As we gathered in person and via Zoom for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two things gave me pause and helped me think about ba-yamim ha-elu baz’man hazeh. (to paraphrase and tweak a blessing:) in these days in this time.
First, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) in our sanctuary was glowing once again. Perhaps you never noticed, but somewhat shockingly, the bulb in our Eternal Light went out midsummer. We made do with Joe’s flashlight because the replacement was on back order for weeks and weeks. (Sorry for this disclosure to those of you who assumed that the Eternal Light in our Sanctuary burns according to the will of God. A part of me has always thought that too. Nonetheless, our beautiful Eternal Light shines because of electricity and a light bulb.) But at last, on the first day of the New Year, for the first time in months, God was most definitely back in our Sanctuary. (Let me be clear, I do not think that God was missing from us; God was probably visiting us via Zoom while we were out of the Sanctuary for months.)
The second thing happened when Rabbi Hersh and a couple of his kids came in to their usual seats just before services began. As he put on his tallit, he spotted something in the book holder. As he pulled up a children’s book, My Purim Parade, he and I shared an over-the-face-mask look of disbelief and acceptance. The last time our community had gathered in the Sanctuary, albeit in limited number, have been for the Megillah reading at Purim.
These two small details have informed my thinking for the last nine days, from Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of Yom Kippur this evening. Time moves forward in a straight line. Lightbulbs go out, Krista orders a replacement, weeks go by, and the lightbulb is replaced. Purim takes place in March, Passover and Shavuot follow, and now we find ourselves in Aseret Y’mei Hateshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). Through these months of pandemic upheaval, time has marched steadily forward.
Jewish time, however, moves in a completely different way, in a circular fashion. While the calendar marches forward, it also goes in a great circle. Our weeks move toward Shabbat and then circle back again to the next Shabbat. In the same spirit of cycles, each month begins and ends with a new moon. Before we know it, Purim will come again and then Passover. We clean up the crumbs from the hamantaschen and take out the Passover dishes every year, year after year.
Our teshuva (repentance) is also circular in its fashion. Every year we rise as the beginning strains of Kol Nidre are chanted. Something moves within us. We have marched forward for an entire year, but somehow, here we are, considering the same mistakes that we make every year.
I will experience linear and circular time simultaneously tonight. I will think: How can I be standing here again, still wondering when I will remember to be patient and stop gossiping and pause before speaking and not judge people? What good does it do if I stand here every year still mired in my same mistakes?
The answer comes if we are able to integrate the Gregorian calendar self together with the Jewish calendar self. My friend Anne envisions the marriage of linear time to circular time as an ever-ascending spiral staircase. We go around but ever higher, always forward. Thinking back over these Covid months, she pointed out to me that when you are ascending a circular staircase, the turning perspectives and the angles of your climb mean that you cannot always see the steps you have taken. All of our positive steps forward might be hidden from view as we look ahead on the climb, hoping to see where we are going. We forget to look back down at the many steps we have taken. We forget that success and failure, triumph and mistakes are all part of this circular, linear path of living.
Since the pandemic began, I have studied Hebrew weekly with a terrific teacher, my son Josh. We have a sichah (conversation) during which he texts me new vocabulary words which we use in conversation the following week. One week when we were scheduling a time for our shiur (lesson), I made a mistake in the conjunction of the verb. Josh corrected me and then I wrote: Kein, todah, ani ta-iti. (Yes, thanks, I made a mistake). Josh wrote back: “To make a mistake is a fabulous thing. It makes learning possible.” And there you have it! Yom Kippur in a WhatsApp message!
I am imperfect, created to be imperfect by a perfect God. Surely God knew what God was doing when creating imperfect me. Yes, I show up year after year, still hoping to refine and renew, still planning to adjust and refocus, still beating my chest about the same faults and habits. But if I stand on the circle of time, at the same geometric point on that circle, back again at Yom Kippur, I can see that I am new, I am different, I have moved forward. I have grown from a year of walking straight along the linear time of 5780. I have also grown in my soul as I circle back once again to the 10th of Tishrei, a split-second jump with full faith from 5780 to 5781.
When I was a child, I overheard conversations about the shanda of my Poppy’s brother, Uncle Jake “the Horse Thief,” his jail time and his drinking issues. The implicit and explicit messages I received growing up were: Jews don’t do illegal things. Jews aren’t alcoholics. Jews drink a bit of wine in moderation for celebrations. But Jews don’t lose control; Jews aren’t addicts.
