Category Archives: Sermons and D’vrei Torah

Tetragrammaton Sermon – Emor / Job

Several years ago I was visiting a few friends for dinner in their Jerusalem apartment.  Since they were mostly British and Americans who were still learning Hebrew, they had on their refrigerator little magnets with the Hebrew alphabet on them.  The idea being that you would arrange the letters into words and write notes to each other in basic Hebrew.  Just as we were sitting down to dinner, our host emerged from the kitchen looking highly distraught.

“Uhh…I have a bit of a problem,” he began, “some one wrote the Tetragrammaton on the fridge…what do I do?”  Tetragrammaton is a long greek word that translates as “four letter word,” which specifically means the four letter word Y – H – V – H, the name of God.  You can tell since the gentleman used a greek word that is several times longer than the actual Name under discussion, that we have a pretty complex relationship with this particular four letter word.

For us, God’s Name represents God’s power, all of creation, and our place within it.  By not pronouncing it we have allowed it to become a symbol, a blank canvas onto which we can paint our vision of Judaism.  It becomes a focus point for mystery, reverence, and piety.

How did it go from the proper name of a Deity to a symbolic vessel with the capacity to hold our entire religious identity?

The Bible Scholar Ziony Zevit suggest that the name Y – H – V – H is a form of the word H – Y – H or “to exist” in Hebrew.  In other words, it would translate as “the One who causes everything to exist.”  From pretty early on there was an association of this name as God’s proper Name, when filling out a government form, under first name God would put Y – H – V – H, and under surname who knows, Elohim or something, and under the title section rather than Mr or Ms or Dr might be El Elyon or Adonai Tzevaot, some of the titles we see for God in the Torah.  Like the names of other figures in the Torah, which indicate elements of their character, God’s Name is connected to God’s essence as the Creator.

In the Torah reading this week, we hear the story of someone who belittled God’s name and was subsequently put to death.  Within early Judaism there was an idea that the Name of God had a magical quality to it.  Belittling or abusing God’s Name was explicitly forbidden within the 10 commandments since doing so is equivalent of belittling all Creation and upsetting the cosmic order.  Consequently, since the man in the story belittled Gods name, he loses his place in the cosmic order and he himself doesn’t have a name anymore in the text, he is referred to as a “certain man” the son of so-and-so.  By belittling most essential Name of God, he has taken himself out of the hierarchy of being, forfeited his right to a name and to exist generally, and is put to death.

So, how did we get from the Torah text to the point where my dinner host in Jerusalem a few years ago was afraid to move the magnets on his refrigerator.  Surely he didn’t believe that God would cause him to be executed like the man in the Torah?  What’s the full story?  The full story is this…

Starting about 3,000 years ago, Israelites started making amulets with the Tetragrammaton written on them.  Over time, Israelites attributed more and more quasi-magical powers to the Name of God.  It was used for protection or healing.  About 2,600 years ago, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians and much of the population was forcibly removed into exile.  In exile, Jews began to stop using the Tetragrammaton.  Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of Reform Judaism, (Uschrift 262), writes that Jews living as a subject population feared that non-Jews would learn the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton and use it for blasphemous or sorcerous purposes.  Kind of taking our own God’s power away from us.

Over time, the use of the Tetragrammaton became more and more restricted, and it changed from a Name – into a symbol.  By 200 CE, speaking the Tetragrammaton out loud is entirely forbidden by Jewish Law.  It can be written but is not pronounced, because its proper pronunciation has apparently been lost along with the Jerusalem Temple.  Since the proper pronunciation is lost and we now say Adonai, or Lord rather than trying to pronounce God’s name.  The popular Christian pronunciation comes from the vowels in Adonai stuck between the consonants Y – H – V – H, or in a Latin alphabet J H V H, thus you end up with J – A – H – O – V- A – H.  I will spare you a full recounting of the relevant scene in Life of Brian.

Over time, God’s name morphed from a literal Name into a symbol.  Since it was no longer pronounced, Jewish thinkers began to speculate on its nature.  More and more rules sprung up relating to God’s name, making it seem more sacrosanct and remote.  Mystics identified it with the very essence of Creation and life force.  It became an abstraction that we venerate as a representation of the God, the universe, the Jewish People, and our shared history.

