Which child is missing from the Passover seder?

The Passover (Pesach) seder is about freedom and family. We join together with our families and friends to relive the story of the exodus from Egypt. Or, at least we hope to. In some Passover seders, perhaps at yours, the absence of a child or a sibling at the seder is palpable. If that missing son or daughter, sister or brother, is in the throes of addiction, then the talk of freedom and liberation can become hollow.

The story of Passover is an enduring one. Today, we are not slaves to a tyrannical Pharaoh, but each of us struggles for freedom, often waging difficult internal battles with problematic behaviors and habits.

The Haggadah gives us clear instructions on how to talk to the four different sons at the seder table. But what about the fifth child, the addicted son or daughter who is just not able to get free? How can we feast on foods that symbolize the stages of liberation and the miracles when our own child acts on compulsions that are the opposite of freedom? How do we talk to this child?

The fifth child

Our addicted son or daughter, spouse or sibling, is the most enslaved of us all. Addiction is the antithesis of freedom (although for the addict it does seemingly present a “solution,” an escape from emotional, physical, and mental pain). For most of us, our experience of stress or emotional pain is uncomfortable but bearable. We have different resources to deal with the ups and downs of life. But for addicts, the only solution is to to numb themselves from inner and outer torment.

So how do we understand something that we cannot fathom? The key is to connect from a place we can understand.

One of the best ways of relating to an addict is to find something similar about yourself. How many times have you tried to stop smoking but can’t? How often do you fail with your diet? The truth is, we all use things that may border on addiction. Even exercise can be an addition. If exercise brings you something that nothing else can; if your exercise regime is causing injury or damage to your joints from overuse; if you arrive to work late or avoid pursuing other goals because you need to hit the gym and receive the rush of endorphins that your workout provides; if your appearance is more important than spending time with those you love… you might have an addiction that no one understands. Coffee, sugar, cigarettes, internet, Facebook… we can all relate. None of us has perfect control over our behavior.

Relating in this way is a good start toward learning to create empathy for the fifth child. Become understanding and non-judgmental towards this son or daughter, who has so much in common with all of us. He is only struggling with a much more deadly demon than sugar or cigarettes.

Will power doesn’t work

An addict doesn’t need “more will power.” Abstention is not a cure, and “trying harder” is not the key to recovery. In order to recover, an addict needs a solid plan and an abundance of support on every level. The physical and emotional toll of addiction and withdrawal require assistance from people who know how to help.

Most addicts at some point make the decision to stop using. Their lives begin to spiral out of control, and the people they care about become affected. But the effects of chemical dependency and detox are real and very difficult to overcome without help. In addition to physical support, addicts need access to specially targeted therapies to address the underlying issues contributing to the addiction. They can learn new ways of coping with the stresses and challenges of life. Education and support for lifestyle changes and the development of new routines can usher in a way to lasting recovery and wellbeing.

The sixth child

Let us also think about the sixth son or daughter who is not at our seder because he or she is in recovery. Next year this child will be at our seder, fully present and celebrating the freedom that comes after the struggle of a lifetime — a  struggle that few people can understand. The sixth child is undergoing the miracle of healing and recovery, and next year will meet us again, whole, healthy, and free.

Help is available for addiction. At Retorno we embrace a holistic treatment approach to addiction, including individual and group therapy, DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), somatic experiencing, therapeutic horseback riding, horticultural therapy, and more. Retorno’s addiction prevention programs are widely acclaimed and attended by over 30,000 people each year.

The road to recovery starts with a conversation. If you would like to learn more, you are welcome to call and book an appointment or reach out to us at www.retorno.org. So that next year we can all celebrate our freedom together, as one.

Happy Passover! And good luck on our continuing journey to freedom.

About the Author
Shoshana Schwartz is an addictions counselor and therapeutic horseback riding instructor at Retorno. She is the author of four books and is a weekly contributor to Mishpacha magazine.
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