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Cantor's Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Seeking Sanctuary

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 2018
Seeking Sanctuary - By Cantor Mark Levine

A number of people in the southwest Houston area come here to Brith Shalom every week for a spiritual encounter that uplifts them, that leaves them more comfortable with their lives and better prepared to confront the challenges of the coming week. They come here seeking peers and support. They come here to connect with the Supreme Being, to lay out their hearts and their shortcomings and to ask for guidance and help. They come here searching for sanctuary; but not within the walls of our Sanctuary.  They find their way, instead, to our chapel at a quiet moment, a time when the synagogue is not normally being used. These seekers are all members of a Twelve Step program for helping cope with their additions to alcohol and other self-destructive patterns that prevent them from fully enjoying life. 


I stand here today with an urgent message and with the hope of accomplishing three goals. The first is to make very clear that addiction is not merely in someone else’s “Backyard” – it is a Jewish communal problem. The second goal…while we’ve all heard of the Twelve Steps, few of us have any knowledge of those steps; certainly not how valuable they can be not only to those in recovery but to any religious seeker looking for grounding on their personal journeys. My third and final goal is to identify ways in which we can destigmatize addiction and serve as agents, through our actions, of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives.


Let’s turn first to the issue of addiction.  Addiction is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the 2nd leading cause among those ages 10-34, a number that has risen 25% over the last few decades. Through a particularlistic lens, estimates are that up to 50% of patient populations in residential treatment are Jews – as are 20% of those calling national drug hotlines.


We cannot ignore the numbers, the epidemic of pain and struggle in our community.  The myth that Jews don’t drink; that Jews are not abusers of alcohol or alcoholics has not merely been debunked, it has been shattered!  It is OUR family, OUR friends, OUR neighbors, OUR fellow-shul goers who face these challenges.


In materials compiled by Jewish Family Services here in Houston, Maureen Wittels, a Houston mother writes of her son:


Harris Wittles was an incredible son, great comedian, co-executive producer of Parks and Recreation and Master of None, and inventor of the word “humblebrag”, which now resides in the Webster dictionary. He also had a big secret. He had an illness called addiction.He died on February 9, 2015 of a drug overdose. He was 30 years young. We stood together as a family to support him and love him through the darkness but sadly, it was not enough. The Rabbi stood up after his Bar Mitzvah and said to watch out for that kid because he would be at the Laff Stop one day. At just 18 years of age, Harris was third runner up in Houston’s funniest comedian contest at the Laff Stop! His rise to success was swift and took a real toll on his precious life. Addiction won. It’s real. It happens in the best of families with the most well- meaning intentions. He achieved more in thirty years than most can achieve in a lifetime and yet the addiction stole it all.”


There are numerous people in this very room who need a safe place and supportive peers to assist them.  And a good number of those struggling are our children.  Yes, our kids from nice families, good schools, who have become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in this very sanctuary. It is OUR children who feel lost.  And It is also OUR parents who have not yet found the courage to ask for help.  It is OUR spouses and partners who think we haven’t noticed but…we do notice but have yet to find the courage to say something.


Adding fuel to the fire, addiction remains cloaked in shame.  One cross-cultural study after another has demonstrated the intensity of stigmatization and the general disapproval experienced by those who suffer from addiction.  The outcome is often a breaking down of social support networks which further inhibit the process of recovery. Shame inhibits the reaching out to (a) family, to (b) friends, to (c) community or even (d) to clergy. If someone had, God forbid, a terrible illness, generally, we at Brith Shalom would get a call. If one were to land in the hospital, we typically hear about it. But if someone is facing an addiction …we are seldom aware of the challenge they are facing. For this suffering demographic, across America, the synagogue is rarely experienced as a Sanctuary.


One of the self-defenses we utilize to maintain a sense of invulvnerability, to distance ourselves from those who struggle with addiction, is to deny understanding THEIR behaviors and THEIR choices.  “How could someone make such continually self-destructive choices without changing their behavior?  Don’t they understand how their actions affect others? Why are they lacking self-control?  I’d never allow myself to continually make the same mistake.”