If you do something that has a negative impact on the world and detracts from the Jewish People’s mission, it is sometimes referred to as a hillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.  If you do something positive, and act of tzedakah or something publicly honoring Jewish values, it can be referred to as a kidush HaShem or sanctification of God’s Name.  Those who have been martyred because they were Jews are called “those who died sanctifying the Divine Name.”  Thus the Tetragrammaton also becomes a symbol for their sacrifice.

If God’s name is going to be written, in a Torah scroll for example, tradition dictates it shouldn’t be erased or scratched out lest you insult all that it represents.  Therefore, anything containing the written name of God must be buried in the ground and allowed to decay naturally.  Thus, above the ark behind me you see Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha but Adonai (which is how we read the Tetragrammaton when we see it written) is represented by two Yuds.  If it had been written out in full on the sign, you would theoretically never be able to take it down!  Now you see the problem with the refrigerator magnets from my story.

What the folks at the dinner party I alluded to at the beginning of my sermon ended up doing was very interesting.  Everyone there was either Reform, Liberal, or Masorti and quite aware of the historical context of Jewish practices.  Never the less, the taboo around belittling Gods Name and dismantling the Tetragrammaton written on the fridge permeated into their modern consciousness.  They opted to leave it on the refrigerator door and put sellotape over it, lest one of them accidentally nudge it out of order.  They didn’t want to desecrate the symbol that is represented by the Tetragrammaton.  They have since moved out of the apartment and I have no idea what ever became of what was dubbed: the sacred refrigerator.

As a religion, we spend quite a lot of time blessing God’s name, ie accepting what it represents for us.  In addition to what we learned from the Torah portion for the week, we also gain an important instruction on this point from the haftarah, Job.  At the beginning of the book, Job suffers a great deal of loss personal loss for no reason.  Despite his loss, he does not curse or belittle God’s name.  Instead he blesses it and acknowledges his position in the cosmos.  He recites a line which we most often associate with funerals, “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.”

We still keep the custom of blessing God’s name in the face of loss.  When someone dies, we respond like Job, first by quoting Job himself, “God gives and God takes away, blessed be the Name of God,” and also by reciting the kaddish, the prayer that praises God’s Name extensively at the moment when the grief of a death would make us most likely to curse it, and reject what it represents to us.

Throughout Jewish history, the Tetragrammaton, God’s proper name, has been: just a Name, then a magical spell, then a ritual touchstone, and finally morphed into a symbol.  We don’t pronounce it because perhaps that would limit its infinite symbolic capacity?  We don’t pronounce it because over time we have layered onto it everything it means to be part of the Jewish people.  We don’t pronounce it because pronouncing it would make it – finite.

-Delivered 2 May 2015

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The psychology of marketing and Tamar

One of the most difficult things for us to do is publicly admit when we are wrong, to revise our opinion in front of other people.  In his famous book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, -Robert Chaldini- explains that human beings hate to reverse a previous commitment.  “Commitment and Consistency” are so important to human behavior, according to Chaldini, that he names them as one of the 6 main categories of how to influence people in his best-selling book.

Among the various subcategories of Commitment that Chialdini discusses, he emphasizes that public commitment binds someone to a course of action nearly irreversibly.  He writes:

An illustration of how public commitments can lead to doggedly consistent further action is provided in a famous experiment performed by a pair of prominent social psychologists, Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard.  The basic procedure was to have college students first estimate in their own minds the length of lines they were shown.  

At this point, one sample of the students had to commit themselves publicly to their initial judgments by writing them down, signing their names to them, and turning them in to the experimenter.  

A second sample of the students also committed themselves to their first estimates, but they did so privately by putting them on a Magic Writing Pad and then erasing them by lifting the Magic Pad’s plastic cover before anyone could see what they had written.  A third set of student did not commit themselves to their initial estimates at all; they just kept the estimates in mind privately.

In these ways, Deutsch and Gerard had cleverly arranged for some students to commit themselves publicly, some privately, and some not at all to their initial decisions.  What Deutsch and Gerard wanted to find out was which of these three types of students would be most inclined to stick with their first judgments after receiving information that those judgments were incorrect.  So all of the students were given new evidence suggesting that their initial estimates were wrong, and they were then given the chance to change their estimates.

The results were quite clear.  The students who had never written down their first choices were the least loyal to those choices.  When new evidence was presented – that questioned the wisdom of decisions that had never left their heads, these students were the most influenced by the new information to change what they had viewed as the “correct” decision.  Compared to these uncommitted students, those who had merely written their decisions for a moment on a Magic Pad were significantly less willing to change their minds when given the chance.  Even though they had committed themselves under the most anonymous of circumstances, the act of writing down their first judgements caused them to resist the influence of contradictory new data and to remain consistent with the preliminary choices.  But Deutsch and Gerard found that, by far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later.  Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all.

