Drugs – Strange Fire


The Ecstasy of Politics

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for speaking to me the other day. Your encouraging words were truly helpful to me in my detox process. As I shared with you, I was one of those wayward teenagers who began using alcohol and drugs recreationally – as a social thing, bored and looking for fun. Then I became more and more dependent on them until I turned into a full blown addict. Procuring a drug became my daily and nightly obsession. I lied, stole money, betrayed people I loved and those that loved me – anything to get my high.

Even with my life completely out of control, I could not get out of my trap until I did some real irreversible damage which I could no longer ignore (as I shared with you, and would rather not put it into writing). Only then, when I hit “rock bottom,” did I began reaching for help.

After years, literally years of rehab, I am just beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

My question to you is this: Beyond the addictive, destructive and unhealthy effects of substance abuse, is there any thing wrong with achieving a high through foreign substances? In other words: if drugs and alcohol would not have any adverse effects would the Torah have a problem with their use to reach a spiritual high?

I know that this question may seem trivial compared to my dreadful experiences. It may even seem as if I am trying to find some justification for their use. I assure you that this not the case. But it does intrigue me to understand the nature of the high induced by drugs, and if it can play a role, when used properly (if that is even possible), in achieving transcendence?

I appreciate your help, your vote of confidence and above all your contagious hope that gives me strength to continue my fight.

David [name changed]


Dear David,

Beyond the personal words of encouragement… I first hesitated to reply to your question, precisely because it seems completely out of place. You of all people know the horrible abyss of drug addiction. So why bring up even a slight consideration as to the possible benefits of an induced state of altered consciousness?

But then I reconsidered and realized that many others may have the same question. Additionally, it seems important to discuss not just the symptoms, but the actual roots of addiction.

You may be surprised to know that your question is directly addressed in no other place than the Bible itself. Yes, long before the plague of substance abuse in our times, we have a precedent that clarifies for us this topic, as well as many other issues around the timeless search for spiritual transcendence.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion concludes a mysterious event that took place three chapters back:

After the Sanctuary was finished, the Torah tells us that the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu:

“Offered a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.”

The result:

“A fire went out from G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d.”

Now, in this week’s portion, following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G-d specifically commanded that their example should not be repeated:

“And G-d spoke to Moses, after the death of Aaron’s two sons, who came close to G-d and died… Speak to Aaron your brother, that he [be careful to] not come at all times into the Holy… so that he not die… [but] with this shall Aaron come into the holy place.” (Leviticus 16:1-2)

The Torah continues with the conditions how to enter the Holy of Holies. Rashi explains that this command comes immediately after the statement of the death of Aaron’s sons, to warn him that his service of G-d should not be like that of his sons.

What lies behind Nadav and Avihu’s actions? Did they behave properly or not? On one hand, they were clearly great men who “came close to G-d;” on the other hand, “they died” because they “offered a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” And G-d is warning Aaron not to behave like them.

And what is the meaning of the “strange fire” that they offered?

Above all, if Aaron’s sons behaved wrongly why is it important to document their sad story, which presents them in a negative light?

The key to the story lies in the word “fire.”

Fire is passion. All passion comes from the fire of the soul:

“The soul of man is the fire of G-d.”

Like a flame, a soul always reaches upward, licking the air in its search for transcendence, only to be restrained by the wick grounding the flame to the earth. The soul’s fire wants to defy the confines of life; the free spirit wants to soar ever higher, always reaching for the heavens.

Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate the mediocrity and monotony of the inanimate “wick” of materialism. Its passion knows no limits as it craves for the beyond.

But just like it can be the source of our greatest strength, the fire of the soul, like any fire, can also be the cause of great destruction.

Therein lays the story of Nadav and Avihu, two extraordinary souls:

When the holy Sanctuary was finished Aaron’s sons, deeply spiritual individuals, were drawn to enter the holiest sanctum on earth. They wanted to bask in the ecstasy of the Temple’s pure spirit.

Indeed, the behavior of Aaron’s two sons was not a sin; it was an act of great sanctification, as Moses tells Aaron immediately following the tragedy:

“This is what G-d spoke, saying: ‘I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me.’”

The sages explain: Moses said, “Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those who were beloved and close to G-d. When G-d said ‘I shall be sanctified by those close to Me,’ I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they – Nadav and Avihu – are greater then both of us.”

Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (the Ohr Hachaim) explains, that their death was:

“By Divine ‘kiss’ like that experienced by the perfectly righteous. Only [the problem was that] the righteous die when the Divine ‘kiss’ approaches them, while they died by their approaching it…. Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing near [to G-d] in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”

Nadav and Avihu’s death was a result of their profound yearning for a Divine experience. Their error was that they initiated it at their own discretion, and “selfishly” allowed the ecstasy to consume them. Their sin was not they got close to the Divine, but that they died doing so. In a sense, they wanted it too much, so much so that they rushed into the fire and got burned in the process. Their bodies could no longer contain their souls.

Thus the Torah says “when they came close to G-d and (with such passion that) they died.” Why does the Torah add “and they died” when it has already said, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron?” Although it is healthy to divest yourself of material concerns, at the moment when you stand poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, you must turn again to the work that the soul must do to transform the physical existence. Nadav and Avihu achieved the ecstasy but not the return. This was their sin and the reason for their death. They “came close to G-d and they died.” They allowed their spiritual passion override their task to transform the world. They escaped beyond the world and beyond life itself.

If their motivation was pure, driven by the fiery passion of the soul, why then was it called a “strange fire?”

Because even if their intention was a good one, it ultimately was driven by their personal desire, albeit a spiritual desire, but still defined by their subjective drives. It may have begun for Divine reasons, but they allowed it to become their own personal interest, mounting to a point of intensity that it destroyed them, thus rendering the “fire” into a “strange fire,” one which “He had not commanded.” They entered on their own terms, at their own pace, at their own choosing – not on G-d’s terms.

And this was the reason that they actually ended up dying in the process. Because the same G-d that imbued us with passionate souls also commanded us to use the passion not to expire in ecstasy and escape the universe, no matter how appealing that choice may be, but to channel the passion downward and transform the material world in which we live into a Divine home. This is the purpose of the Temple: “build me a sanctuary (out of physical materials) and I will rest among you.”

Thus, the ultimate test of Aaron’s sons’ intentions was their inability to integrate the experience: Had they patiently and humbly entered on Divine terms, they would have been able to integrate the experience into their lives and return to sanctify their world. Integration would have confirmed that they were doing it not for themselves but for the cause, for G-d. The fact that they allowed themselves to be consumed with their own spiritual fire, demonstrated that it was their “own thing,” not G-d’s, a strange fire not commanded.

Now, in this week’s Torah portion, “after the death of Aaron’s sons,” Aaron is warned not to enter the Holy of Holies like his sons did. Rather, “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place” – in awe, obedience and self-abnegation. And in this way he would be able to “make atonement for himself and for his house” on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and to say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel – acts of concern for the world.

In other words, the determining factor whether the soul’s fire will be a constructive or destructive force is dependent on the person’s motivation, how he begins his spiritual journey: If it’s a self indulgent experience, driven primarily by personal desire and interest, then you will not wish to turn back from your private ecstasy to the needs of the world, and the fire will inevitably consume you. If, however, it is driven by the selfless dedication and all-out surrender to the Divine, then within this ecstasy, the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world will always be implicit, and the fire will lift you and your world to exalted heights.

In the famous Talmudic story of the “four that entered the garden” (a mystical experience) only Rabbi Akiva began the journey with the proper attitude: He “entered in peace and (therefore) came out in peace.” Because he entered with humility, in obedience to the Divine will and seeking to unite the higher and lower worlds, that is why he came out in peace. His intention of returning was implicit at the outset of his path to religious ecstasy. While the other three – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and Acher – all entered for other reasons, which determined how they emerged. Ben Azzai entered seeking ecstasy, not return; therefore he “looked and died.” Ben Zoma “looked and was stricken” (with madness). Acher “mutilated the shoots” (i.e., became an apostate).

We are told the story of Aaron’s sons in order to teach us an invaluable lesson about our own life experiences:

Each of us contains a powerful soul, with fire in its belly. Each of us will, at one point or another, encounter spiritual opportunities; passionate moments which will entice and light up our fires, craving transcendence – the need to get beyond the daily grind. Transcendence can take on many shapes: Spirituality, music, romance, travel, or sexuality, to name a few.

How you act in these times – when the flames of your soul are ablaze – will define the destiny of your life.

This explains why this week’s portion is known by the name “after” or “after the death.” Why name a Torah portion with an odd title – “after the death?” Why emphasize their tragic death?