However, the very concept of compulsive behavior is not that far removed from the lives of each of us sitting here this morning.  In his book, Beyond Addiction, William Moyers describes the following personal experience:

“In a rush to clear airport security and get to the gate at the opposite end of the terminal, I discovered that my cellphone wasn’t with me.  I’d left it in the car in the parking lot. Sans phone, for a moment I froze.  To go forward without it or go back to retrieve it.  My trip away from home and the office would be less than 24 hours.  Yet the thought of being out of touch was more than I could bear.  Beads of sweat dotted my forehead. 


I made a u-turn, walked 10 minutes through the parking lot and found comfort with the phone in hand and bevy of fresh emails and texts and a voice message or two demanding my reply.  Never mind that I had to repeat security clearance. My craving for connection was satisfied.  I was content.


Moyers continues: If you are somebody who doesn’t understand why some people cannot stay away from alcohol and other drugs, what it means to be an addict or how substances can affect even the most basic decisions and behaviors, consider how your phone influences everything you do these days.”

My friends, we are all prisoners to compulsive behaviors that negatively affect our lives, to routines that lead us to make “interesting” choices.


Enabling our defensive distancing, we maintain the belief that we are able keep these addictive behaviors quiet, that no one will notice and no one will be affected.  And we cling to the belief that we can easily give up our compulsions – “I can stop using my phone whenever I want.”   Yet, in our gut, we know better. Breaking the routine, ending the compulsive behaviors is far more difficult than we want to admit. But with the proper support systems, change IS POSSIBLE.


A common misconception is that is that Alcoholics don’t recover.  That is a myth.  They do.  Not all at once. Not everyone. But many do and they have much to offer. Given support, change is possible, sobriety can become a reality and society can greatly benefit from those who recover.


A young American grew up in the 1800’s.  A binge-drinker extraordinaire, this pudgy drunk did everything with a drink in his hand or nearby.  His commanding officer received reports that Sam often became intoxicated while on-duty. Given an ultimatum, he resigned on the spot.


Sober, years later, Sam returned to the army to lead the Union to victory.  He’s the man on the $50 bill, the 18th American president.  The nickname Sam came from his West Point Days, where fellow cadets thought the U.S. in U.S Grant stood for Uncle Sam. Parallel stories of successful recovery are told of Beethoven and Churchill, to name just a few.


Let’s now shift to demystifying the 12 steps programs and gaining an understanding as to how these measures can benefit not only those in recovery but also serve as a guide for our community this Rosh Hashanah.  While they were written by a Christian group, the 12 steps can be a powerful resource for anyone looking for spiritual guidance. And fortunately, the 12 are easily translated into Jewish steps.


For those confronting personal addictions, I pray the 12 steps have or will prove helpful in your journey towards health and fulfillment.  Outside the sanctuary we have placed a list of resources, local and national, prepared by JFS,  to assist with addiction recovery.  For those here this morning searching for a path toward Teshuvah, which should be everyone in the room, the 12 steps have much to offer as well. 


Here are the steps according to AA. 


Steps 1 -3 – Admit we are powerless over alcohol – that our lives have become unmanagable and come to believe in a power greater than ourselves to whom we can turn.


Alcoholics know that recovery is virtually impossible without true introspection or without support systems.  We too must begin with the recognition that we have a problem requiring a look inward. We are vulnerable. We can’t always control our urges. We need help!


A television personality in Seattle stated: “I guess I was a typical American saying to myself: I got into this mess by myself and I’ll have to get out of it by myself. I’d been raised to believe that it was a sign of weakness to ask for help, and I didn’t want to feel weak. He said: So many of us have been raised with this attitude.” Society has taught us to think that asking for help, of needing another because we can’t do it alone, is an admission of weakness. The original sin of 20th Century men and women is the sin of self-sufficiency. We profess to be so wise – scientists have taught us how the world works, and psychiatrists have explained to us how our minds work. We claim our sense of empowerment; computers and jet planes and space travel and organ transplants. We are absolutely enchanted with how capable we have become, to the point that we’ve talked ourselves into believing that we can solve any problem if we just think about it long enough and hard enough.


This may explain why it is so hard for modern people to pray–not because services are so long (the average Shabbat service is shorter than the average Astros game), and not because people don’t understand Hebrew (even as an avid baseball fan, I don’t understand a lot of things the Astros or my beloved Yankees do either); but prayer is difficult because it is rooted in a feeling of need, of dependence, of incompleteness, and we don’t like to acknowledge feelings of inadequacy.