This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations where accuracy should be more important than consistency.  In one study, when six or twelve person experimental juries were deciding a close case, hung juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot.  Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow themselves to change publicly.

[p 82-83]

We can probably all think of a moment when we made some sort of public statement and then clung to the position, even when evidence of our error was staring us right in the face!  Even more than we’re probably willing to admit this about ourselves, lots of people in the room can conjure up the image of a stubborn friend, loved one, or spouse stubbornly refusing to admit defeat in an argument.

I’ll publicly admit that I am often the guilty party on this one.  No dear, I really think the restaurant is this way, after 10 minutes of walking the wrong direction.  Doesn’t win me any points in the game of life, I can tell you.

In any case, the characters that we have been reading about in this week’s parshah are now in this sort of situation.  We get the short story of Tamar and Judah, and Judah’s sons Er and Onan.  Tamar, according to Rashi, is an incredibly beautiful woman who is the daughter of a priest.  Judah arranges for Tamar to marry his son Er.  Things don’t go well, and Er dies, leaving Tamar childless.

According to biblical law, Tamar is married off to Er’s brother Onan.  Onan also dies without giving Tamar any children.  At this point, Judah should marry Tamar to his third son, but he decides not to do so.  He orders Tamar to remain a widow.  This is in violation of custom, but Judah sticks to his guns.

Tamar is in a pickle.  TAWC explains that while she is sent back to live in her father’s house as a widow, she is still obligated to Judah’s family.  The situation is quite unjust.

Tamar decides to take things into her own hands and shortly thereafter manages to seduce Judah, thereby becoming pregnant.  Apparently during the encounter, Judah did not realize it was in fact Tamar that he had slept with.  For explanation, the Talmud in the volume called Sotah, suggests that Tamar had always kept herself veiled in Judah’s presence out of modesty, and thus he didn’t know what she looked like.

Luckily, and quite brilliantly, before Judah left the motel room, Tamar grabbed Judah’s drivers licence and keys.  By wallet and keys of course, I mean the ancient equivalent of the wallet and keys, the seal and the staff.

Some time later, Tamar has become pregnant and this was brought to Judah’s attention.  He gets pretty angry and demands that Tamar be burnt for her harlotry.  Tamar brilliantly counters by pulling out Judah’s wallet and keys and declaring “I got pregnant by the man who owns these!”

Now Judah is in a big predicament.  He publicly declared that Tamar should have remained celibate earlier, and now he has publicly called her for her to be burnt.  He could, as TAWC points out, simply make up a story about how Tamar got his keys and wallet, burn her, and save his own face.  He has much greater social standing and could almost certainly get away with the denial.  He could remain consistent in his public declaration.

OR, he could acknowledge Tamar’s claim and get egg on his face in front of the whole community.

I am in this position all the time.  I can either admit was I wrong, be inconsistent and change my position, or stick to my guns and save face.  When I know I’m wrong but I’m defending my position anyway, I can feel a little tightness in my chest.  Its the fear of the humiliation of reversing my position publicly.

Amazingly, Judah admits Tamar is right!  Note that he does admit that he is wrong, but simply Tzad’ka Mi’meni, she is more righteous than I am.  In other words, she’s right.

Here, the Talmud volume Sotah jumps back in and explains what is going on.  The Talmud comments that since Judah was willing to contradict himself in public and acknowledge Tamar’s claim, he sanctified God’s name.  For his public acknowledgement, he becomes the progenitor of kings.  For his public concession, he earns the right to be called by God’s name.  Judah is spelled Yud-Hay-Vav-Daled-Hay.

What do we take away from this then?  We learned, from the study by Deutsch and Gerard, that human beings hate to publicly acknowledge when we are wrong, we hate to be inconsistent.  We also learned that this stubbornness allows us to be manipulated, as with the example of the Jury, which we spoke about some minutes ago.

Chaldini explains that this human tendency is exploited all the time by marketers, to get us buy things.  By politicians to get us to vote for things.  And by fundraisers to get us to donate to things.

