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A Personal High Holiday Recovery Perspective 5782/2021

When I was growing up, Succos was always fun. We were outdoors, ran around, and didn’t have to worry about spilling anything. Before that holiday of freedom, though, we had the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av, which was a deep, sad, dark period of reflection and fasting. Then, watch out! Rosh Hashanah is coming!! But wait, there’s more...Yom Kippur – more reflection and more fasting...

The Fear of Introspection

I experienced Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a lot of fear. In school, in Shul, and during everyday discussion.

"I was taught was that on Rosh Hashanah we ‘should tremble in fear' as we were being judged and during the Shofar blasts. On Yom Kippur we then cried, read a list of our sins, and banged our hearts in desperation..."

I had no idea what most of the list meant, nor what those sins were all about – but yes sir! I followed what I was told to do, read them, banged my chest, and cried away.

We spent crazy hours in Shul, somberly reflecting on our attitudes. After all, we were being judged for life or death. We read stories of our Sainted Rabbis being killed and tortured; we were told to carefully watch our actions because they indicated what the rest of the year would hold for us.

For me, it became a time of negative and unprogressive self-reflection. I was never able to experience ‘trembling in fear’ when listening to the Shofar, unless it was a fake, self-created emotionalism. I would literally stand hours in prayer, wrapped in my Tallis, cloaked in shame and guilt, crying about all the sinful things I had done the previous year(s) and sensing that there nothing was ever going to change.

Hopelessness Turned Into Questioning...

Sticking my head in a Gemarah and walking through these emotions did not work as I was told it would. I felt hopeless. Sorry, folks, but this did not feel like a Joyful Holiday.

Growing up, I also had a naïve outlook about what Judaism entailed. To me, it had promised peace, serenity, emotionally healthy families, and prosperity, amongst other things. Yet, all that became a lie when I was 14 and my parents got divorced.

Fast forward past the insanity of my substance use, and here I am in recovery. I now bring all this “stuff” to the table as I am dealing with the same High Holidays and having to face G-d in the same way - but this time, sober.

Sobriety gave me an open mindedness that produced more questions than answers:

Are all these rituals really handed down by a Loving G-d? If the things I used to do didn’t allow me to reach those promised levels of piety, what else was I supposed to do? Did I understand them correctly? Did I misunderstand the correct recipe? Is it possible, that for an alcoholic the understanding and practices may be different than what others need to do?

"One of the best things about sobriety is that my mind was no longer in a constant fog. Recovery graced me with a newly open channel to begin understanding the High Holidays differently. It was, however, and continues to be a slow process."

The questions didn't stop coming. I now need to take a look at myself in a new way. Which of my behaviors cause me emotional pain? Almost as important, am I really able to be honest about them? And, most importantly, can I accept myself, realizing that I am not perfect and continue working towards positive change?

I think one of the best things that came out of this was me seeing and acknowledging my shortcomings.

...And Questioning Turned Into Hope

Perkei Avos talks about us not being able to walk without G-d’s help. It is ok to not always know the answers. It is okay to ask for help - ask for G-d's help!

"In recovery, I need to “plug-in” daily and ask G-d to help me stay sober. I can accomplish that in different ways: I can follow Jewish ritual, or I can pray in my own words; I can focus on all that I am grateful for and stop doing things that are hurtful to others; I can be loving and giving. I can get out my own way."

My recovery was not composed of white light, one-time moments. It was questions I asked myself on a daily basis, and a renewal of connectedness and selflessness.

Truth be told, I don’t have to do any of this questioning or seeking, nor am I forced to. The blessing is that I get to do this work! It is a privilege to be able to take the worst of my attitudes and behaviors and help others. It is sacred work. I get the opportunity to strive and work against the negativity that tends to run my rampant in my attitudes and actions.

Anger, fear, resentment, self-pity, self-centeredness, and dishonesty are trademarks of an alcoholic. Almost the exact same as without an addiction. Except, as Rabbi Abe Twerski told me on multiple occasions:

“The only difference between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic is that an alcoholic is much more sensitive than a non-alcoholic. We feel more deeply, love more deeply, hate more deeply.” He also added that he didn’t like being around people that can’t feel deeply.

The Beauty in a "Maybe" Experience

I think then, that what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about is that we, alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike, get to experience a “maybe” process.

"Maybe, we have an opportunity to stop for a small period of time and sit with our peers to reflect about our lives. Maybe, we can invite G-d in as a partner in our lives. Maybe, we can take a look at our fears that have propelled us into sometimes unhealthy actions. Maybe, it is a perfect time to reevaluate what we are doing."

Maybe, that “Yom Kippur list of sins” is more about our attitudes and behaviors that cause us to be hurtful to the people we are closest with. Maybe, our job is to work at trying to rid ourselves of judgment and gossip.

Maybe, it’s time to begin to understand that we are all only human beings who are imperfect, frail, fearful, vulnerable and mistake-ridden. Maybe, we can begin to do trust exercises a little more instead of worry exercises. Maybe, we can see that change is very possible. Maybe, with that change comes the greatest gift we can ever have: hope.

If we can progress to even a small baby-steps forward, I believe we can achieve T'shuvah and a year free of worry, fear, anxiety, and unease. Then, maybe we can fully celebrate, have joy, freedom, and fun in a couple of weeks as we enter the Succah.

Wishing everyone a Healthy, Happy, Joyous, Prosperous, Introspective, Sweet Shana Tova!!


Arnie Goldfein, has been in the “Jewish” recovery world for close to 35 years and is in a unique position to understand the feelings of stigma, hopelessness, remorse, shame, guilt, and fear associated with Substance Use Disorder. He has served as President of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Person and Significant Others), a program of the Jewish Board of Families & Children’s Services, for over 7 years, and subsequently as Co-Executive Director of Rodfei Shalom, Inc. As a NYS Certified Peer Advocate Recovery Specialist (CPRC) he has helped hundreds of people to get their lives back on track to live a long-term, self-sustained, healthy life.

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