Wednesday, September 16, 2009

... and I'm an alcoholic

I'm disappointed that I haven't had the time to craft derashah-style divrei torah for this website in the past month. To make up for it in some way, here's an article I wrote for the bulletin of our beit midrash's host shul, Clanton Park Synagogue. You can also find an article of mine in the Rosh HaShanah "To Go" from YU'Torah, here; the whole To Go is here.

Over the past several years I have become involved in the addictions community, helping people who were dealing with addictions and hosting a chapter of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons and Significant others) in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

One of the most striking elements of the JACS program, as with secular addictions programs, is the way that the addict perpetually introduces himself as an addict. Rather than say, “I was an alcoholic,” or “I was an addict,” a man or woman with decades of clean history will still say, “I am an alcoholic,” “I am an addict.”

When I first heard this mode of self-identification, I was troubled by the way it seems to fly in the face of the Rambam's advice. He writes (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4):

”מדרכי התשובה להיות ...משנה שמו כלומר 'אני אחר, ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים”.

“Among the paths of repentance is that the penitent person should... change his name, as if to say, 'I am someone else, and I am not that man who performed those deeds.'”

The Rambam's advice, which is based on a gemara (Rosh HaShanah 16b), seems to argue that someone seeking to change his ways should abandon his past identity and declare himself to be someone new; how would this gel with self-identifying as an addict for life?

In fact, this may be the question at the core of a talmudic dispute. The gemara (Yoma 86b) records a debate regarding viduy:

“עבירות שהתודה עליהן יום הכיפורים זה לא יתודה עליהן יום הכיפורים אחר, ואם שנה בהן צריך להתודות יום הכיפורים אחר, ואם לא שנה בהן וחזר והתודה עליהן עליו הכתוב אומר 'ככלב שב על קאו כן כסיל שונה באולתו.'

רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר כל שכן שהוא משובח, שנאמר 'כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד.”’

“Regarding sins one admitted on this Yom Kippur, one should not admit them again on another Yom Kippur. One who repeated them must admit them on another Yom Kippur, but regarding one who did not repeat them and yet admitted them, the Torah says (Mishlei 26), 'Like a dog who sits in his vomit, so is a fool who repeats his foolishness.'

“Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says, 'He is all the more praiseworthy! It is written (Tehillim 51), 'For I know my transgressions, and my sins are before me always!'”

The tanna kama (initial anonymous view) contends that one who confesses old sins is like a dog sitting in his own vomit, and one should not dwell upon his old identity, apparently opposing the JACS practice. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, on the other hand, says that it is praiseworthy to remember one's dated deviance, like the person who acknowledges his addiction perpetually.

However, this distinction is not necessarily correct; perhaps both the tanna kama and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov endorse embracing a new identity Perhaps the debate between the tanna kama and Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov is actually a matter of psychology: Will repeated evocation of old sins keep me from developing a new persona?

That debate revolves around the word שונה, “repeat,” as used in that pasuk from Mishlei, “Like a dog who sits in his vomit, so is a fool who is שונה his foolishness”:

The tanna kama takes שונה to imply verbalization and study, like ושננתם לבניך, the mitzvah of teaching our children verbally. A sinner who speaks of his sins and reviews them is like a dog sitting in his vomit.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, though, understands שונה in the sense of שנים, repetition of the sinful act itself. Speaking of the sin does not mean I am a dog returning to my vomit; only actual commission of the sin would be a foolish caninity. Speaking of the sin can actually aid me in my teshuvah.

Rabbi Elazar ben Yaakov’s distinction – performing teshuvah by speaking of old sins, while envisioning ourselves as new people – appears to be consistent with the Rambam's writings. Even though the Rambam recommends that one see himself as a new person, he also rules like Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov that one should repeat old sins in his viduy (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:8):

“ עבירות שהתודה עליהן יום הכיפורים זה חוזר ומתודה עליהן ביום הכיפורים אחר אף על פי שהוא עומד בתשובתו שנאמר 'כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד.,”

“Regarding sins one admitted on this Yom Kippur, one should again admit them on another Yom Kippur, even though he remains steadfast in his repentance, as it is written (Tehillim 51), 'For I know my transgressions, and my sins are before me always.'”

What we have, then, is a fundamental debate about the psychology of repentance: Is my teshuvah better served by forgetting my past altogether, or by recalling my past constantly? And Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, and the Rambam, and JACS side with George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But there must be a limit; at what point may we see our sins as past? Must we identify ourselves as addicts through our entire lives, for sins committed decades ago? Can that truly help us?

This may be where the Rambam's advice - to see ourselves as new people – is most helpful. We stop recalling old sins when we are in danger of allowing them to take over our identity.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler made a similar point (Michtav mei'Eliyahu I pg. 255) regarding the tactics of the yetzer hara, that element which seduces us to sin:

“הסתת היצר מגעת עד כדי שנחשוב שרצונו הוא רצוננו... מעולם לא נבחין אותו טוען 'הלא אתה צריך' אלא 'הלא אני צריך.'... היצר גנב את הבחנת האני שלנו.”

“The yetzer seduces us to the point where we think that its desire is our desire... We never perceive him demanding, 'You need to do this,' but rather we see it as our own 'I need to do this.'... The yetzer steals our sense of our own independent identity.”

A Jew who perpetually identifies himself by his sins, who lives a life of “I am an addict,” internalizes the sin so that he sees it as his own goal, his own desire. When we are in danger of falling prey to this predator, when we realize that we are identifying ourselves too closely with the sin, then we have reached the moment to step away and to stop admitting the sin. That is the moment when we must run to the Rambam's counsel, “See yourself as 'not that man who performed those deeds.'”

May all of us merit to leave behind our sins, remembering our past without letting it take over our identity, becoming new people, and so meriting a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.


  1. Something I've learned over the years - one size doesn't fit all. So perhaps the disagreement is on a community basis what will work best in the aggregate but kach mkublani mbeit avi abba - at the end of the day you get into bed with yourself.

    Joel Rich

  2. It actually fits with the Rambam, since this IS their new identity - the old one was built on denying/not letting themselves acknowledge their addiction.

    So, every time they state that they ARE an alcoholic/addict, they are claiming that new identity, of someone who is self-aware, and doesn't pretend that nothing is wrong. It's a radical break in identity and behavior.

  3. Joel-
    I hear.

    Interesting. Doesn't really fit the Rambam's language, but still a good point.

  4. Awesome! As I was reading this I was going to post the R Dessler quote, but you included it. :)

    Enjoy the beauty of being able to daven next to your son.

  5. do you have a recording or notes or source sheet or anything from ur addiction and teshuvah shiur?
    could really use it for my derasha this shabbas. thanx so much

  6. AnonyBrad-
    You can get it at, in the audio section.

  7. Big thank you. Used the artice and the class almost word for word. Went over well(i think). Very appreciated. shanah tovah. Brad