From Judah we get a counter example.  Quite a strong counter-example in fact.  Judah’s ability to overcome his urge for consistency and admit his error allows the just cause to win out.  TAWC says it is a sign of Judah’s maturation as a person.

I hope we can all learn, like Judah, to concede and be inconsistent.  Its a skill we dearly need.  I ask you, in a society where where our signature is our word, and our word is our signature, when we are asked to raise our hand in support of causes we don’t support, and where every fleeting thought is posted, emailed, or tweeted…

I ask you, when are we allowing our commitment to consistency sideline our commitment to principle?

On Tu B’shvat

Have you ever tried eating a ripe, sweet strawberry, then taking a bite of chocolate cake, and then eating another bite of strawberry?  If you do, and you are paying close attention, you may notice the strawberry no longer tastes as sweet.  This is because our tongues are overloaded with sweetness from the processed sugar in the cake and can no longer taste the fructose sweetness of the strawberry as distinctly.  The strawberry has not become less sweet because of the existence of the chocolate cake, we are simply desensitized to its sweetness.

We are all beneficiaries of many sweet and excellent types of fruit that occur in nature.  Some of these things were planted by us ourselves, if we are gardeners or farmers, some are planted or raised by others, but today it is especially important for us to enjoy delicious fruits.  You see, in addition to being Shabbat, we are also marking Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of the month of Shvat, and it is the New Year for the Trees.

During most of the year, we may eat fruits, nuts, and other tree products as a side dish or ingredient in our favorite dishes.  Today we are encouraged to eat new and exotic fruits and let their sweet juices run down our chins (or into our beards, as the case may be).  We are encouraged to stop and enjoy the produce that we have.

Why is that?  Well of course, because its the Jewish equivalent of tax day!  Alas, the Jewish IRS that collected this fruit tax is defunct, so our way of paying this tax is to eat the fruit ourselves.  Before you get upset that I’ve made some kind of political statement, let me explain what I mean.

In the Mishnah, a corpus of laws compiled in the year 220, there is a list of the Jewish New Years.  There are four of them, even though we only think of Rosh Hashanah as New Years.  In fact, we have multiple New Years in America too, we just don’t think of them that way.  We have regular New Years, the Fiscal New Years, the first day of School, that is, the academic New Year, and of course, the first day of baseball season, the baseball New Years.

The Mishnah listed out four New Years, they correspond to the agricultural cycle of ancient Israel.  The first one is the 1st of Nissan, the time around Pesach.  This was the New Year for government officials and calculating the holidays, since Pesach is the first holiday our people ever celebrated.  Then there was the 1st of Elul, tax day for animals.  Then the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the agricultural year because of the grain harvest.  Finally there is Tu B’shvat, the tax day for tree produce.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbun said: In the next world, a person will be judged for all the fine fruit that he saw but did not eat.

Tu B’Shvat’s custom of eating ripe, rare fruits by themselves allows our tongues to taste the sweetness of the fruit without it being drowned out by processed sugar.  It is a beautiful metaphor for how we live our lives.

The Kabbalah, that is, Jewish mysticism, says that Tu B’shvat is not simply a New Year for regular trees, the first day when sap starts to rise after winter’s chill, it is also the New Year for the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.

The tree of knowledge is the famous plant from which Adam and Eve ate, giving them the ability to determine good from bad.  Tu B’shvat is New Years for this tree as well.

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they gained the ability to discern good from bad and sweet from bitter.

Lets think about the strawberry from earlier in terms of our own lives.

Our knowledge and discernment concerning natural pleasures and feelings can become overwhelmed by with synthetic sensory and informational bombardment.  The sweetness of our lives can become overshadowed by numbing amounts of stimulation.

Whatever the strawberry represents for you, be it family time, the warmth of friends, or a walk in nature, Tu B’shvat gives us all, through its metaphors, the ability to cherish natural and intimate joys.  Joys as close to us as the dazzling taste of a fresh strawberry.

The strawberry is no less sweet because of the existence of chocolate cake, its only seems so.  So too, simple and intimate pleasures are still there, when we can allow ourselves time and freedom to savor them.  I encourage you all to eat fruits, unadorned and unsweetened, and let the symbolism penetrate to the depths of your soul.

Concentrate on those natural and often ignored pleasures, drowned out by the noise and hubbub of liff.  Savor those pleasures like fruit and let the juice drip down your chin and onto your shirt.  Even if it stains.

