Return again

Addiction recovery at Rosh Hashanah

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Many spiritual traditions teach the wisdom of "beginning again." In Judaism, this concept is often expressed as teshuvah, which can be described as returning to one's true self and purpose--or turning to hit the mark if one has strayed off course. I'm reminded of a song I heard Rabbi Dovid Zeller sing many times in Jerusalem: "Return again/return again/return to the land of your soul."

Judaism teaches us to do a daily examination of ourselves, to see where we have hit or missed the mark, and to correct our course through forgiveness practices, prayer, and other activities that redirect our focus to our true purpose. 

Every year, we have the opportunity for Cheshbon HaNefesh ('accounting of the soul') and teshuvah , ('returning'), during the Jewish month of Elul that precedes the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur-- and of course during those days themselves. A yearly 'refresh,' if you will.

But what if such a return is impeded by an obstacle, such as addiction? What is the experience of addiction recovery during the High Holy Days? Here, we might reflect on the word "recovery" itself. What is one "recovering" from when releasing the bonds of addiction? The choice of the word "recovery" suggests returning to the person that one had been . One was not always in the throes of addiction. There was a time of freedom in the past. One is "recovering" a self that was lost in the storm and torment of addiction. 

Recovering and returning. What does this look like for Jews in recovery? A Jewish woman in long term recovery describes her yearly focus as a "regeneration" of herself and of her recovery: "The High Holidays…renew me because I do the work of regeneration, the process of tearing down for the sake of rebuilding." 

A Jewish educator and spiritual director in the field of long-term recovery incorporates traditional Jewish prayers and concepts into his continuing process of teshuvah and returning to self: "The High Holy Days always bring to mind the 13 attributes by which God governs the world--as set forth in Exodus 34:6-7--which we recite every Yom Kippur. These 13 'attributes of mercy' reorient me for the year on how to act in my life towards myself and others, and help to guide me in my recovery."  

A member of Families Anonymous--in recovery as the parent of an adult son himself in addiction recovery--takes the yearly opportunity to shed habits of mind that can obscure their sense of purpose and clarity: "It seems like we start each new year with…The Elimination Diet: Remove anger, regret, resentments, guilt, blame, and worry...then watch your health and life improve."

Lastly, the High Holiday process for another Jewish woman in long term recovery is related as : "Have I really cleared, let go of the old resentments--in the spirit of forgiveness and renewal with a clean slate--[and made] amends for 'wrongs' I have done? What is my spiritual condition, and am I doing all I need to stay in fit spiritual condition, so I can be of maximum service to God and others? Lastly, I reflect on what I am grateful for in my life. It is really about taking the time for rigorous self-honesty and renewal."

These reflections demonstrate that the Jewish community is rich with spiritual wisdom from those among us who are returning to a self that is free from addiction, who are actively pursuing spiritual recovery. During this holiest season, may we all be blessed to find our way back to freedom, and forward to the gifts that spiritual freedom brings.

Beth Fishman, Ph.D., is Program Manager of addiction services for JCFS Chicago. 

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