While we have been focused on fighting and managing a historic pandemic, another epidemic continues to rage. Substance abuse and addiction don’t discriminate based on religion, economic class, gender, or ethnicity. And, as we have come to learn all too well, the Torah community is not immune.
Experts will tell you that addiction is not about the substance or behavior, but rather what pain, discomfort or ache the users are trying to escape, what hole in their hearts they are trying to fill, or what aspect of their lives they desperately want to be numb to.
Earlier this year, I moderated a discussion that included two courageous young men in recovery. Each described how when they were young, they didn’t feel they were like everyone else, they weren’t comfortable in their own skin and didn’t feel like they belonged. They described living with a persistent sense of being an outsider.
One of the participants shared that he was at a friend’s house when the two of them discovered the friend’s father’s alcohol collection. He took his first drink and after several sips felt something he had never felt before: a sense of calm, an inner peace. Finally, the “noise” of the ever-present uneasiness was quiet. Who wouldn’t want to return to that reprieve, and so he kept being drawn back to what felt like a magic elixir, what he believed was the antidote. The problem, of course, was that it would inevitably wear off, and the pain, loneliness and sense of inadequacy and irrelevancy would return.
His story is not unusual. Addiction is almost never about substance or behavior. People’s perpetual discomfort and unease could be driven by social anxiety, religious competition or guilt, financial pressure, or mental health challenges. The common denominator is living with an inescapable disquiet, an ache that won’t let up and doesn’t go away. The substance or addictive behavior becomes the escape, the way out. It offers respite and refuge, a bit of relief and a break from the struggle.
But, alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, working, or acting out are not the solution. In fact, they only lead to more problems. Therapy, support, and love are critical ingredients to authentically fill in the hole in the heart, to quiet the noise, and to find a sense of belonging and purpose.
After losing their son Jonathan to the illness of addiction, the Wijnperele family generously dedicated a program called Adopt, a collaborative project of Boca Raton Synagogue and Onward Living. Over the last few months, we have paired up several families in our community with men from the Onward recovery center. They enjoy comfortable Shabbos meals, fun BBQ’s and simply getting together to schmooze. This component of recovery is critical. Many people in recovery weren’t privileged to see or experience healthy and functional family and communal dynamics. Being invited to and forging relationships with BRS families who have no motive or agenda other than to share a genuine and non-judgmental relationship, is not only refreshing but a critical example and experience.
More recently, we have expanded our Adopt partnership. Our BRS chesed coordinator, Simone Broide, has arranged for members of our community to regularly cook and deliver meals to men in Onward Living. Unlike the pairing component, in dropping off meals, anonymity is maintained. Those cooking and baking don’t know who is receiving their Shabbos gift package. And those who receive the loving delivery don’t know from whom it came.
Messages are attached such as, “Dear Onward Living Residents - We want you to know we are thinking of you and are proud of all that you have already accomplished. Please know that we applaud you for what you are doing and we support you! Have a wonderful Shabbos.”
The recipients have shared how much it means to them and the difference it makes in their recovery and in their life. One said, “It's nice know that people actually care” and another commented, "The home baked goods means someone took the time to think of us and that is very special."
For the people cooking, it is an extra challah, a cake or a babka, but for the recipient, it is a lifeline, a declaration that they aren’t invisible, that they matter, that there are people who care. The Shabbos food doesn’t just fill their stomachs, it helps plug a hole in their heart. A minimal expense and a modest effort go an enormous way.
Hashem charges Avraham this week, v’heyei beracha, which can’t be a promise that he will be blessed because Avraham was already told va’avarechecha, I will bless you. So what does it mean? Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that there are two types of people - those that live life looking to receive blessings and those that lead their lives trying to be the blessing. To be progeny of Avraham is to take whatever blessing we have and to use it to become a blessing in other people’s lives. We don’t live with a sense of entitlement to be blessed, we instead live with a sense of obligation to be a blessing.
We are looking to expand our anonymous Shabbos box program to deliver to Jewish residents of others recovery centers in our area and hope we can count on your help. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved. And you don’t have to live in Boca to be a blessing. Anyone reading this knows people who feel invisible, lonely, question if they matter or if anyone cares. What for us is a challah or flowers or sometimes even a phone call or heartfelt email for them is a life preserver.
Every day we recite the beracha of Magen Avraham, acknowledging that Hashem has preserved the character of Avraham within us. Don’t wait to receive your next blessing, go out and be that blessing for others. Nothing will make you feel more blessed.