On Sunday evening, January 16, Let’s Get Real with Coach Menachem Bernfeld featured a lecture on dealing with trauma. Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, LCSW, Director of Spiritual Programming at Harris House Treatment and Recovery Center in St. Louis, was the guest speaker.
Rabbi Rosenfeld shared how his clients in the addiction facility who come from all different religions are moved by insights from our tzadikim. Teachings like “There is no such thing as losing hope,” from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, have really helped people to heal.
Rabbi Rosenfeld taught that the p’nimiyus of Torah teaches us at the outset that life is not supposed to be easy. There is a value in our society that has seeped into our awareness that perfection is a goal, and that a happy, easy life is the way to serve Hashem. We find that whenever we struggle, we judge ourselves unfavorably. We think, “I can’t enjoy life like everyone else.” He stated, “We’ve taken difficulty and struggling and pathologized it.” The Torah says perfection is the most foreign idea imaginable from Yiddishkeit. The only possible thing that is perfect is Hashem. Everything else is imperfect.
Our struggles aren’t personal failures. Experiencing failures is part of what it means to be a human being. When we are capable of being honest about our imperfections, instead of hiding them and instead of being swallowed by shame, then we can figure out how to serve Hashem best with our imperfections. He added that “we serve Him not despite of them but specifically from within our imperfections.”
The sages teach us that it’s not easy to be human. Through the difficulty of being human here in this world, we uncover true greatness of what it means to be a human being.
In the beginning of M’silas Y’sharim, it says that the purpose of being human is to take pleasure with Hashem. It means to live in a space of difficulty. The Ramchal wrote this sefer during the most difficult time of his life.
Rabbi Rosenfeld pointed out that many people suffering with addictions were perfectionists. They feel terrified to admit that they aren’t perfect. The substance they abuse gives them that sense of perfection for a moment.
To get well, they have to allow themselves to say, “I’m not perfect and that’s okay.” P’nimiyus haTorah is ultimately teaching us what it means to be a human being in this world. How is it that as a separate ego, I can be attached to Hashem at every moment? Kabbalah teaches us how the infinite and the finite can interrelate with one another.
“Chazal taught us that Hashem has created a space where things can be as difficult as they can possibly be with the light of Hashem still present.”
Rabbi Rosenfeld taught that our difficulty is understandable. Our job down here as finite limited creatures is to understand how we relate to Hashem. Emunah allows us to find hope in the fact that we don’t know.
In the past, addiction was viewed as a moral failing. Now, we understand that it’s caused by a neurological disorder in the brain. It’s a disease that affects a person’s capacity to make a choice. The frontal cortex part of the brain is responsible for choice. Neuroscience shows us that if an addict has his brain activated, the mid-brain is activated. This has to do not with choice but with survival. An addict is stuck in behavior, and in that moment, he or she is incapable of making the right choice.
He then spoke about anxiety. Anxiety stems from an unknown future. The antidote to the unknown is something that can be absolutely known. Our job as ovdei Hashem is to come to accept that we will not know everything. This helps us live with emunah.
Rav Hutner encouraged a talmid struggling with ups and downs. He asked him if he thought the Chofetz Chaim had an easy time not speaking lashon ha’ra. He shared that we don’t know his struggles. We need to respect our g’dolim who struggle with the yeitzer ha’ra.
We have to own our failures and say, “Hashem, I’m struggling, but I know You’re here with me.”
Someone asked if a person can recover from addiction. Rabbi Rosenfeld shared that the language of the 12-step program is “recovered.” A person has to look at himself as constantly recovering. Otherwise, he could fall into complacency, which can open the door to failure.
He said, in the morning we are a new creation. In the afternoon, it’s a mid-life crisis, and at night it’s like we die. Every 24-hour period is a lifetime. If a person is clean for that time, that’s never going away. With relation to tomorrow, an addict needs to see himself in the process of recovery, so he is constantly working on recovery. This idea is true for avodas Hashem as well. According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, each day needs to be seen as an existence by itself, so we keep growing in avodas Hashem. He explained that recovery involves insight – an intellectual shift – and the 12-step program offers a framework of applying that knowledge into action. It gives a person a space to be in touch with others and to develop healthy social connections.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski zt”l spoke of the shame factor. How do we translate intellectual knowledge into an emotional experience? Emotions don’t care what is right or wrong. Emotions pass more quickly than thoughts. If a person experiences difficulty and he feels “less than,” then he has to accept that emotion as reality of the moment. Instead of judging it as negative, he has to accept it as a way that Hashem wants him to meet Him in that moment.
A great rebbe taught that every emotion a person experiences is an opportunity of being alone with Hashem.
We need to acknowledge the feeling; and instead of running from it, we need to find Hashem in it. When a person stops trying to run away from an emotion, the emotion loses a lot of its power. We need to relearn that “difficult” doesn’t mean “impossible.” “I believe addiction is based on the idea that difficult means impossible.” Rabbi Rosenfeld explained that when a person draws Hashem into sadness, that person stops feeling lonely. Loneliness is the root of all sadness. When we realize that Hashem is with us, that takes away the intensity of negative emotion. He taught that the mind is the place of intellect and learning Torah, and the heart is the place of t’filah. You need to talk to Hashem about the emotion and daven through the emotion. No emotion lasts that long.
He recommended a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernie Kurtz. The author was friends with Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski.
Someone asked about how to deal with a family member who is an addict and who is adversely affecting the family. Rabbi Rosenfeld responded that it is necessary to set up boundaries for the safety and sanity of the family. He said to remember that “the addict is responsible and accountable for what he has done, but he is not at fault for what he has done.” The lying, hiding, and dishonesty that comes along with addiction is the addiction trying to survive. Rock bottom is the moment of truth.
We can set up boundaries, but we need to hold in our heart that we are saddened by the behavior, not that we are angry at the person. We need to set up boundaries with the help of professionals, but at the same time still be there for them. Forgiveness doesn’t mean to let someone step all over you and to create destruction in your life.
By Susie Garber