I Love You and Nothing You Do Can Change That

Rabbi Akiva told me, this is a major rule in the Torah: love your friend as [you love] yourself.     — Leviticus19:18 Rashi added, of course the person has to be worthy. Menachem Mendel of Vorki, added, go beyond the love of others, extend it to yourself, love yourself more. Ramban contributed this: it’s exaggerated language. So exaggerate it to yourself. Love yourself. If you can’t, let the group love you. Let the group love you until you can love yourself.Behold another teaching that pertains to the group that meets every Thursday night and in the group are mostly recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. The group has been meeting, with some interruptions, since 1981. In 1981, I came to St. Louis and waiting for me was Rose Mass, who was putting together a program to help Jews get sober and stay sober. We called it SLICHA, the St. Louis Information Committee and Hotline on Addiction. It was a radical effort in those days. Rose hung out a shingle and began seeing families as a therapist. She knew that our people were way behind on recovery, we were about even with incidence of alcoholism. Our obstacle was the shonda factor, the great shame associated with alcohol and other substance abuse among Jews. A social control that may once have protected us from the problem became an obstacle to accessing proven paths of recovery. All we had to do was start talking about it. I spoke about it from the pulpit. Rose and I convened a monthly informational meeting that we advertised and held in the Chai building where the program, now called Shalvah, presently meets. Denial, the shonda factor, was a great hindrance to asking for help. We had to be patient. We met for about a year, Rose and I, perfecting our presentation by giving it to each other. After about a year, the gates opened and a flood of people started coming, asking for help and they’re coming still. I imagine a thousand people have been through our doors over the years. What is it we offer? A community of understanding, support I guess it’s called, from people who have been there who really understand the problem and are driven to return something of what they have been given. Who supports us? We support ourselves. That’s always the point. It works like any of the Anonymous groups, we practice acceptance and surrender and we love each other well. We also don’t take any stuff; it’s hard to kid the kidders. We know better. We teach responsibility and the necessity to get well one step at a time, one day at a time. We teach a spiritual healing, from the inside out, a personal transformation that eclipses the problem. We do not judge. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew and that’s what we teach. We teach recovery, repair, restoration, from the inside out. We teach a personal relationship with G*d of individual understanding. I love you, says your G*d, and nothing can change that. Shalvah meets every Thursday night, 7 – 8 PM, at Congregation Neve Shalom, in the Chai Building, #6 Millstone Campus Drive, Suite 3050, 63146. As always, confidentiality will be well...

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The Hunger That Isn’t Physical

I will be teaching about addiction at a seminary for future Christian clergy. They have asked me to come and teach because I’ve been a vessel for this wisdom since 1981 when Rose Mass and I started a group called SLICHA, St. Louis Information Committee and Hotline on Addiction.   Rose was a newly minted social worker in private practice who decided it was time for the Jewish world in St. Louis to wake up to the problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse. Jewish lives were at stake. There was a huge shonda [shame] factor involved with drug and alcohol abuse for Jews in those days; not us, we don’t have those kinds of problems. We did and do have those kind of problems and at one time that shonda factor insulated us, protected us, but it came to interfere with accessing proven paths of recovery. Rose was a pioneer. We started opening doors to getting well by being public about such problems in the Jewish world.   Rose and I were a good team in those early years, the beginning of the Eighties. We secured a room in the Covenant House complex and held open monthly meetings. Nobody came for a year. I knew we were doing the right thing. Denial is a powerful impediment; nobody came so Rose and I gave our presentation on alcohol and drug abuse and recovery to each other. We got good at it.   After about a year, people started coming. They came a lot and they’re still coming. Now the group is called Shalvah [Hebrew for serenity]. Rose is retired and she joins me now and again at the meeting. I welcome her like the visionary wise shamanic healer she is. Shalvah meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom and miracles happen there, lives saved, sometimes lives lost. It’s serious.   What will I teach the students at the seminary? I will teach them that addiction is their business because all problems with substances are at root spiritual problems. It’s not about substances; it’s about personalities that become attached to substances. It’s about an emptiness within.   There is an emptiness inside of the addict, a cavern; there are not enough substances to fill that space. This space is vacant for want of depth, for want of spirit, for meaning. I will quote Deuteronomy 8:3: So G-d afflicted you and made you hungry . . .in order to make you know that not by bread alone do human beings live, but by everything that issues from the mouth of G-d do human beings live.   I will teach them that this emptiness is not hungry for bread; this space is hungry for meaningfulness, for significance, for G-dliness.   I might close with this:   You can’t eat enough, you can’t drink enough, you can’t love enough to satisfy a hunger that isn’t physical. I may quote the Psalms: My soul thirsts for G-d, the living G-d” (Psalm 42:3). That’s the only remedy, the enduring remedy, the perennial wisdom.   I’ll probably close with Deuteronomy (8:10): You will eat but you will be satisfied only when you bless G-d. I think the seminarians will probably understand what I’m talking...

