The Manischewitz at my family’s Passover table left a bad taste in my mouth.
By the time I was a teenager, I knew I didn’t want it, the jarred gelatinous fish lumps, the giant crackers or any other part of Judaism in my life anymore.
Insert decade of drinking and drugs here. I searched, I found, I expanded my social circles and consciousness. The highs felt great but inevitably gave way to a descent of tragic lows. I hit the snooze button on any wake-up calls to change my life. I realized that there was something different about being Jewish. I needed to find out what it was.
Insert decade of Torah observance here. I chose to quit drugs. It was hard but necessary; they were getting in the way of a genuine connection to my Creator. However, alcohol remained a staple in my life. After all, drinking is a ubiquitous part of Yiddishkeit: vorts, chassonas, sheva brochas, shalom zachors, kiddushes, farbrengens, seudas mitzvos. (Don’t forget Purim.) There’s no shortage of simchas worth celebrating with a “L’chaim.” Or three.
Despite my childhood misunderstanding, I learned that Pesach is a profound pillar of our existence. For generations, our families have gathered to pass on our history through the seder and its Haggadah. Inherent to this transmission are the arba cosos – the four cups of wine.
But what if you can’t drink?
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with having bipolar disorder. It was a shock but explained a lot. I discovered that many people suffering from bipolar often use substances to self-medicate. Those with both addictions and mental illness are called “co-occurring” or have “dual diagnosis.” Of course that was irrelevant to me since I wasn’t addict; after all, I’d quit drugs on my own long ago and never needed rehab.
When Purim came around, I asked my psychiatrist how to avoid any harmful interactions between drinking and my medications. She said, “Don’t drink.” I didn’t listen. While I got through Purim without any bad side effects, I was was encouraged to take an AA test, only to find I was a qualified alcoholic. Major reframe. I learned that substances and mental illnesses aggravate each other and must be treated simultaneously. I needed to immediately quit drinking and start counting. (As in, “My name is Ploni Almoni and I’ve been sober for 9 days”).
The yetzer hara had pulled a fast one on me. All those years of celebrating simchas were really sabotaging my personal well-being. I had been deluding myself that I could never possibly be considered a “recovering addict.” I struggled to find loopholes, as if the rules were different for me because I’m an observant Jew. But no religious dispensations were allowed. This was for real.
Addiction was enslaving me, and I never even knew it. Now I’m experiencing a whole new redemption and it’s scary. Going dry feels like being led into a desert where I don’t know what will be. What will I do without alcohol? What will take its place? What strengths or weaknesses will be revealed? What if I relapse?
I’m admittedly anxious about how the sedarim will go. I really look forward to the four cups of wine. With them, our sages instituted the opportunity to literally lift our spirits, climbing the seder’s 15 steps with increasing levels of spiritual clarity. I’m afraid I’m going to miss out on that. Without getting shikered, will “nirtzah” feel more like a “tirchah?”
Sefer Vayikra explores the sacrifices Jews bring to the Mishkan. The root of the word korban means “to come close.” What we give up and offer to Hashem is our means to connect to Him. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the connection. This is how a Jew grows. When I chose Torah, I gave up delicious non-kosher food and fun plans for Friday nights. I gave up drugs and all other vices. Now I have a new korban to offer Hashem. I want to serve Him with a healthier and clearer mind.
This is my new Korban and I offer it up with all of my heart.