It is to such modern men and women that Rosh Hashanah comes with its message of Adonai Hu HaElohim and Adonai Melech, that there is a God and God is sovereign over all the world, paralleling the intent of the Twelve Steps which bring the message that there is a Power greater than ourselves who enables us to do for ourselves what we find hard to do alone.  Trying to deal with fear, confusion and emotional turmoil by oneself is very difficult, often impossible, and yet we are seduced by the myth of self-sufficiency.

Perhaps, rather, we ought to seek a traditional Jewish answer, the sort of answer being given by alcoholics who are tired of self-disappointment and have decided to look beyond themselves for help. And the traditional response would sound something like this: “I am not alone in this effort. Change is hard, but there is a God and God takes me seriously. God provides me more confidence, more hope, more strength than I would ever have without God. God enables my sense of safety, my feeling that the world can be a true sanctuary.


Steps 4-5 – Conduct a moral inventory of ourselves and our lives and confess to God and others the exact nature of our wrongs.

Cheshbon hanefesh – real, authentic soul searching can be among the most terrifying challenges we face and therefore the tendency to shy away from deep and meaningful introspection.

The Biblical Jacob wasn’t the kind, sensitive soul that we sometimes attribute to him. He stole his brother’s birthright. He tricked his blind dying father out the blessing designated for his older brother.

After decades of estrangement, Jacob and Esau are about to meet up. The night before their encounter, Jacob wrestles with a man, purported to be an angel. After a long night of struggling from which Jacob emerges victorious, Jacob has his name changed to “Israel – the one who struggles with God and prevails.” Many traditional and modern commentators have interpreted this text as Jacob wrestling with his own demons, his own baggage. Jacob needed to hold himself accountable for past behaviors.

As with addiction recovery, we, too, must confront our arrogance, our selfishness, our indulgences and compulsive behavior. Ten times on Yom Kippur we recite Ashamnu and Al Cheit – we beat our chests and proclaim a litany of ways in which we have fallen short. We must admit our character defects to ourselves and to God if we wish to correct our conduct and then to find the spiritual and emotional sanctuary we seek.


Steps 6-7 – Prepare ourselves for purification and humbly ask God to assist us in removing our shortcomings.

We are seeking to intensify, to deepen our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One. God can be the source of help as we pursue spiritual growth. But WE must be pro-active in requesting God’s assistance.


The Torah tells of two sets of tablets, the one smashed by Moses when he descended Sinai to witness the people worshipping the Golden Calf, and the intact second set, both of which were ultimately placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Rabbis taught that both sets were holy and both needed to exist side-by-side.


We too have our broken pieces, side by side with our whole selves. We can’t ignore our flawed pasts. We can’t expect God to just wipe our flaws away and remove the burdens. We must purposely choose to give up these actions, to let them go, to free ourselves…by being willing, truly willing, to change. With God’s help, we will be able to tap into reserves of strength, conviction and resilience found within, and locate the strength to move forward with a new light.


Steps 8-9 – Identify all those we have harmed, prepare ourselves to fix things, and make direct amends to the victims of our actions.


Addictive behavior can take a toll on people far and near. The healing process is not limited to the individual. Studies indicate that addiction deeply affects, on average, 8 people and it is those relationships which are often put in jeopardy.  The process of Teshuvah begins as a Jewish way of identifying relational schisms with those with whom we are close and need to ask forgiveness. As has been emphasized by rabbis of every generation, before turning to God to request forgiveness, we must seek absolution from those we have harmed. We must close the relational distances we’ve created through our errors. Through our actions, we must create a better, more caring, world.


Mark Borovitz stole thousands and thousands of dollars from strangers and friends alike.  After two stints in prison, he realized his crimes, his emptiness and he dedicated himself to teshuvah and repair. Borovitz studied and became a rabbi. He proudly claims that he is the first rabbi to begin rabbinical school after prison. Today, he is the is the Spiritual Leader at Beit Teshuvah in Los Angeles, a 150 bed in-treatment facility that builds upon Jewish values and hopes to treat people in recovery. His teshuvah has been paying back his acts of theft through acts of chesed and tzedakah. Rabbi Mark’s teshuvah served to create both a literal and symbolic sanctuary.