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Every Single Thing

I missed my man. I missed my man. Damn, I missed him. I came yesterday at the appointed time but – it’s jail – he was being transferred from one floor to another, who knows what that means, “it’ll be a half an hour.” It’s jail and a half an hour that’s at least an hour and I had a student in an hour. Should I wait, should I wait. . . What if I come back tomorrow? What would be a good time? Come in the morning. That’s the best time. I came the next morning. Gone. They took him to the Big House, DOC, he had been transferred 6 AM that morning to the Department of Corrections. I missed him. Gee I felt bad. It’s not that he hasn’t had visitors, it’s just that I felt that as an emissary of the group, it would be good and proper that I send him off with the right message. I would see him soon enough. I have official access through the Department of Corrections as chaplain for Jewish Prison Outreach so I can see him wherever he lands, he knows this, still – It’s the group I was representing. He has been an integral part of the group for at least a year, all of us had witnessed the transformation in him, the emergence from a troubled drug addicted confused young guy who committed a serious crime to a sober, loving, giving, helpful to others fully functioning member of our Shalvah recovery support group. A guy who gave and received a load of love in the time he joined us. The last meeting he attended, before he went to prison, he spoke about the chaos that had erupted in his life after almost a year of quiet, salvational sobriety. He had relapsed his sobriety, he had lost his lodgings, he was in a rough spot and he thought that maybe he would go to prison sooner than he was scheduled to go. He was scheduled to surrender himself to begin his sentence in April; he wondered whether his freedom would be revoked and if he would enter that part of the system sooner. He did. He was off to begin a ten-year sentence. Ten years. That’s a long time when you’re not yet thirty years old. At that last meeting, he waited and sat and talked with a seventeen year old kid, a high school senior, who was with us for his first meeting after treatment. My man sat and spoke with him, I heard him say: you don’t have to go the road I went. You can change everything, every single thing, from now on. And that’s what it will take. I did it halfway and look what happened to me. Go all the way with your sobriety, start now. Rigorous and thorough. No half-stepping. It starts now. That’s that message my man left with that frightened little boy in a big boy’s body who came to his first meeting, my man’s last meeting before he went away to prison for eight years some months before he is eligible for parole. So much in this story: the wonder and the danger of what we do on Thursday nights to keep each other clean and sober, the miracles...

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Becoming Obsolete

I am not a good shopper. I buy fast and intuitively. I don’t compare prices. I have no idea how much is too much to pay for a pair of black shoes, for example, yet I know right away what I like and what I don’t like. I am a speed shopper. I can buy more in a shorter time than anyone I know. Schnucks is, of course, my best arena but I am fast everywhere. The bad news is that I am sometimes undiscriminating. I recently cleaned out my closest and discovered that I owned three pairs of the same black shoes. I liked them so much I bought them three times and didn’t realize it until I cleaned out my closest. This became a big joke in my house.   I took one of those pairs of black shoes to the shoe repair man I frequent. I usually take my cowboy boots to him; I can tell he enjoys the boots I take to him, a secret shared pride in extremes. But this time I took him one of the three, a pair of nice, but rather plain, black shoes. Actually, I took two pairs of shoes, one black, one not. I would be ashamed to take even two pairs of the same black shoes to the shoe repair man, which is something like the shame one might feel in ordering a gallon of drinks from the bartender. Surely the bartender is not in the shame business. Neither is the shoe repair man, I imagine, but still, I would never take two pairs of the same black shoes to be repaired. This is my own sinister secret: I own three pairs of the same black shoes. Who would not appreciate that if not the shoe repair man?   I often wonder how the shoe repair man stays in business. I know he must pay a good rent for his little shop. I love his shop because it is old and dusty and full of beautiful obsolete machines; one in particular, a great, huge, beast of a machine from another era when shoes were not disposable. Surely such machines cannot be repaired. As a matter of fact, I asked him once about the machine. “Oh, I just use it now to hold the shoes while I fix them by hand. I don’t even turn it on.”   “Can it be repaired, the machine?”   “No,” he said, “the company that made this machine is long gone. It would cost me too much to haul it out of here so it stays.”   It is a beautiful machine. It reminds me of the obsolete cappuccino making machines made out of copper that I saw in Italy. Great beasts of machines designed to do something specific but simple, replaced nowadays by throw-aways.   The shoe repair shop also reminds me of my father’s shop, where he sold children’s clothes. He and all the Jewish merchants on his street operated the same way, and the merchants were all Jewish. In every location he occupied, and my grandfather, and all my uncles, all streets in quiet neighborhoods generally without Jews served by stores run entirely by Jews.   My father also had some beautiful machines in the back, one in particular that...

