Many of us in Los Angeles were not prepared for the frank language we heard in shul on Shabbos. Moreover, it didn’t come from some visitors, but from the rov.
Aleinu is an Orthodox social service agency operating under the aegis of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It enjoys a national reputation for being cutting edge. If it didn’t, Shabbos’ “Davening Under the Influence” program would have provided enough reason.
Weeks before, community rabbonim began to be peppered with backgrounders about the Shabbos devoted to addiction, in the hope that each one would use his pulpit to educate shul-goers about the issues.
Posters around town told the rest of us it was coming. Many of us, I think, expected an appeal. Instead, we were given a strong dose of reality about something that people usually either ignore, or speak about in hushed tones.
There is addiction in the frum (observant) community, and it is more widespread than anyone wants to believe. It takes lives, and it destroys families.
There are different ways a presentation could have gone. Rabbis could have spoken about the dangers (significant) to kids at risk. One of them, well on his way to recovery, died last summer. On Simchas Torah night, a 17 year old almost died of alcohol toxicity. A celebrity car accident involved two teens, one of them a former day school student who sustained critical injuries in the alcohol-related mishap. A survey of 35 kids at risk showed that 98% experimented with alcohol, 60% beginning before age 14, and 50% beginning their experimentation in shul. These boys reported that 90% of them saw religion as important in their homes, and 50% of them saw religion as important in their own lives.
A different way to go might have been to show the continuum of addiction. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has long argued that every one of us is addicted to something, and that all of us could benefit from twelve-step programs.
My mara d’asra (community rav), Rav Gershon Bess shlit”a, a nationally preeminent halachic authority, moved away from the statistics, and spoke openly and candidly about how close addiction issues were to our own shul and community. Without mentioning names, he spoke about a family that had lost a child to drug addiction. He spoke about the growing problem of gambling addictions, and how they were threatening and disrupting young marriages, and how they were affecting even individuals with advanced yeshiva background. He opined that if people learned of a young man patronizing the Commerce Casino (on the outskirts of LA), they had an obligation to see to it that his wife found out.
Addictions begin with tentative flirtation and experimentation with substances and experiences. These later turn to full-scale dependency. He argued that people committed to Torah must be more vigilant in recognizing the original tendencies to be anti-Torah and to be avoided.
There is much more that was probably covered in other shuls. A few late-night musings follow.
I believe that, at least in part, one of the culprits is a rather old one, rather than a yetzer hora (evil inclination) of modern vintage. Certainly, some people will “try anything once,” simply out of curiosity. Some of them wind up staying for the long haul. It is important to use halachic categories and language to persuade people from taking that first step.
Others, however, turn to gambling, for example, not out of curiosity, and not because they expect to profit, but for the thrill and the adrenalin rush that comes with each roll of the dice. They need the thrill because they are bored. They are bored because they cannot get up each morning, passionate about their expectations for the new day.
Decades ago, Rav Noach Weinberg all but based his pitch to the non-observant by teaching them the difference between pleasure and happiness. The former produces a quick high – which quickly vanishes without a trace. The latter is achieved by work and even pain – but produces long-term satisfaction.
Too many people within our community are not really happy. Their marriages might be good – but not great; their jobs tolerable – but not immensely fulfilling. Subliminally, they are enticed by a barrage of cultural cues, pushing fast cars, new experiences, escape into virtual reality and adventure, all at the expense of finding real happiness within the everyday and ordinary.
Torah Jews ought to have an advantage in finding happiness rather than momentary excitement. I fully realize that it is naïve to argue that the general euphoria of the committed life completely obviates the need for thrill-seeking. Clearly, in practice, it doesn’t work that way for 100% of our community. It also seems pretty clear that more people than not feel the need to punctuate ordinariness with the novel high from time to time.
It also should be clear, however, that the Torah life-style can and does produce that high for many people, and could provide it for more.
Winter break for us in LA saw an exodus to snow country. I managed to get in both skiing and snowmobiling at Mammoth, both with their attendant thrills and adrenalin rush. They were pleasurable, to be sure – but no more than (lehavdil) figuring out a tough Ketzos.
I know that I am not alone. I see the same thrill on the faces of fellow shul-goers when they come up with an interesting question on the Daf, or share a juicy vort (Torah thought) on the Parsha (Portion of the week). Why does this not happen more often, and to more people?
Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, once related that as a young man in pre-War Europe, he overheard two tailors coming out of maariv (the evening service) at the tailors’ shul on a weekday evening. “What a geshmake (tasty) maariv we just davened!” one said to the other. Prayer is an obligation, but it was also designed to punctuate ordinariness with the thrill of connection to the Divine. Why does this not happen more often today?
Part of the reason is that we position ourselves for maximum failure. As yeshiva students we insist on seeing value – against the advice of our own rabbeim and roshei Yeshiva – only in the deepest and most probing forms of learning gemara. We then go through life with few opportunities for such learning, and always feeling a sense of inadequacy, even when we are learning. We deny ourselves the thrills that could come multiple times a day.
Many of us are able to choose between a plethora of places to daven, and make our choices based on every criterion other than the most important: where we will be able to daven with the most focus and with the best forecast for future growth. We deny ourselves the thrill of at least a few moments of connection in every tefillah (prayer).
We devour hagiographies of our giants, rather than learn about their struggles and overcoming obstacles. Their greatness therefore resembles exquisite specimens in glass cages in museums, rather than something that really inspires us to take the next small step – and to know the thrill of succeeding.
On the other hand, too many of us do not avail ourselves of the works that are brutally honest about where we are, and what we can be despite our shortcomings. (The most important example, in my experience is Nesivos Shalom, by the Slonimer Rebbe zt”l.)
The most sinister devil of the commonplace, we’ve been taught, is service by rote – mitzvas adam melimudah. It turns genuine avodah (service of G-d), with its countless opportunities for the thrill of closeness to Hashem, into tired, listless mechanical performance. We thought that its danger was in denying us greatness. It turns out that it may also deny us our greatest opportunities to avoid alternative behavior that can literally be fatal.