Senior Sermon for the Hebrew Union College

Delivered at the Hebrew Union College – JIR, Los Angeles, 6 November, 2014

Back in September, in preparation for the High Holidays, I attended the joint Slichot service.  A tiny bit of background before I proceed with my story…there are two organizations that came together for the event.  One is a large synagogue in Los Angeles.  The other is Beit Tshuvah.  The synagogue is well known and prestigious, with an internationally acclaimed senior rabbi and many very successful congregants.  

Beit Tshuvah on the other hand, is a rehab center located on Venice between La Cienaga and Robertson.  It is significantly smaller than the synagogue, but also does excellent work.  Beit Tshuvah has just built a new synagogue, of which it is quite proud, but is no where near the scale the grand edifice of the synagogue.

Most importantly, Beit Tshuvah’s mission is to help people recover from addiction, all kinds of addiction: alcoholism, sex, gambling, weed, porn, meth, eating disorders, oxycodone.  The residents of Beit Tshuvah go through a very difficult recovery process, sometimes stretching out for years, based around the 12 steps (a traditional recovery program originally designed for alcoholics) and Jewish spirituality, even though not all residents are Jewish.  One of the most heart wrenching aspects of working at Beit Tshuvah is understanding the level of stigma that the residents feel vis-a-vis “the outside.”  Some of them were highly successful as everything from musicians to financiers, while some of them had never moved out of their parents home prior to arriving.  What they do have in common though, is they all feel that society has marked them [out] as addicts, and as a result they face judgement from future employers, family, and friends.  Why do they garner so much stigma?  It is because even though their drug use, their alcoholism, their addiction of whatever stripe, was a response to an anxiety, and a larger percentage of society is addicted than we’re willing to admit, but they were the ones who got caught, as if the proverbial shower curtain of their respectability and dignity was brutally torn away leaving them standing naked and vulnerable before the rest of society.

Social pressures, family strife, overwork, unemployment, self image problems, all these are factors that lead people to addiction, and I would be willing to bet that many in this room, on some level, rely on addictive behavior to escape their stresses.

So these two institutions came together in September for a Selichot service.  A Slichot service is a nighttime or early morning penitential service that starts (for Jews of Ashkenazi or European descent) motze Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  The service involves liturgical poetry, songs, a Vidui (confession), and recitation of Avenu Malkeinu.  It can be one of the most vulnerable moments of the year for participants, if the service is conducted well.

This year, because of personal connections between some of the clergy, the synagogue and Beit Tshuvah decided to conduct their Slichot service together at the synagogue.  Residents of Beit Tshuvah were driven, under supervision, to the synagogue, where they were to participate in a living demonstration of the possibility for human beings to effect tshuvah through dedication to therapy and self-exploration, as informed by Jewish values.  For the synagogue members they were to be a physical representation of every persons’ vulnerability and capacity for failure and then return.  For Beit Tshuvah residents, it was to be an affirmation that those whom society deemed “great and good” acknowledged and accepted the residents of Beit Tshuvah among them, jointly furthering their capacity for repentance and acceptance of human frailty.  The evening could have been an incredibly powerful symbol…but it wasn’t.

As my wife and I had come, not as guests of Beit Tshuvah, but actually as guests of the synagogue, we were seated towards the back amongst some of the oldest and most involved families.

The service began and the choirs of the synagogue and Beit Tshuvah began to sing together.  About half way through the service, one of the Beit Tshvuah clergy ascended to the podium to give a sermon.  Towards the end of his sermon, the speaker remarked, “and maybe next year, you all will come to our new sanctuary at Beit Tshuvah, and we’ll hold our joint service there.”

From somewhere near where I was sitting, I overheard a smattering of laughter and derisive snorts, followed by “yeah right” muttered in sotto voce.

I have not told this story to malign the population of the synagogue.  In fact, I want to tell you that the congregants are as trapped in a vicious cycle of stigmatization and fear in this story as the addicts themselves.

You see, addiction is heavily stigmatized because addicts represent a very deep anxiety that is spread across all of society.  We can all feel something is off in the way our society operates, that we’re overworked, overstressed, and most important of all, that our positions of respectability are precarious.  When faced with an addict in recovery, we not only face the fear that we might become like them one day, or secretly already are and are barely hiding it, but the fear is made more intense by the pariah status of addicts in American society.

