My friend Mel is a pathological gambler.
He grew up in a poor Jewish family in Newark. His father drove a lunch truck and mother stayed at home caring for the three children. As a teen, Mel got involved in some sports betting with his high school buddies and was quite good at picking the winning teams in college football. The money he won he always shared by buying presents for his mother and siblings and taking out his friends. For a long time, when he got behind with his bookies, his parents bailed him out and in doing so, sacrificed their retirement funds to save him from the loan sharks.
When I met Mel he was incarcerated in a local jail, having embezzled money from the company for whom he had worked as a bookkeeper. Mel’s teen gambling turned into problem gambling which morphed into pathological gambling. His life and relationships were in shambles. He had not been emotionally available to his wife and two kids for years. He could not maintain relationships with his siblings and parents, especially when they stopped giving him money to pay his gambling debts. His real friends abandoned him as he always was borrowing money but not repaying. His gambling buddies ran the other direction. He, of course, could not return to his job and would be facing some jail time. He had become a slave to his gambling addiction.
The slavery image we observe during Passover is powerful. The Jewish people were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh for hundreds of years, and their morale waned as they spiritually descended into depths of despair. However, they never forgot that they were the children of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs and God had promised that He would rescue them. When they physically, emotionally and spiritually reached “rock bottom”, “The Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out to God.” (Exodus 2:23). God heard their cries and redeemed them.
One experience of the Hebrews as slaves was that they were without the ability to control their future and destiny. Today, there are hundreds of their descendants in every community, Jews who are unable to escape the physical and spiritual oppression of addictions. These Jews are enslaved to their drug of choice, whether it is an actual drug or alcohol, gambling, compulsive overeating or sex addiction among others. You might ask, why don’t they stop using their “drug of choice?” Would you ask a slave just to stop showing up to work or to stop responding to whips at their backs?
For Mel, in jail, he hit rock bottom. No home, no job, and no friends or family relationships left. There was nowhere else to go but up. When I met Mel, he was even dressed for the bottom, wearing an orange jump suit, with his hands and ankles shacked. I asked him, “Mel, can it get worse than this?”
When an addict hits bottom and the stark choices of recovery or death are before him, he is offered an opportunity to start again and end the enslavement of addiction. Starting again takes tremendous courage and experts have shared that a recovering addict must take life one day at a time. Some addicts do not make the transition to recovery and face all the consequences of addictive behavior. For Mel, that means he has to monitor himself from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep. Each day is one day. Ask a recovering addict how long he or she has been “sober”? For those who are new in recovery, the answer might be from the time they woke up that day until that specific moment. Each day is an opportunity to change the people, places and things that triggered the addictive behavior. Often there are relapses. Each day is an opportunity to make amends and to rebuild trust.
Jews in recovery know about being slaves and also know that they could not be redeemed into recovery without help. Like the Hebrews who’s God rescued them and brought them from slavery to freedom on the first Passover, our God, or as they say in 12-Step programs, our Higher Power, does not abandon these suffering people. Each person has a direct connection to God without intermediaries and He hears our genuine calls for help. Also, as God’s partners, men and women, many of whom in recovery themselves, offer daily spiritual guidance and strength as sponsors to help others in recovery. The path to freedom in recovery is not easy and often quite painful as the addict must spiritually face who they really are and the pain they caused to others.
Every year, on the anniversary of the first Passover night, three thousand years later, family by family, we gather to tell the story of the Exodus and reexperience the journey from slavery to freedom. By reciting the words of the special liturgy, the Haggadah, eating special foods and adding our unique family contribution to the Biblical account, we attempt to spiritually connect ourselves to the enslaved Hebrews, transform ourselves and in freedom, become the people Israel, with hope for the future under God’s protection. I have often heard the stories of addicts and their recovery at my Sedarim. Their personal journey truly reflects the path from slavery to freedom, a message we all need to hear on Passover.
Rabbi Dr. Eric M. Lankin is a Jewish communal professional whose doctorate in pastoral counseling focused on the issue of Jews and recovery from addictions. He lives in Highland Park, NJ. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org