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Shavuot Lessons from Addiction Recovery

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

On Shavuot, as we celebrate our nations’ acceptance of the Torah once again, one may wonder why this Holiday is necessary to begin with:

Have we not already received the Torah?

Why do we recall Matan Torah again year after year?

Through working with individuals in addiction recovery, we have gained a new understanding of the value of ongoing re-dedication, and to what it looks like to authentically live and breathe one’s set of core spiritual principles. Here are 3 lessons that we have gleaned from working with those in treatment/recovery that can be carried into this Holiday:

1. ‘Accepting the Torah’ Happens From the Inside Out

Those in recovery understand the benefit of experiencing a “psychic change.” A deeply internal and transformative shift in the way one perceives and approaches life. After the escape into addiction, the process of recovery is essentially one long lesson in exploring, examining, and building one’s internal life. And along this journey, many tap into and experience a deepened sense of spirituality. And it is often this strengthened spirituality that becomes the very cornerstone of so many of our clients' long-term sobriety.

As stated in the Big Book of AA, "The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives.”

As painful as addiction is, many have shared that the gift of recovery is being led to internalize their inner guiding principles, values, and connection with God in such a profoundly real and genuine way.

In working with people struggling with substance use in the Jewish community, it is evident that treatment and recovery provides a fertile space in which to work through the barriers that have stood between them and an internally driven spiritual connection. Negative religious experiences and associations, unresolved existential questions and doubts, disconnection from one’s self and others, and the list goes on...

Our clients don't decide to become addicts. Rather our clients are trying to cope with life by seeking to alter their physical, mental and emotional states. As they fall deeper into the abyss of addiction, as they focus more and more on external things to help alter their state of mind, they become less and less attune to what's happening for them internally.

Clients in the throes of active addiction have lost their core sense of selves. Through recovery, clients begin to muster unbelievable superhuman courage and begin leaning into the present. They learn how to sit through discomfort and become truly attune to their internal lives. Recovery involves an introspective process which calls upon a person to examine his or her values and goals in all domains, as well as identify blocks to experiencing a meaningful relationship with one’s Higher Power.

And along this process of melting away the layers, many come to experience a deeply personal “Kabbalat Torah” of their own. While some find their way (or way back) to traditional religious practices, and others carve their own paths, one thing is abundantly clear: the rigorous introspective process of recovery often leads to a heightened, unrestrained spiritual connection and focus. One that is deeply personal and that emerges from within.

As Ellie Forman, Prevention Outreach Coordinator for CCSA so poignantly shared,

"When I got sober for the first time and started going to AA meetings, people told me, "You need to believe in something bigger than yourself. It doesn't matter what your higher power is, but it has to be something." For somebody who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community, I thought it would be easy to believe in something. I grew up learning Torah after all, understood what Emunah or faith meant (in a general sense at least), and understood the concept of service for G-d. After a few relapses and some failed attempts at a "spiritual awakening" (that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous calls for), I realized it was going to be more difficult than I originally assumed."

On Shavuot, as we celebrate our own acceptance of a guiding set of principles and values, and as we recall the deep bond that we have established with our Higher Power, lets take a moment to “take inventory” of what these values are and how we can more meaningfully and deeply embody them.

2. ‘Accepting’ the Torah is an Ongoing Process

When describing Ma’amad Har Sinai (the Jews standing at Mount Sinai), the words of the Torah are purposefully vague as to what day Am Yisrael actually received the Torah. Rashi comments on this, “Why does the pasuk (sentence) simply say: ‘on this day’? It comes to teach us that the words of the Torah should be considered new to you – as though they were given today!”

Essentially, the message of Matan Torah is that it is one that is supposed to be renewed constantly, something we strive to represent with our annual celebration of Shavuot.

Taking a step back, one might wonder what it means to "accept the Torah" again each year? Haven’t we done so already? Observing those in recovery, it becomes evident that authentically living by one’s core spiritual principles takes ongoing reflection, commitment, and work: "Faith has to work twenty fours a day in and through us, or we perish" (AA).

As one Jewish woman in recovery shared,

"What I've learned through revamping my spiritual life in recovery is that I am required to realign my connection with my higher power every single spiritual connection is a tool that I need to sharpen every day - a tool that enables me to show up to the world as the best version of myself, ready to serve and assist where Hashem may see fit."

On Shavuot as we celebrate Matan Torah, let us remember that acceptance of principles and spirituality is not a “one and done” – it’s an ongoing practice, one that requires renewal and authentic connection.

3. Matan Torah is for Each and Every One of us

On Shavuot we celebrate the highly personalized, deeply intimate, authentic bond directly with our Creator. At Mount Sinai, God did not just reveal Himself to the “elites” or the clergy, but to each and every individual. There are some communities that have a custom of bringing a flower canopy into the Synagogue on this Holiday, symbolizing that our bond parallels the intimate relationship of marriage.

This personalized relationship is something we see in recovery each and every day with our clients.

Many come into treatment struggling to make sense of complex questions regarding faith, religion, and community. Through the process of recovery, people often rediscover their Higher Power and invite Him into their lives in a most deeply personal, intimate way. This relationship becomes the cornerstone of not only their recovery but of their entire sense of being.

I remember working with an Iraqi war veteran who described what his PTSD flashbacks felt like. I vividly recall how he described this feeling as if his faith was being robbed from him and when he felt like he was losing his faith, a darkness would descend upon him, a thick, heavy, tangible, depression mixed with images of the horrors of war. For this client, faith was not only the bedrock of his recovery, faith allowed him to function in a world that didn’t always make sense.

As one Jewish individual in recovery so poignantly shared:

“My relationship with my higher power today isn't the same as the relationship I had with Hashem growing up. In some ways, it's similar...but in many more ways, it has evolved into something beautiful.”

“At the core of this mindset shift is Hashem, G-d, my Higher Power. My relationship is in constant motion with this Power, but the most important thing is that it remains authentic and connected. Without that, I'm left defenseless against the first drink, against selfish thinking, and against the world."

Sit in a therapy group or session in rehab, 12-step meeting, or recovery fellowship and you will find people rediscovering personal values and sense of identity. You will find people actively pursuing deeper connection with themselves, others, and their Higher Power.

People discovering what their spiritual lives and core beliefs mean to them on the most intimate, personal level. People who have recalibrated from a life of distraction and escape and returned back to their authentic selves. And in doing so, have opened up to “receiving” and “accepting” their inner guidebooks for life within every nook and cranny of themselves.

As we enter into Shavuot, let us learn from and be inspired by those in recovery, who so powerfully model the value of consistently reviewing and internalizing a core set of deeper values , and of strengthening one’s relationship with a Higher Power in a most personal way.


Devora Shabtai LCSW, PhD candidate is Vice President of Clinical Development at Onward Living, an addiction rehabilitation program designed to meet the needs of Jewish men in recovery. Devora lives in Boca Raton with her husband and daughters.

Nate Nagelblatt LCSW is a Primary Therapist and the Clinical Outreach Liaison for Recovery at the Crossroads; a kosher inpatient treatment facility in the Tri-State area. Recovery at the Crossroads is a licensed Co-occurring treatment facility which offers partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs with a specialized trauma-informed track. Nate lives with his wife and two boys in NJ.


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