There is nothing more spiritually different than the “L’Chaims” that many Jews make on the secular holiday of New Year’s Eve, and the contemplation of the purpose and meaning of our lives that we make on the solemn Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah.
For addicts and alcoholics, whose excess of “L’Chaims” have brought disaster to their lives and to the lives of their loved ones, there is perhaps no day on the Jewish calendar that is more crucial to their recovery than Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we acknowledge the sovereignty of God over every aspect of our lives.
The verbal acknowledgement on Rosh Hashanah that there is a Creator who can and will provide us with the material and spiritual means to lead a meaningful, joyous life, is one of the first steps to teshuva (repentance, or return) of any kind, for any person. It certainly is one of the first steps to recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs.
On Rosh Hashanah the addict and alcoholic stands with his or her fellow Jews all over the world, regardless of denomination, sect or label, and together, each saying in our own way to the God of our individual understanding:
“We believe in You. Please help us to change.”
From magnificent synagogues and temples, to humble Chassidic shteiblach, to isolated military outposts, and to those places in this world where we still can not pray with our fellow Jews, we ask God on Rosh Hashanah to help us to change –not only to change our own individual lives, but we ask God to bestow goodness, strength, health and prosperity on us, so that we can help to change the lives of others.
To the addict and alcoholic, it is necessary not only to rely on God’s help, but to be willing, often for the first time, to rely on the help of others. The addict often builds barriers of lies to hide his addiction. Perhaps worse, when he gets so far along that he is incapable of caring for himself, or does not care about what others think, his grave physical danger – his life, hovering on the verge of death – becomes a sad and frightening reality to all of his loved ones.
And of course an addict is not always a he. Women suffer from substance abuse, perhaps for different reasons, at a rate more or less the same as men. Often men are, or have been, a catalyst to a woman’s addiction. But regardless of the causes, when men or women suffer from addiction, their children suffer as well, both those living and those not yet born. Proportionally, children of addicts are more inclined to become addicts themselves. Physical, psychological and emotional distress will follow these children the rest of their lives.
On Rosh Hashanah, addicts and the alcoholics are given this opportunity, as on no other day, to acknowledge their reliance on God, and on the rest of us, to begin or to sustain their recovery.
But can we be relied upon to help?
In Israel, the Israel Anti-Drug and Alcohol Authority (IADAA) leads the fight to end the plague of substance abuse, a problem that harms all Israelis, across the range of its geographic, ethnic and religious spectrum, preventing Israel and Israelis from realizing their potential. Its’ efforts are supported by the Israel Anti Drug Abuse Foundation (IADAF) in the US, which has raised millions of dollars to help launch and support programs in Israel that are pillars of both education and prevention, and treatment and rehabilitation.
One of the greatest barriers to our work is the fact that many Jews still believe the myth that there is no problem of substance abuse in the Jewish community. Sadly this is not the case. As much as we’d like to hope that these organizations are not really necessary, the opposite is true. At this stage, with Israel still facing massive budget cuts in its social services, not enough can be done. And because substance abuse in the Jewish community is not limited to Israel, IADAA and IADAF have initiated dialogues with Diaspora communities to offer its services there in the context of a Jewish environment. The notion of Israel reaching out in this manner to help Diaspora communities, in their communities, is virtually unprecedented. But the problem of drugs and alcohol facing Jews all around the world is one that needs to be addressed for the well being of us all individually, and communally.
Our hopes and prayers for the New Year are about turning a new leaf, hope for the future, being willing to change, with God’s help. For addicts, this is easier said than done. We must realize that substance abuse is indeed a Jewish problem, and a problem that impacts us all. Individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol need our help, as do those most prone to such a problem. For everyone else, programs offering education and prevention needs to be front and center.
In this New Year, let us hope that Jewish institutions and entire communities will put substance abuse, and prevention, at the top of their agenda. It’s not an issue that we like to address, but it is one that must be addressed because the human and actual cost to the community and its resources is damaging beyond imagination.
May this year bring us life, health, peace and prosperity, and may all of our “L’Chaim’s” truly be To Life.
Yaakov Ort is a vice president of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services of New York. Professionally, he is Group Director of Creative Services at The New York Times.