On Rosh Hashana this year, I spoke about addiction because Jews can, and obviously do, develop life-threatening problems with drugs and alcohol. To believe otherwise leads to an unwillingness to ask for help. The “shame” of having a problem Jews aren’t supposed to have prevents many from seeking support and treatment.
I chose to speak about addiction because addiction is an issue in our OJC community. On Rosh Hashana I spoke about addiction because the path of teshuva – redemption – is parallel to the path toward sobriety.
Most of all, I spoke about addiction because people struggle and suffer quietly, in isolation, with a profound sense of loneliness. They and their families carry a burden of shame and embarrassment because of the stigma attached. When I listen to their stories, I want them to know that the Jewish community is here for them, that we can hold it, that we will fight against the stigma and sorrow. I want them to feel affirmed, to hear their stories in public, to know that this Jewish community can speak their truths and not look away.
For our community to be as inclusive as we say we are, we must open our eyes and our hearts to the stories of those who are struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. And more than this, we must open our arms to the families of those who are addicts. Their suffering and powerlessness is never ending. Relief is not in sight. . . only endurance will get them through to the next day. I shared the stories of three OJC congregants and their struggles with sobriety, with loved ones’ addiction, and with feelings of extreme loneliness.
People were moved by the stories. I believe that they listened open-heartedly. But now is the time to take action. First, I encourage you to learn more about addiction in the Jewish community. Getting educated is one way to make a tikkun (a repair) in the world. I learned so much in preparing for the sermon. I hope that you will too:
- Olitzky, Rabbi Kerry, Renewed Each Day, Volumes 1 and 2
- Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, Recovery – the Sacred Art: the Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice
- Steinberg, Rabbi Paul, Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality
- Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J., MD, Living Each Day
Resources for Help:
- Twelve Step Programs: https://www.na.org/ or http://www.nnjaa.org/ (in Northern NJ) and http://rocklandnyaa.org/meetings (in Rockland County NY)
- JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) 212-632-4600 and their website: www.jbfcs.org/JACS.
- Smart Recovery, a scientific, behavioral approach to recovery: http://www.smartrecovery.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwu7LOBRBZEiwAQtfbGNQ_KXOOJWtd0X6Cr8qKmRqxJifgE3qJNfUhKUsdOZM3nLAsr28PMRoCku0QAvD_BwE
- Another useful organization: https://www.chapter9couplesinrecovery.org/
In my sermon, I spoke about another way for our community to make a tikkun, to bring the problem from outside our walls within. Most sobriety programs take place in church basements. If you are interested in working to bring a meeting or a support group here to OJC, please be in contact with me. Our congregation is dedicated to #OJCSupportsU, our program of mental health awareness and support. We are thus perfectly poised to open our doors to those in need of sobriety support. What a shift that would be for us here at the synagogue, knowing that we are not just acknowledging that addiction exists, but offering our holy space to be a part of people’s recovery.
The director of counselling services at an inner-city rehabilitation center for teen heroin addicts described why the center is successful: “This is the first place they’ve ever been that gives them unconditional love. We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say No.”
The unconditional love paired with limits and boundaries that supports struggling teens is just what God does for us each year in these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We make mistakes, some small and some devastating. We could carry on like this indefinitely, harming others and ourselves, were it not for the High Holy Days calling us to account for our sins. At this time of teshuva, if we open our hearts, we encounter God. And God offers us unconditional love and cares about us enough to say No.
That ultimate no is tough business. Too often we ignore warning signs that our friends or family, or we ourselves are in trouble. Perhaps we are not aware that there is a problem, or are too embarrassed to seek help. And sometimes, we actually enable our teenagers to indulge in substance abuse, perhaps by buying the alcohol and serving it in our homes, by partying with them, or by driving our teens to and from parties where alcohol is served so they do not “drink and drive.” The message in these parenting choices is that using drugs and alcohol is normal, and harmless. . . which it is… till it isn’t.
“Choose life” is a core Jewish value. Choosing life includes being fully present to the abundance and blessings of our lives. It means not anesthetizing ourselves from the beauty or the pain. It means not causing harm to our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
In this season of repentance and atonement, I pray that we take the first steps toward awareness. Chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, or cocaine, is a destructive, malignant condition. It claims as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Judaism teaches: Choose life. May we do so today and tomorrow and throughout the year 5778. Shana tova.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill