“… what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” (Micah 6:8)
Despite its solemnity, Yom Kippur is my favourite of the Jewish holidays. The ritual of atonement, the accounting for our soul’s transgressions, humbles and connects us.
When we ask God for forgiveness, what are we asking for? Not for His acceptance, nor His condoning of our transgressions. What we are seeking is His compassion: the recognition that we are human and that, to be human, is to have both divine potential and to be inherently flawed. Atonement humbles us; His compassion restores our dignity.
As a physician specializing in addiction medicine, I see and support people who truly believe they are unworthy of this compassion. Many people believe that addiction is not something that affects Jewish people. I can attest that Jews are as susceptible to this neurological disease as any other group. From the Downtown Eastside SRO (single-room-occupancy) hotels, to the extravagant homes of Shaughnessy, substance dependence is having a deep impact on our community as a whole.
Our failure to acknowledge the addiction issues within our community has forced people with substance dependence into hiding and fostered ignorance over compassion. Isolating drug users can be deadly. We know that, statistically speaking, the majority of the lives lost throughout the overdose epidemic have been people who have used drugs alone in their homes.
Is it possible for us to consider extending the compassion, the dignity that we desire to receive on Yom Kippur, to people who are dependent on drugs?
For most of my patients, drug use began as a coping tool, a way to manage physical or mental pain. Haven’t we all resorted to coping strategies at some time, sometimes constructive, sometimes foolish?
What is your coping mechanism? When you don’t want to deal with a situation, do you binge on Netflix? Do you eat junk food, work too much, smoke? Fiddle with your phone, endlessly scrolling through social media? Do you sometimes misuse a prescription medication to help you manage your thoughts or worries?
Have you ever experienced shame around your coping mechanism? Do you find yourself shutting the phone off when your spouse walks in the room? Eating differently when others are around?
Imagine if your coping mechanism was not easily hidden. Imagine if, when you realized that it had become a problem and you tried to stop, you plummeted into severe anxiety and physical withdrawal – convulsing, vomiting, sweating, aching everywhere – but you couldn’t afford the days or weeks it would take to withdraw because you had a job to do, a family to care for. So, you spiraled deeper, always in search of a way to manage your pain. Until, eventually, it became impossible to hide.
Drug addicts are our vulnerability and suffering made visible. Or, as Rabbi Shais Taub said, “Addiction is but the human condition writ large.”
Last September marked the launch of Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS) Vancouver, an organization created to provide members of our community with support around the effects of addiction. Rabbi Paul Steinberg spoke at the opening event. His words continue to resonate: “… I pray that we can tear down our walls of fear and provide a safe place to express our vulnerabilities, truly embracing teshuvah as a real agent of transformation. If our congregations cannot be a place for the depressed, the addicted, the junkie or the ex-con, then what claim are we making on our Judaism? What kind of temple have we really built?”
This Yom Kippur, let us acknowledge and have compassion for the addict in all of us. Let us welcome those with substance dependence into our congregations, and into our hearts and prayers. If you know someone with an addiction problem, let them know that you are grateful for the effort they are making, an effort that reflects a persistent theme in the history of the Jews – escaping enslavement and finding freedom. We all have something to learn from their struggles.
And let them know they are not alone. Tell them about JACS Vancouver. For more information, visit jacsvancouver.com, email [email protected] or call 778-882-2994.
Dr. Alana Hirsh is a Jewish Addiction Community Service (JACS) Vancouver volunteer and program committee member.