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Parshas Emor - Alcohol, Drugs & Substance Abuse                                                18 Iyar 5778

05/03/18 12:09:09


Although I am not naïve, there are times I like to live in a bubble or at least in my own little world. Nobody wants to admit that they have problems or issues. Nevertheless, to survive troubles and difficulties one must remember the number one lesson in life: if something can happen to someone else, it can also happen to me. No one person, institution, or community is immune to the challenges of society. As insular as we try to make ourselves, or as we believe we may be, troubles find their ways to enter our lives.

I’ve said several times that any Rabbi or lay leader, no matter his position as Rosh Yeshiva of a Shul, school, Yeshiva, or community who claims that there is no issue or problem in the place(s) under his jurisdiction, is either in complete denial or is outright lying. This may not make me very popular because it sounds accusatory. Perhaps, to soften up my tone I can explain the feelings of others through my own sense with regard to the state of affairs of abuse today. Personally, I like to bury my head in the sand, making believe that there are no abuse issues in our community, but the reality is that I know better. We are not immune. Abuse does exist.

The purpose of the following discussion is not to discuss the legal and/or moral side to any substance that is abused. My purpose today is to give everyone a reality check, to make sure that we and our loved ones do not fall victim to this scourge of society. Although the Jewish community jokes around and downplays the use of alcohol consumption, alcoholism can and is affecting both the individual and family. It has allowed the pursuit of under-age children to consume alcohol. I want to be clear: we are not talking about a sip of wine during Kiddush; we are talking about under-age alcohol consumption encouraged by ready availability of wine and other alcoholic beverages. It is a known fact supported by a growing number of studies that people who drink alcohol to provide some type of time out or reprieve from society tend to fall victim to progressively worse things unless they get help. As an adjunct to this discussion, it’s important to note that the increasingly accepted use of recreational marijuana – now viewed as a gateway drug, was legalized in California this year. The opioid crisis is on the rise in the general population, and, by force of sheer existence, this crisis has crept into Jewish - including religious - circles as well. In general, as we confront a challenge in life, it’s not only the issue of admitting to the potential addiction or the specific illness that is the problem. The other major obstacle is finding the right source for help and, most importantly, knowing that you are not alone. Understanding that the person dealing with this problem is not the only person who has to come face-to-face with this challenge is a major key to seeking and accepting help in order to address the problem.

Lou Abrams, a social worker specializing in drug addiction in the Orthodox community, said the gratuitous presence of alcohol at Jewish celebrations — bar mitzvahs, “kiddush clubs,” Purim parties — and a general lack of adult supervision increases the risk of addiction, particularly for young people. “Alcohol is still a big gateway. Rarely does someone start taking opiates before first experimenting with alcohol or marijuana.” Still, for individuals, the problem is deeper than one too many drinks, or one too many joints. “Drug use is a response to a lot of pain,” Lou Abrams states. “If you leave religion, you are branded as an outcast and a rebel … you become a ‘bad person’ and so frequently will ask yourself, ‘Why shouldn’t I do drugs if people already assume there’s something wrong with me?’”

In 2015 a man stood up when everyone else was silent and began the taboo discussion of substance abuse in the ‘frum orthodox world’. Rabbi Tzvi Gluck started an organization called “Amudim” which means pillars. The following is a synopsis of the Amudim mission. “When people are faced with crisis, their world begins to crumble. In addition to managing the crisis itself, otherwise manageable daily responsibilities become overwhelming. This additional pressure compounds the crisis, creating a crushing, seemingly insurmountable physical, psychological, and emotional strain. Our holistic approach to crisis-- providing the skills and tools necessary to effectively manage both the crisis and everyday life-- is necessary for clients to reach optimal positive outcomes.” Another major goal is to bring about an awareness in two areas: that someone fighting substance abuse, whether the victim or the family, should know that help is available 24/7. The second is to teach and create an awareness of prevention, thereby averting further decline to more difficult and more dangerous abuses.

An obvious question is asked: ‘If wine is so dangerous, why do we have it for kiddush and other holy ceremonies?” A hint to this is NOT found in this week’s parshas Emor. The beginning of the parsha outlines the laws of the Kohein Gadol and an ordinary Kohein. The laws of marriage, defilement due to a family member’s death, and the Temple service are not permitted to be performed by a Kohein with a blemish. The Mitzva for a Kohein not to drink wine or an intoxicating beverage is found earlier in Parshas Shmini. Drinking wine in and of itself is not prohibited for a Kohein; the prohibition is that he is not allowed to perform the Avoda after drinking wine, or at least until its effect dissipates. We are concerned that drinking wine will interfere with his or her Avodas Hashem. Alternatively, when used exclusively for a Mitzva performance, it will not get out of hand. Social drinking not for a Mitzva will be the cause of getting used to drink when not necessary.

Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei warns the human being of the destructive force of wine and alcohol. As it states in 23:29 “L’Mi Oy, L’Mi Avoy, L’Mi Midyanim, L’Mi Siach, L’Mi Petza’eem Chinam, L’Mi Chachlilus Einayim”. “Who cries, Alas, Who cries Woe? Who is contentious? Who Prattles? Who is wounded for naught? Whose eyes are red? 23:30 “LaM’Acharim Al HaYayin, LaBaim Lachkor Mimsach”. “Those who linger over wine; those who come to inquire over mixed drinks.” Rabbeinu Bachya makes clear that Shlomo HaMelech is not limiting his warning only to wine, but rather to any desire a person chases. Such need – addiction - will ruin his life in this world and the next. Unfortunately, there are many easily accessible “gateways” in our society which can lead to personal misery and ruin. Prescription drugs and marijuana are common viaducts to serious additions, however it’s important to note that results of many current studies indicate that most teenage addictions get started with drinking. Rabbeinu Bachya emphasizes that wine/alcohol is the major culprit that leads to other more aggressive addictions. Wine and alcohol is the gateway to all vices. It is what causes the body and the soul to be lost.

As King Solomon aptly writes in Koheles 2:25: “For who should eat and who should make haste except me? That too, is futility and a vexation of the spirit.”

This article is not intended to alarm anyone, but rather to create the awareness that in every Jewish community there are individuals and families battling different kinds of abuse. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and think our community is immune. We are not. It is an opportunity for anyone who feels alone and isolated, thinking they are the only ones suffering from such pain, believing there is no help available, no one to whom they can reliably turn to learn that this is not true. Rabbis are ready and available to listen, to help, and to guide people in need, including their families, to resources that are available today. Together we can fight the scourge of addiction. But first we must recognize that we are not immune. Help is available. As Chazal teach, “Whoever saves one soul, it’s as if he saved an entire world.” Let’s get to work!

Wed, October 23 2019 24 Tishrei 5780