Step 10-12  – Continuing the process of personal inventory and promptly admitting our wrongs, through prayer and meditation, we seek to improve our conscious contact with God.  We strive to learn God’s will for us, to carry out that will and to bring the same message to others who also struggle. We need to always be mindful of our actions. We will fall short, we will miss the mark. Perfection is not a realistic goal but integrity and wholeness is. Wholeness is achieved through connection with God and community – our very task here today.  Completeness is achieved through our communal obligation to use our teshuvah to help others construct safe sanctuaries so that they, too, can become self-actualized. 


Our third goal this morning is to identify ways in which we can assist those who do struggle and those who potentially will struggle with addiction? For those engaged in this battle, there is nothing metaphorical about the words of Unetaneh Tokef – “Mi Yichye Um Yamut; Mi V’kitzo and Mi Lo V’kitzo  - Who will live and who will die; who will live a long life and will come to an untimely death.”

As the statistics cited earlier made evident, for the addict and those in recovery, these words resonate daily and permeate their lives.


Our methods of Teshuvah will determine our commitment to the Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh, of saving lives. Once again, in his book Beyond Addiction, William Moyers describes the irony of an invitation to an event designed to raise money for overcoming addiction declaring “an open bar” because the organization feared that without “spirits” they would be unable to attract the very donors they needed. One of the board members for the organization explained “The “regulars expect it so we must have it.  It puts them at ease, loosens their wallets, too.” 


Once again from JFS’s source material, we learn of an anonymous Jewish adult here in Houston who wrote:

“The very first time I got drunk was at my Bar Mitzvah. Our Eastern European rabbi said, “Today, you are a man!” and poured half a bottle of schnapps down my throat… By age 30, and twelve years of alcohol and drug use, my addiction had become my high power. I knew I had to get sober or die.”


While this is an extreme story involving a seriously misguided unnamed Houston rabbi, here at CBS we are moving beyond the mindset of “the regulars expect it” and establishing a place of sanctuary, one free from the temptations of alcohol.  Our first step at Brith Shalom has been to adapt our Shabbat kiddushes to include only grape juice – wine is no longer offered. The individual in recovery can feel comfortable to attend without the fears of confronting their demons.


Secondly, I have strongly requested that the gala in March marking my 10 years of serving God at Brith Shalom, an alcohol-free event. A personal thanks to my friend, and our president, Steve Rubin, for having agreed to honor this request so that, for that weekend, our beloved synagogue can be a sanctuary, in all its meanings.


I’m also proposing that we reconsider the underlying messages of our Purim celebration.  I cringe when I hear of the intensity of Purim drinking that occurs at Chabad and other traditional organizations here in town, often led by drunken rabbi who attempts to role model the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Perhaps “Ad Lo Yada”, drinking until one cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, made sense in a world in which no one drove home or a world unaware of the devastating effects of alcohol.  However, that is no longer the world in which we live.


Just two weeks ago, the results of the Lancet study, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, were made known.  Highlighting the report was that (a) nearly 3 million Americans died in 2016 in alcohol related deaths, that (b) any theoretical benefits of an occasional drink are offset by higher risks of resultant cancers, diabetes and other diseases.


Perhaps the most surprising finding was that even small amounts of alcohol contribute to serious health loss.  Within the Lancet study, we hear from Steven Bell, a University of Cambridge epidemiologist that even one drink a day could shorten life expectancy.  In the concluding words of the report: “We’re used to hearing that a drink or two a day is fine.  But the evidence is the evidence.”


In 2018, at moments such as Purim, our choices may truly be those of life and death.  We must look closely at how best we can communicate that we care and love those created B’tzelem Elohim; care enough about them to designate our place of prayer and community as a safe sanctuary and to alter potentially life-threatening traditions. 


These small steps are intended to build a new, ongoing mindset. If we are to be the “welcoming congregation” of which we rightfully pride ourselves, serious consideration must be given as to what welcoming means to real people with real challenges.


The success of the Twelve Step programs is a result of the realization by all participants that they are vulnerable and reliant on God and the others present.  In reality, each of us is vulnerable.  Each of us seeks respect, approval, and love. Each of us is searching for connection with God.


Shomeiah Tefillah – God who hears our prayers, may it be your will that our synagogue be a place to (a) experience approval and love, the site of (b) connection with God and a (c) safe haven, a protective sanctuary for us all.

Amen and Shana Tovah.