A mother recently reached out that she was struggling with how to approach Purim this year. Her son is in a residential treatment program for alcoholism. How can she appreciate the holiness of the day of Purim when all around her, she sees the lurking danger of excessive drinking?
She is right to be concerned. But the problem is not Purim.
Alcoholism is a leading cause of death in the United States; more than 140,000 people die each year from alcoholism, and the number is growing. This is more than car accidents, suicides, and firearm-related deaths combined. Double the number of people die from alcoholism than from drug addiction. And yet many glorify its use. There are l’chaim selfies, people posting their liquor collections erev Shabbos on Linkedin, and alcohol-themed Purim parties. Many of our children are intimately familiar with the pricing structures of Glenlivet in relation to the number of years the bottle was aged. Centerpieces in homes contain gloriously displayed wines and cork collections. (Not even getting started on the Tequila craziness in some circles).
Substance use disorders are a rising epidemic worldwide, not only in Jewish communities. To anyone troubled by excessive drinking, it is crucial to realize that Purim is not the problem. Alcoholism and addiction are. Even if we as a community were able to avoid all unhealthy drinking on Purim, it would be only a superficial victory against a far-reaching problem more cunning and chronic than a one-day phenomenon. Alcohol addiction is an insidious disease that slowly and painfully unravels families, careers, and dreams.
Yet there is hope. Recovery is within reach for anyone struggling with addiction. Treatment centers, addiction therapists, support groups, and recovery communities, (both within and without frum communities), are filled with people overflowing with heart and soul standing by to help.
As science advances, we understand more & more of the biology of addiction and the traumas that lead to dependencies on substances. The industry, in response, is moving away from the phrase “Substance Abuse” to the more accurate term Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
Yet there is a profound idea in the phrase “Substance Abuse”. It’s an abuse of the quest for substance. We all are searching for meaning in our lives. But it’s an abuse of the search to feel connected and relieve your inner yearning through something external to you. Serenity, contentment, and equanimity are found within you, not from without. Recovery (and Teshuvah for all sense and purposes) is to find your inner substance.
The Gemara explains that Mordechai’s name is a portmanteau of the words mera dachya, a fragrant essential oil used in the Mishkan. (As an aside, portmanteau is my new favorite word). Esther’s original name “Hadassah” (myrtle) similarly connotes a pleasant smell. On a deep level, scent is the most accurate of the senses to detect something authentic. Spoiled and fresh milk both look and feel the same- but a quick whiff will take you past the external layer. It is perhaps why we dress up in costumes on Purim, to emphasize that externalities are all superficial; true purpose and meaning need to be found inside you.
To anyone struggling with and encountering addiction, your pain is unimaginable. The struggle of the addict is not in their reliance on the drug or alcohol, but to find relief from the pain they are experiencing in this alma d’shikra. From the pain of losing hope. From the pain of knowing there is so much more to living than materialistic indulgences. From the pain of shame and guilt.
Recovery starts with finding your inner substance. May we all experience inner transformation and growth this Purim in a way that inspires, heals, and sanctifies ourselves and those around us.