Life in America in the 21st century is highly unstable.  Our financial system is thoroughly confounding, many of us are in debt, or if on the other hand, we are successful, and we are constantly reminded we are on the brink of an economic crash that could instantly wipe out everything.  Our quiet moments are increasingly pierced by the beep of an incoming text message or email, we take less vacation as a culture than most of the world.  We are caught in traffic much of the day, and are regularly accosted by advertising that plays on our insecurities.  We strive to live up to the expectations we can never meet, to lift a line from Radiohead, “I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul, but I’m a creep, I’m a loser, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here.”

As a result, we have a huge problem with addiction just under the surface.  According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, about 30% of all adults have diagnosable anxiety disorders, as do 13% of children between 8 and 15.  Let me repeat, 13% of children between 8 and 15 have some form of a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder.  The statistics for ADHD, depression, and personality disorders are similarly shocking.  

Rabbis are not immune, I’ve met several successful rabbis who made it through their whole very prestigious career while hiding an addiction, and some who got caught.  I’ve even, let me modify that, especially met rabbis who were driven to their addiction by being overworked and over-stressed.

What we have done through a tacit societal agreement, is to cordon off a percentage of people whose addiction exceeds tolerable limits and sent them to rehab in order to “reintegrate them” into society.  Our coping mechanism for the deep and pervasive anxiety we all face is just to accept that our society produces a certain number of burn outs, people who can’t hack it.  We would prefer to say that a token number of our population is deeply ill and needs to go to rehab rather than admit the truly staggering percentage of society that is suffering.

We lie to ourselves, we tell ourselves that the folks in rehab are ill, or somehow morally weak, lacking in self control.  If they were really good people, we think subconsciously, they would be able to control their appetites.  The tipping point for us, the moment when someone goes from simply “indulgent” with their behavior to an “addict” is the moment their addiction erodes their productivity as a member of society beyond tolerable limits.  

Let me repeat, addiction becomes a problem for us when it erodes a person’s productivity and membership in society beyond what we deem appropriate.  Thus we have the term “functional alcoholic,” people whose alcoholism is tolerable since they still show up for work.  We can do something about all this, but if we truly want to address addiction, we must throw away the link between morality and productivity.

Back in 1932, Aldous Huxley published A Brave New World, a book in which society had embraced a dehumanizing form of economics.  In the book, citizens of the Brave New World were indoctrinated as embryos to take a drug called SOMA whenever they began to feel troubling emotion.  “I take a gram and I merely am” said the indoctrination, or “a gram is better than a damn.”  The drug, which was dispensed by the government, would nullify anxiety or bad emotion and send the user on a “SOMA holiday,” anything from a mild euphoria to a vegetative state, depending on how much you took.  One character in the book faces such anxiety about not fitting into regular society, that she decides to go on SOMA holiday permanently and eventually dies of SOMA overdose.  She is the extreme case, but in Huxley’s vision, all of society uses SOMA to some degree, in order to crush bad emotions and remain a productive member of society.

This is where we are today, except in place of SOMA we have: Vicodin, weed, antidepressants, gambling, sex addiction, alcoholism.  When we have to face the scope of illness in society we recoil, we prefer to make pariahs out of a percentage of the population we deem addicts, and sleep easier – duping ourselves into believing we are addressing the problem.

On some level though, we realize that we are not truly addressing the underlying problem that causes addiction.  The folks at the Slichot service, the ones who laughed condescendingly at the idea of holding joint services at Beit Tshuvah rather than the synagogue – in reality they laughed because deep down they were terrified at what the suggestion represented.  It was easier at that moment, to hide behind a facade of condescension than to face the reality that the clients of Beit Tshuvah live in the same society, with the same anxieties, as they do, and the anxieties are getting stronger.  Consequently, addiction rates are going up, not down.  Each and every one of them knew it, or they wouldn’t have had to hide from it, they wouldn’t have had to create a sense of distance from it, and they wouldn’t have laughed.  

If rehab – if addiction therapy , were really the solution for widespread addiction, when faced with someone in recovery we would feel human compassion, the same as we feel for someone undergoing chemotherapy.  As uncomfortable as it makes us, today we desperately need the valuable work of institutions like Beit Tshuvah to help addicts recover from the product of their anxieties.  At the same time we hope that tomorrow there will be no need for Beit Tshuvah at all, that tomorrow there will be no more addicts.  If that is what we want tomorrow to look like, we must start addressing the sources of our anxieties, the things that cause addiction: our work schedule, our communal fears, our insecurities about body image, wealth, acceptance, and success.