery, and vice versa, my recovery gives me a deeper connection to Judaism.
My favorite passage from our Torah states “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
I find this passage so relevant to my struggles with addiction and search for recovery. I have choices. We all have choices.
It is not my fault that I have substance use disorder. It is not a moral failure or because my will is weak. It is a disease, a disease of more, a disease of never enough. People who spiral into addiction feel a void, and believe that this void, a deep, spiritual void (loneliness, pain, depression, anxiety, obsession), can be filled with “things,” and more things, whether drugs, alcohol, a new car, a new relationship, sex, excessive shopping, or great amounts of food. More, more, more … It is a disease of more.
And maybe for a while it works. But eventually, the “fix” causes more problems. The “more” is never enough. The void is bottomless and can never be filled. The fix goes from being the temporary solution to the actual problem. I like the quote from the Torah of Homer Simpson, when he says “ah, beer, the answer to and the cause of all my problems.” That sums it up for me.
What is Addiction Anyway?
In recovery circles, there is a saying that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This summarizes my personal definition of addiction. Despite negative consequences that result from using a drug, consuming alcohol, gambling, compulsively buying things, cycling through relationships, etc., the person in the grip of addiction continues to repeat the behavior.
We get arrested for DUI and despite that very negative consequence, we drink and drive again. It is not because we are bad; it is because we have a disease and there is a malfunction in our brains. The part of the brain that controls logic and connects action with consequences does not work properly. A normal brain would tell a person, “I drank too much, I got a DUI, that’s bad, I better not do that again.” But the brain hobbled with addiction does not make this connection. We do it again and again, despite the consequences.
We Are Not Doomed
But we are not doomed, addiction is treatable, and recovery is possible. I entered recovery 25 years ago when I learned about the 12-steps of Narcotics Anonymous in a treatment center. I learned I could fill that internal, spiritual void with something else; call it God, call it spirituality, call it a Higher Power, call it whatever you like. Maintaining a spiritual connection is the only way I can truly fill that void within me in a meaningful way.
When I was in early recovery, I found myself sitting in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. It was the first time I really read what the prayers were saying and listened closely to the rabbi’s sermon. I had an epiphany that the liturgy and the D’var Torah were in sync with the 12-steps. The messages were loud and clear: We can heal, we are not bad people, we can change the direction of our life, and we can accept that life requires constant course correction. All of this is only possible if we do the hard work of spiritual development, otherwise, we are doomed to keep doing the same things repeatedly.
The Jewish Path is the Path of Recovery
The 12-steps and Judaism both offer a path, a very similar path, of examining our lives, examining our actions, examining our motives, and making corrections – doing t’shuvah, which we often take to mean repentance, but which really means to return or to turn. We return to the path of good living, we return to the path of healthy living, a life of filling ourselves with spirituality instead of drugs, alcohol, food, etc. We come to believe that there is another way of living, another path we can choose.
Circling back to the quote, The Torah gives us choices – life or death, blessing or curse, and beseeches us to choose life. Once we get on the path of recovery, the path of Judaism, we are choosing health over destruction, growth over stagnation, life over death.
The rest of the passage goes on to say that if we choose life, we and our children will have long life and endure in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In other words, good will happen and our lives will be blessed. It does not mean we will have pain-free lives without challenges, rather that we will have a healthy way to deal with the trials and tribulations of life.
When we cease our addictive behaviors and follow a program of recovery, we then have the free will to choose life and blessing. When we are in the grip of addiction, we lose our free choice and we are slaves to the drug, the alcohol, the relationship, or ____ (fill in the blank).
Our people know all about being slaves and the journey from slavery to freedom. It is at the heart of our Jewish story. For those still in active addiction, my prayer is that you move from slavery to freedom and choose life and blessing.
Jeffrey Agron is a Jewish educator, attorney, and community organizer who lives in Miami, Florida. He and his wife are the parents of three adult daughters in their 20s. He is the religious school board chair, a member of the board of directors, and co-founder of Recovery Through a Jewish Lens at Temple Beth Am. Jeffrey is a certified Jewish meditation teacher and spiritual director who is grateful to be in recovery for over 25 years.