Ten years ago, I felt a tap on my shoulder during prayers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and saw that a middle-aged man was motioning for me to join him outside.
“Rabbi, I need a hug,” he said, and started sobbing uncontrollably on my shoulder for a few very long minutes. Then, it was over as quickly as it started. He thanked me profusely, pulled himself together and walked back inside.
That unforgettable moment, during my first year at a Rosh Hashanah Retreat for recovering addicts, was my stark, up-close-and-personal introduction to the world of addiction recovery and the herculean, lifelong struggle former addicts undergo to maintain sobriety. Something I once read in the recovery literature came to mind – “Religion is for people who don’t want to go to Hell. Recovery is for people who have already been there.”
My dear friends, that broken fellow bravely trying to maintain sobriety is your neighbor, your friend, and your relative.
Approximately one out of 12 Americans suffer from alcohol or drug addiction, and many of them are great at masking the signs of their addiction – so you have no way of knowing which of your neighbors, friends or relatives are in the throes of that life-and-death struggle. Furthermore, it is incredibly naïve to think that the addiction rates in our community are significantly lower than those in the general population. With that in mind, just run the numbers, and realize that when you are in a room with 50 friends of yours, it is safe to assume that plus-or-minus four of them fall in that category for whom Purim is perhaps the most difficult day of the year.
Please provide them with support, dignity, and compassion by immediately and graciously taking no for an answer if your friend refuses a drink, or even better, by making it your practice not to offer anyone drinks in the first place.
We are all good people who want to do the right thing, and none of us would want to cause people in recovery to “fall off the wagon” and resume drinking, but let’s face it, that’s exactly what you are risking when you ply others with drinks.
Addiction is a multi-generational curse, profoundly affecting the parents, siblings, and children of the addict. Over the years, I participated in many support groups held for the addicts’ relatives and loved ones. What all those meetings had in common is the overwhelming, raw pain and suffering, as the loved ones spoke of their helplessness and fear, the waiting at home through the wee hours of the night, dreading the 3 a.m. call or the knock on their door. Just imagine for a moment how humiliating and terrifying it is for the teenage son or daughter of someone who behaves poorly or worse on Purim.
When a school or institution goes peanut-free, most people who are unaffected by allergies make a powerful statement of support for people with allergies by creating a safe space for them. I hope and pray that all our shuls and yeshivos will join those whose courageous leaders have already transitioned to becoming hard-alcohol free, providing our vulnerable friends and relatives with support, dignity, and compassion on Purim and throughout the year.