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Learning from Tragedy

I heard it on the radio. As the day wore on, more information, a lot of it false. The name of the brother of the shooter confused with the shooter, the numbers, etc. Something big and unthinkable but too soon to know, pushing time on the radio. By 2 PM, the numbers were close to finalized. The story: I stopped in a coffeehouse, called an end to my day, sat at a table and put my head down. I remembered the words of a great rebbe of a previous generation, when asked about the unmentionable horror he himself experienced during the War, put his head down on the table and cried. I know the first response to grief is pre-lingual, pre-conceptual, before words. I tried to push everything out of my mind. After a few hours I began to feel myself slipping into the drain of unspeakable sadness that Newtown, Connecticut, was coming to mean, sucked down into it, as if the whole country was tipped eastward. If we let ourselves we might slide on a river of tears down the drain of darkness to that grade school that went up to the fourth grade in that little town. I didn’t want to think anything; I honored the dead and the living dead with silence and the pieces of my heart inclining eastward. It was getting close to time to go to prayers for evening. I didn’t hold the prayers in the designated prayer space, I held them around a table lit only by the candles of both the Hanukkah menorah and the Shabbes licht, seventh night, ten candles all together. We made the melodies the same but differently. Everything was the same but different. Day 2: December 15 A strange ritual from Deuteronomy 21 popped into my head, something I hadn’t thought of in a long time and unexpected. Someone is found killed. They go to the nearest town and bring the priests and the elders from the town to a wild place. The elders of that town and the priests make a ritual sacrifice, they axe a calf called eglah arufah, they wash their hands and say about the crime: we didn’t do this. Rashi the poet asks: who would imagine they had anything to do with it? These, the elders and spiritual centers of the community in proximity. The ritual teaches this dramatic idea: everyone is implicated in such horrors. Who is not involved? It’s the culture it’s the culture. It’s all of us and it’s everything. From there I thought of a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I think from The Prophets and the first prophet he deals with Amos. I feel still so raw and spontaneous that for the sake of this writing I’m not going to look it up; I remember it this way: some are guilty, all are responsible. I took all this to the prayer space with me this morning and talked it some; we ended with T who said, enough talk, I am feeling it and he broke off with tears and we all sat with our tears for a moment and we leaned eastward, planted ourselves and sat in our silence until it was time to go home. Day 3: December 16 I found some quiet that weekend...

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Sleepful

I just heard from the AP that there is a cease-fire, beginning in one hour, 1 PM Central time as I am writing this, 9 PM Israel. I can sleep now. I have been sleepless these seven days (?) of active fighting and only this: I write through. I wrote a series of poems and the last in the series were, of course, the best. Straight from the under-world and unedited through they arrived in couplet or tercet forms, more musical than the others and to my surprise, more symmetrical. As if they had been crafted. They were the least crafted.   I am exhausted. I didn’t choose sleeplessness; sleeplessness chose me. As soon as this conflict began, I stopped sleeping. Something similar happened in the 2008 conflict. With that event, it was a midnight deadline and the watch on television that destroyed my equanimity and cancelled my sleep. I wrote through that too.   I don’t go sleepless over our own wars here in my own country, but the obscenity is I don’t know anyone at war in my country. So wrong that. We are in the middle of a bundle of wars and I don’t know a single person deployed.   But it’s a citizen’s army in Israel; almost everyone is eligible to serve in some way or another. Also, it’s a small country and I know plenty of people in range of Hamas rocketry out of Gaza.   It’s not theoretical for me this war half way around the world; but I don’t serve and I don’t feel inclined to critique and opine. I just suffer. And so I do not sleep.   It’s an obscenity to sleep when you’re watching real-time war on television, to listen to journalists with laundered shirts bringing us the war almost as if they were combatants. They are watching and showing it to us; now we are watching.   I would prefer watching a round table of intellectuals, philosophers, artists, and prophets speaking over tea in a safe house thinking talking imagining all of us into the next stage of peace-making, people who really think and create independently, than watch the handsome commentationists who bring us war in flat screen precision. I can’t bear it.   So I am sleepless. Thank G*d this time it was only seven days. Was it seven days? I’ve offered up twelve or thirteen poems in this series, they began to escalate towards the end. I started out with one a day at midnight and in my computer are a bunch more I elected not to include in the series.   I call the series Sleepless, maybe Sleepless for Peace, but the latter has too much intention in it. It’s just sleepless.   The last thing I did before I went to sleep: I changed the last couplet in the last poem I wrote in the series, to this:   We could die to ourselves And be reborn in each other.   You may see the whole series on my blog:...

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