Friday, February 7, 2014

Beaten Beacons? Addiction/Recovery struggle & Tetzaveh

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The plight of the addict has been thrust into the limelight with the tragic death this week of a father of three. For two decades he was one of millions of recovering addicts who score glorious daily victories over the angel of death’s hideous helpers, alcohol and other pain numbing agents. Alas, he could not sustain whatever it was that enabled him to beat death. He succumbed at the age of 46, only two years older than me. I am referring to the actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but I am thinking about so many mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who continue to battle addictions. I salute you all. I am in awe of your determination, perseverance, faith,  humility and even humour. 

Adversity can bring out the best in us, of course. This week’s Torah reading discusses the process of preparing olive oil (1), which can serve as metaphor for this idea (2). The olives would be beaten to extract the oil which was used to light the Menorah (lamp) in the temple.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the individual stories. They are awe inspiring. A mother with the toughest exterior who has been hurt in ways some of us can barely imagine who keeps working the twelve steps of AA, who chooses to surrender to God unconditionally, and continues to seek ways of improving her character, for her children’s sake as well as her own. She sees the hand of God in her recovery. It gives new meaning to the psalmist’s praise of God as “the one who heals the broken hearted” (3). 

I dare not romanticise the world of addiction. The families of addicts and the addicts themselves might live lives of violence, betrayal, neglect, lies, shame etc. under the shadow of untimely death. According to the sages, there were two grades of oil. First, oil was produced by ‘merely’ beating the olives, this grade of oil was considered fitting to be used to give light. The second grade, that was not “good enough” for the lamp, was produced by grinding the olives (4), symbolising for me, intensified pain, “going through the grinder”. It seems that when confronted by certain degrees of darkness and adversity, some souls might no longer be so likely to produce glorious “light in the temple”. Perhaps the crushed spirit is too broken for that. For the human “ground olives”, I cry out to God (5) “till when?!” How much must people endure?! Please end the suffering!! Instead grant us your grace and kindness.  

Yet, even the lower grade oil produced by grinding the olives, was used in the divine service as part of the offerings. Some people, who have been to hell and back, might not get the opportunity to "illuminate the holy temple” of society. Yet, they make valuable contributions in their own more discreet way, no bright lights, just breaking the cycle of suffering for themselves, their children and others whose lives they touch with love and compassion.

These heroes might not be up in lights, but don’t call them quiet! Their raging battles are much better symbolised by noise. This is also hinted at in our Torah portion. The high priest was required to have bells sewn into the hem of his robe, so that he would be heard when he walked in the sanctuary. Failure to wear the robe was considered a capital offence (6). The bells symbolise people who can be seen as estranged from God. Their surge back toward God is a noisy desperate fight to walk away from the lies of self-sufficiency and complete independence, to return home to God and to connecting with other people. It can be compared to a person drowning, facing the horror of imminent death, splashing, wildly waving limbs in a desperate attempt to stay alive. It is these people who must be represented and given a voice by the holiest man in the holiest house (7).

For so many of us seeking to connect with each other and with something/someone greater than ourselves, grappling with the beatings and/or grindings of life, I wish for God’s grace. After all He is the one who “gives snow like wool, throws His ice like breadcrumbs, before His cold who can stand?! but then sends His word and melts them, takes back His wind and they flow like water” (8). With apologies to my American friends, as an Australian returning back to our glorious sunshine, I found the snow in the Northeast of the US these last two weeks, awesome. Wishing for warmth, love and joy for all members of the human family, while also remembering those who lost their lives in their struggles, may their souls find peace and relief at last.  

1.    Exodus 27:20
2.    Shemot Rabba 36:1, Talmud Menachot 53b
3.    Psalm 147:3
4.    Rashi
5.    As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi MM Schneerson, has taught and encouraged people to do in numerous talks over the years
6.    Exodus 28:33-35
7.    Schneerson, Rabbi MM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos vol. 16, p. 338
8.    Psalm 147:16-18


  1. This is probably the best blog I have ever read. You are one awesome man of God Zalman Kastel. Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart and the depths of my soul. Addiction is hell and for others like me who have managed to overcome it have done so only by the grace of God and with the love of loving and kind people like you. B'H' and Alhamdulillah

    1. Thank you Brenda for your kind feedback. With best wishes for the continued grace of God in the lives of all who are prepared to let Him in.