April 19, 2024 -

Addiction and the Nazirite: A Message for 5778 from Rabbi Andi Berlin

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team during the High Holy Days, and was shared on September 21, 2017, in the contemporary service. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

My dad is one of my greatest resources when I write sermons, so I occasionally try to return the favor. Earlier this year, he was puzzling over something odd in our Torah; the Nazirite vow. The central idea of this vow is for a person to voluntarily remove him or herself from material things. The problem is that Judaism does not condone depriving ourselves. For thousands of years our sages have struggled with this strange Nazirite vow, which so opposed to the Jewish norm of enjoying all that life has to offer.

There are those, though, who have never had to wonder why the Nazirites shave their heads; who have never wondered why the Nazirites brought a penalty offering before the Tent of Meeting; who never wondered who the Nazirites were. They never wonder because they are Nazirites.

They are recovering addicts.

I chose to preach on Addiction on Rosh Hashanah because I know that the primary ingredient in causing addiction is shame. I want to use this holy moment in this holy place to try to mitigate the stigma and shame associated with addiction.

Northern Ohio has one of the worse opioid crises in the country. I am afraid, though, that we could be so busy looking out that we miss the pain of addiction that exists right next to us, in our community, in our home, perhaps even, in ourselves. There is also so much attention currently focused on opioids that it might be easy to assume that addiction only counts when one cannot refrain from drugs or alcohol or that addiction only counts when someone overuses mind-altering substances. The substance is irrelevant. What makes people addicts is the need to numb their emotions.

Recognizing addiction would be easy if every addict were addicted to the same type of substance in the same way. Some substances, like drugs and alcohol, manifest themselves in an altered mental state. Others, like gambling and shopping, can remain hidden until financial pressures force an addicts hand. While the medical community is beginning to recognize how the euphoria associated with activities such as social media and gambling can cause a physical addiction, recovery communities have long recognized that addiction takes many, many forms.

The ingredients necessary to become an addict are complicated and not at all consistent across the board. Some addicts have a genetic predisposition, others have childhood trauma, and others might have mental health or mood disorders. Some addicts have a combination of these. What all addicts share is a lack of tools and strategies for handling emotion. Instead, the addict turns to something else to numb emotion, to fill a void inside them or to overwhelm ever-present anguish. This act of numbing, of stuffing down feelings, can cause terrible shame. This is the very reason why I decided to preach about this on Rosh Hashanah. While, a driving ingredient of addiction is shame, I do not want to leave you with the wrong impression. Yes, addicts feel shame about the addiction itself. However, it is usually much older shame that drives them to addiction in the first place.

The Torah gives the Nazir an unspecified period to complete the introspection he or she requires. This time is referred to as “נזרו–ימי/Yamai-Neezro”. It is unspecified because each Nazir works at his or her own pace. At the end of this period, the Nazir is instructed to bring a penalty offering to the Tent of Meeting. The sages go nuts over this. A penalty offering! Why would someone who voluntarily takes a vow be required to make a penalty offering? Most of our sages assume it is because the very nature of this vow, abstaining from what we believe is pleasurable, is the antithesis of what we are expected to do: partake of life’s pleasures. The sages understand the Nazirite vow as sinful because it causes a person to refrain from the bounty of the world.

To me, though, this is further proof that the Nazir is an addict. Keep in mind, these instructions were written at a time before psychology and social science. They were written at time before Alcoholics Anonymous and psychoanalysis, in-house treatment centers and clinical behavioral therapy. In a twelve-step program, one works one’s way toward amends. In order to remain sober or abstinent, one must make expiation for the harms one has caused. This is why the Nazir brings a penalty offering before God. Not only is the Nazir making amends for his or her own wrongdoings, but also more importantly, Nazirites are given an opportunity to physically and symbolically release their old, crusty, hang-on shame through the act of sacrifice.

Before modernity understood that personal shame is a driving force behind addiction, the Torah found a way for addicts to externalize and burn the shame that has probably smoldered in Nazirites and addicts since childhood. It is no coincidence that such a high percentage of addicts experience childhood trauma, assault as an adult, or survival guilt.

During my time as a congregational rabbi, I got to someone we will call Ted. Ted is an academic with a distinguished educational career. When he shared with me the abuse he suffered as a child, I erroneously assumed that throwing himself into his studies is what provided some distraction from what was going on at home. As it turns out, he had been using food most of his life to self-medicate. I was deeply honored when Ted asked me to hear his fifth-step. The fifth-step happens after someone in a twelve-step program has written an in depth inventory, pretty much of the history of their lives. After hearing how much pain he experienced as a child, I expressed to my surprised that he never turned to drugs or alcohol. He said with a wry smile, “I was just lucky. I discovered food so early, it numbed the torrent of pain I would have felt otherwise.”

It numbed the torrent of pain he would have felt otherwise…numbed the torrent of pain.

Because substances and activities are so effective at numbing pain, addicts may present as quite collected and easy going. This is just another reason why it is so hard to recognize addiction in oneself or ones loved ones.

Addicts are not only trying to numb pain. Even joy can be intolerable to an addict.

Take “Susan”. I got to know Susan when she taught for our High School Religious School program. She was a seemingly well-adjusted 33 yr. old with a good job in the tech industry and dedicated friends. Uncharacteristically, she missed a class without communicating with us. I could not reach her.

Later that week, Susan showed up in my office. Susan said had wondered on and off if she had a problem with alcohol, but quickly dismissed the idea. As proof she was not an alcoholic, she explained that when she broke up with her long-time boyfriend, she was able to refrain from drinking too much. However, the week before she was supposed to teach for us, she received a promotion. To celebrate, she went out with her friends. She woke up two days later not knowing where she was. It would be a while before Susan would learn that for her, joy was more intolerable than other emotions. She was not used to it and did not know how to handle to it. Experiencing joy was so uncomfortable; she turned to alcohol to numb it.

