Hirsh is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class 2 and is a LGSW, MSEd. He is the Education Director of ZEHAYOM, the Jewish National Addiction Recovery Network, connecting Jewish addicts and their families with resources for recovery. He also recently founded Minchas Yitzchok, a Chassidic/12 Step Shul. Hirsh and his wife Chayie, live in Silver Spring, MD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keeping the flame alive in a relationship is the bread and butter of many books, articles and therapy sessions. How do we take the “same old, same old” and keep it “forever fresh”? Rabbi Meir in the Mishna warns against the potential stagnancy of daily prayer. The Torah itself often includes the word, “Hayom” in its instructions, reminding us, ‘Let it be renewed each day”. I am encouraged by the renewal of seeking personal meaning in our traditions as a contemporary response to an ancient dilemma.
The spotlight of Shavuot focuses on the event known as Matan Torah, The Giving of the Torah or the Gifting of the Torah. This momentous occasion is often likened to a Divine wedding: We are likened to the bride brought to stand under the mountain serving as a chupah canopy (Mishna Taanit). So how do we read the “marriage contract” (Ketuba) / Aseret Hadibrot as relevant for a people struggling to recover or refresh a relationship with the Divine within and around us?
With one eye on the Good Book, the Chumash Text, and the other on the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, I offer a synthesis of perspective and language. Though the language and context addresses the addict/alcoholic, people dealing with their own character defects or behavioral challenges can easily make the connection.
We arrived at Sinai on the first of the month of Sivan. During the days of preparation we were told, “You shall be for me as a treasure, for mine is all the land.” (Exodus 19:5). The famous commentary, Rashi notes, “you shall be treasured, but don’t think that I treasure you because you are my only choice. No – mine is the entire land- with a host of other choices.”
Similarly, we often take our relationships for granted. We are reminded that, like Hashem, we too make a daily choice. We choose to “turn our lives, loves and will to our Higher Power.” Each day a recovering addict could choose to use; each day I choose behaviors that will either enhance my spiritual life or will add to the mechitza that separates me from myself and the THOU in you. Like a bride and groom standing under their Mount Sinai canopy, a person must renew his/her commitment each and every day, lest habit and apathy lead to ruin. (A Chosen People or a Choosing People.)
There is another relevant symbolic description mentioned in the Midrash. The mountain was suspended over Bnai Yisrael like a keg (in Aramaic, k’gigis). They were given the choice, “accept the Torah (rules or for our purposes, the steps) or the keg shall be your burial place”. Hmmmmm -even a non-addict can see the connection!
But let’s move on to the main event – the Ten Statements (the Decalogue).
1. I am The L-rd… Who took you out of …the house of bondage.” In recovery we understand that a powerful and loving G-d can free us of the bondage of self and our addiction. While we are reminded of Hashem’s ability to liberate, we also recognize our ability to become enslaved.
2. Thou shall not have any other gods before Me. In the past, we may have kneeled before the altar of addictions (including ego, pride, acquisitions).We thought that they could either erase the pain or quiet the inner chaos that ate away at our insides. Whether the idols were made of gold or stone: whether they were synthetic or organic, they would destroy spiritually as well as physically.
3. Do not carry (take) the L-rd’s name in vain. The Psikta Rabbasi offers an interesting interpretation. Do not carry the name of G-d around, meaning, do not represent yourself as, speaking for G-d. Learn to hear G-d through others. When you encounter someone who speaks for G-d, run!
4. Remember the Shabbat to sanctify it. We are reminded that regarding recovery, like creation: “I can’t – G-d can – Let G-d”. Shabbat is like that quiet meditative prayer when I can focus on my conscious contact with my Higher Power and reconnect with the important people in my life.
5. Honor your father and mother. (For those who have survived abusive families, this is a problematic commandment worthy of a different discussion.) Besides the literal meaning, we are instructed to honor our past. We are a product of our parents as sure as we are a product of our past. Some aspects of our past we honor by emulating and caring for them. Less desirable aspects we honor by recognizing that they pushed us into to a rich journey of spiritual wealth. In the rooms of recovery one often hears the term “grateful alcoholic” or “grateful addict”. Grateful for what? Grateful for tools and skills to live life on life’s terms, to have real feelings, to love and be loved.
6. Don’t murder. Some commentaries point to the placement of the latter five corresponding to their first five. Thus, “Don’t murder” corresponds to the first, “I am The L-rd”. To kill another, which is the ultimate denial of their divine essence, is tantamount to the denial of Hashem. The obnoxious and socially imperfect have within them a spark of the same divine Higher Power that you do. To negate their existence is a violation of the sixth commandment and its neighbor, the first. (I would add that character assassination is a “kissin’ cousin” to murder.)
7. Don’t commit adultery. The violation of this sacred relationship clearly echoes the second directive. While in the maelstrom of active addiction there was nothing sacred, nothing that could not be sacrificed. The vows that I swore I would never violate were trashed and discarded. Program and the covenantal Aseret Hadibrot gives us clearer boundaries between mine and yours, between love and lust.
8. Don’t steal. In active addiction, stealing was as natural as using. Taking from others was commonplace because the addiction falsely bloated the ego. “I need it” was justification for everything. In recovery, “We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Fear of economic insecurity will leave us.” If I don’t need it to use and I am secure with what I have, why steal?
9. Don’t bear false witness. Our spiritual journey is founded on honesty. “Rarely have we seen a person fail … Those who do not recover … incapable of being honest with themselves….but many of them do if they have the capacity to be honest.” Sometimes people think that they have to bear witness to the success of the 12 Step program by profusely testifying to the wonderful life they are enjoying, when in fact they are struggling. Just like we demand that the newcomer not live in denial of the addiction and character flaws, we must urge the old timer to own their struggle. This honesty offers the one struggling a chance to view the predicament from the outside and to gain new insights. Expressing moments of difficulty also gives strength to others who may think they are the only ones who have moments of difficulty.
10. Don’t covet. “If you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps.” This seems to be in contradiction to the 10th commandment! But, of course, recovery like scholarship can be given away a thousand times and the owner is only the richer for it. The Talmud praises the jealousy of scholars, for it increases wisdom. If I actually have a life of recovery that you want, then I can only keep it by giving it away. And, if you are willing to go to any length to get it, then I now have a partner not a competitor: you no longer covet, you enhance what I have.
My work in the field of recovery has blessed me with new insights and appreciation for our texts, traditions and rituals. Our heritage provides us with the tools and structure; our own lives provide the context. Daily, we stand under the chupah to renew or commitment and passions. May our relationship with the Divine remain vibrant, relevant and real. Now that the ceremony is over, we mustn’t keep Spencer waiting!! – mazel tov.