Thursday, January 29, 2015

It has to be all of us...

Hey hey,

So I spent last week at Beit T'shuvah, a Jewish residential addiction treatment center. I went with some of my other rabbinical school classmates to learn about addiction. I really learned a lot, and I was also very moved by the residents there and the way they used Judaism and spirituality, so I wanted to talk about it,. Conveniently I was traveling to my pulpit internship at the end of the week, so I wrote a sermon about addiction and Egypt and ourselves... This isn't the most polished, but I want to share it because I think as a future Rabbi we in the Jewish community don't talk about addiction enough and maybe pretend that Jews don't have 'that problem'...

Sermon on Bo for Saturday 1/24:

I spent all of this week at beit teshuva, a Jewish residential addiction treatment center in Los Angeles. I was there to learn about addiction and treatment so I can be a better support as a future rabbi when people come to me who are struggling with addiction. Beit Teshuva which literally means house of repentance/return is a program to help those in their process of recovery. They use Jewish teachings, texts and spiritual practices along with the 12 steps to help people recover from addiction. ,  

This place also takes the Jewish process of teshuvah, repentence and returning to a whole new level. While we hear a lot about teshuvah around the high holidays and yom kippur, beit teshuvah is doing teshuvah in a very real and tangible way every day by publicly admitting to their wrongdoings, and working to make amends and to change themselves. Something I aspire to completely do. And the amazing thing is that this process at beit teshuva really can work—most of the staff there are former addicts and also many are former residents of beit teshuva and now they are using their success and understanding to help others in their place. Even the Rabbis there, both the Rabbi who runs the operation and the Rabbi who we spent most of our time learning from are both recovering addicts and openly and publicly admit to that---I’m not telling their secrets, they’ve both written books about their process.

It was pretty remarkable to see our Jewish texts be used in such a transformative way. Every day all of the residents are required to start off their day at a group Torah study, looking to our tradition for support through their recovery process. I got the chance to sit in on these sessions and study in smaller groups with some of the residents
of beit teshuvah…

 The way we studied together was different from the way we study text in rabbinical school. At school we look at the text and then intellectually pick it apart…what is this text saying? Why does it use the language in a particular way? What does rashi say about it? And we try to say something smart, and hopefully impress our teacher and our classmates…at beit teshuva when we studied Torah we were challenged to look for ourselves in the text and to relate it to our own experiences and struggles. We were challenged to be real. During an early morning Torah session one of us was making an intellectual comment about the plague of darkness and the Rabbi at the front of the room chimed in: I don’t care about that…I want to know how it relates to you.

            Some of the best Torah I have learned in a long time came from my week at beit tshuvah. And I want to share a piece with you. Right now we are reading in the Torah the story of the Jew’s exodus from Egypt, and one woman who has been at beit tshuvah for a few months said: I think of Egypt as my addiction, I worked hard to get free. but the Israelites after they got out of Egypt and were in the desert they kept complaining that they wanted to go back to Egypt, over and over, and I feel like the desert is the recovery period for me, even though I am free I think about going back to Egypt all the time and I want to go back, I want to use again and just get loaded but I know I can’t.

            Now that’s some torah for you. And  I have been thinking about it a lot, because it rang true to me and to my experience of dealing with my own difficulties and shortcomings. Even though I have not suffered through addiction, I can relate to what she said.  Egypt, while constraining, is safe. So even as I work to get out of Egypt and into the desert, it can be easier and tempting to go back to old habits.

            This week we are almost out of Egypt. In the Torah portion this week we read about the final three plagues on Egypt. Locusts, darkness and the death of the first born.  Before each plague Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so they may worship God. Just before the 8th plague, Pharaohs advisors complain to him, Pharaoh-how long are we going to keep up with this, the Israelites are destroying us. Let’s just be done, why don’t you just let some of the Israelite men go to worship? Pharaoh agrees, he’s tired. Pharaoh calls to Moses and tells him: Fine Go worship your God, and asks “who are the ones to go”? Moses replies “we will all go, both young and old regardless of social class our daughters and our sons, our flocks and herds.”

            Pharoah is assuming that in order to worship God only some of the men need to go, or just the priestly class. This is what he does with his nobles and court magicians, they are the ones that worship. That is why Pharoah asks Moses about who will be going-Pharoah assumes it will be a sort list of people. Moses tells Pharoah his assumptions are wrong. Moses says the Israelites can only worship and be free if they are all together. All of us have to be free or we are not truly free.
            This week reading this I thought about addicts and recovering addicts. I haven’t heard much discussion of addiction in Jewish life, but there are Jewish addicts and just because we don’t talk about something doesn’t make it disappear.

            This past Thursday night I went to an AA meeting, and one women who was telling her story started: Just like we say ‘I was just this nice Jewish girl’ that got addicted to drugs…She said this as if there is a conception that this can’t happen or won’t happen to the ‘nice Jewish girl’- but it can happen to anyone. Maybe we have personal experience with this and are struggling with addiction, or we have a family member or friend struggling with addiction, it is here.

            When Pharoah says just take some of the men with you to go worship, Moses says it’s not enough. When we are in community and pharoah says, go but leave the addicts behind-- we need to be the voice of Moses who says “no”- it’s either all of us or none of us. We can’t be free if we are still keeping others or ourselves in the dark in hiding and in shame.
And we are not all that different, addict or “normie”- we are all in this process of leaving Egypt. We are all struggling to be free of something, whether that be substance abuse, anxiety, depression, struggling with our health and body image, gambling, relationships, and on and on.

When Moses tells Pharoah either we will all go free or none of us will go free, we can also look at this at an individual level. We are all made up of different parts, of our moods and interests and habits, and maybe there are some parts of us we lfike and are proud of and some that we are not. Or as a beit teshuvah resident said: I  have to learn to accept that I’ll always have a part of me that’s an addict even when I’m not using and instead of denying it I have to embrace it and use it to my advantage.
Or for me If I ignore the part of me that struggles with anxiety or the part of me that procrastinates and try and leave it in Egypt while the rest of me goes off into the desert, I’m not really free.

This Shabbat I want to bless us all with the courage of Moses to stand up to Pharoah and demand inclusion, and also the courage to be ourselves and take our whole selves out of Egypt.


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