Susan is not alone, especially in the Jewish community. In one of my favorite episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the season five finale, Larry David discovers that he is not, in fact, Jewish. He finds out, erroneously, that his real parents are gentiles from Arizona. He exchanges his dark and neutral clothing for a bright turquois shirt and khaki pants. At one point in the episode, he pauses and declares with stunning realization, “Hey! I can be happy!!”

A collective group with a history of violence or oppression experiences something called “Epigenetic Inheritance.” For example, a groundbreaking study showed that the DNA of children of Holocaust Survivors evidenced their parent’s trauma. An entire generation born after genocide and war still shows evidence of PSTD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a mental health diagnosis with a high incidence of addiction.

As a result, there are plenty of Jewish addicts.

I am not the first person to realize that the Nazir is a recovering addict. One our most famous sages, Moses Maimonides, has a similar take. According to Maimonides, the Nazir has to abstain from alcohol and the material world because it is the only way to alleviate cravings and return to the appropriate balance and moderation that is expected from us. For Maimonides to write of addiction in the twelfth century, there must have been plenty of examples.

More and more, the Jewish community is starting to come to terms with the fact hat we have our share of addicts. In the old days, it was hard to find 12 step meetings outside of churches. This led to the misimpression that such meetings were Christian in nature. There are synagogues that are starting to host AA and OA meetings, AL-anon and Nar-Anon meetings. However, we need more meetings in temples. Just think about the power of having a sign in the hallway saying, “Alcoholics Anonymous meets here.” What do we tell our community? We know addiction is present! You are not alone! Bulletin articles sharing aspects of addiction is a great way to remind members that our assumptions about what an addict looks like are not usually correct.

We also need more rabbis trained in the different types of substances one can be addicted and to recognize the signs of addiction. You are so fortunate in the clergy you have! I, myself, would feel comfortable going to any one of them to share confidential struggles. I encourage you to do the same. All your clergy have worked with families and individuals in the Jewish community who are touched by addiction in their families.

Rabbi Nosanchuk sits on the US Attorney’s task force on heroin and Opioid addiction. He and Rabbi Caruso together have advocated alongside interfaith leaders across Greater Cleveland for Opioid addiction and Mental Health crisis centers to help people in the midst of an addiction or mental health crisis to get much needed treatment and support. This work must be kept up!

Yet, we also have to remember that addiction does not always look like a couple OD’d in a car and splashed across social media. Addiction is not just slurred speech and drunken stupors. Addiction will not always scream out, it will not always interfere in someone’s career or success.

It does always interfere with our connection to our loved ones. It does act like a mountain between us and the beauty and spirit and holiness that is all around us. It does leave our families confused and wanting.

Addiction can be quiet and hidden; it can be managed and masked. Addicts can be white collar and highly educated. Addicts can be kind and mature, loving and peaceful. They can have healthy marriages and raise well-adjusted children. All the while, though, they will stuff their emotions further and further into the recesses of their psyche.

When we use shopping, TV, gambling, sugar, food, cocaine, alcohol, work…anything, when we use anything to numb ourselves, we numb everything. Our experience of love and connection, our experience of care and kinship, they get numbed, too. If we think this does not affect our families, we are kidding ourselves. Whether they know it or not, they are getting shortchanged. They are not getting all of us.

Yom Kippur is ten days away. If there is ever a time to admit we need help, either for ourselves or for our loved ones, now is that time. All it takes is a single sentence, one single sentence. “I need help.”

Remember Ted, the academic who was addicted to food? He has been living a healthy life, and able to fully participate in it, for the last twelve years. He joined a twelve-step program and through the work he has done there, he said he can love and feel loved more fully than he ever thought possible.

Susan, the tech executive that taught High School for us, took longer to realize she needed help. Her alcohol-use would interfere with work commitments a few more times before she admitted it might actually be a problem.

With the help of her friends, though, she finally went to an in-house treatment facility. She is now living clean and sober. As I always do when I share stories, I called Susan to ask if she would mind if, after changing names and details, she would be okay with me using her story in this sermon. She told me not to change a thing (though I did change her name). She said the best thing that happened to her was hitting her own rock bottom and finally getting help. Otherwise, she never could have the life she has now. She said feeling her feelings are tough and at times, she resents having to deal with them. However, feeling the love she has for her husband and her now three yr. old daughter is something she describes as beyond joy, beyond regular happiness. It is holy at a level she never could have understood until she was sober.

“I need help.” It is three words. It is the three words that Ted and Susan used as their key to a life full of meaningful work, sincere friendships, and deep, deep familial love. The Torah does not specify what a Nazirite actually says in order to take the vow. I like to think it is these three words, “I need help.”

If you are worried about a loved one, you say these three words too, “I need help.” Because, I am telling you, you cannot help your loved one alone.

If you are not comfortable reaching out to your rabbis here, simply go online and Google “addiction help.” You can Google the exact substance you or your loved one is having trouble with. Just add the word, “help.” Help. Help…we all need help. Because, once we admit we need it, once we admit we are struggling, an amazing thing will happen. We will discover we are loved!

“When our heart’s in a thousand pieces When we’re lost and far from reason we ask for help and find out we are loved If it feels like something’s missing If it hurts but we can’t find healing we ask for help and find out we are loved.”

We are loved; we just need to be able to feel it. May it be your will, Oh God, that we truly can feel we are loved…רצון יהי כין