The Torah is telling us that the “death” of Aaron’s two sons – both the death itself, and “after the death” – teaches us a vital lesson, actually a twofold lesson:

1) The search and need for transcendence, the craving and yearning for a spiritual high is healthy and a necessary ingredient in the human journey. All man’s greatest achievements, his noblest acts, his deepest loves – draw from the soul’s passionate fire.

2) Yet, as with all powerful things, great care must be taken that the spiritual experience doesn’t “burn you up,” but is integrated in your life.

The fire of our souls, like any fire, can be the source of sustenance (healthy fire), or… an inferno (“strange fire”). The challenge is great. The choice is ours.

Therein lies the twofold positive lesson from the children of Aaron, both from their death and “after the death.”

Their death teaches us how not to enter the Holy of Holies uninvited, not to enter at our initiative, at any time we so choose, not to enter as a result of our personal desire; “after the death” teaches us how to enter – “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place” – with utmost humility, with sensitivity and above all, total immersing and sublimating yourself into the experience.

Let us now return to the issue of drugs and alcohol. The essential problem with inducing a (spiritual) high through foreign substances is threefold: 1) It is driven by personal desire, and therefore 2) you have not earned your right of entry, and 3) it will not be integrated into daily life. It will be an escape.

And this is precisely the reason why foreign substances are addictive and take control of your life. As their name implies, they and the altered states of consciousness they induce are foreign substances – a “strange fire” – which don’t belong to you. For a brief, but temporary moment they have the power to transport you to another place. But you don’t belong there and you have not earned your way. Having not paid your fare, the “strange fire” will come back to collect the debt: It will take control of your life until it consumes you.

By contrast, when you earn your right – through the arduous, selfless work of ego-nullification – then the emerging spirituality carries you to great heights.

The formula goes like this: Superficial experiences are just that – experiences that are felt with your sensory tools. Real experiences – love, truth, health, happiness, sexuality, spirituality – are the exact opposite: As soon as you sense them, as soon as become aware of yourself, your needs and your search – you lose the ability to “own” the experience.

Why? Because a real experience is not an experience; it is state of being. Health for example is not a verb, but a noun. It has no sensation. It just is. The same with true love: Love can manifest itself in the senses and be expressed through the senses; but love itself is not an action, but a condition, as is truth and all other inside-out realities.

Spirituality, the spiritual high, is a permanent state of being that lies beneath the surface of existence. The “container” can be artificially forced open with a “strange fire” (foreign substances), but only temporarily. No single act can be done to access the spiritual truths within; no magic can open up your soul. When you selflessly dedicate your life to a higher cause, when you transcend your ego and strip away the forces of material self-interest that impedes access to your soul within, then the spiritual will emerge. The operative word is emerge. You don’t create it, you don’t induce it, you don’t import it; you eliminate the weeds and the flower emerges.

When you try to take control, you lose control. When you let go, you begin to gain control. When you try to contain it, you lose it. When you let it free, it becomes yours.

The soul’s fire manifests in many ways. Perhaps its deepest expression is in the fires of love and sexuality. Like a fire, burning desire can be the root of our noblest acts, but also the source of our most decadent behavior. Sexuality as selfish drive, divorced of intimacy, brings us to the lowest depths; infused with sanctity, intimacy, commitment and integration, it lifts us to the our greatest heights, infusing us with the power to create – allowing us to enter the “Holy of Holies” close to G-d.

But this is paradoxically possible only when our burning desires are not driven solely by human needs. When they are, the same force is rendered into a destructive addiction.

All addictions are a result of a deep void demanding attention. The desperate search for passion will look for an outlet. If the spiritual thirst is not quenched in a healthy way, it will demand nourishment at all costs – even if it means self destructive methods.

Addiction by its very nature means profound dependency. Why would someone get addicted to anything? Why would we need something that badly that we should become addicted to it? True, this may be due to the actual substance itself. Some substances are chemically addictive; they have the power to stimulate and ultimately alter certain chemicals in the brain that creates a compulsive craving and uncontrollable dependence on that substance. But that still doesn’t explain why a particular individual allows him or herself to become addicted. What need is this substance induced altered state serving; what void is it filling?

Addiction demonstrates two things at once: A deep hunger, but the hunger is being sated with a force outside of yourself, trapping you, killing you. The solution is not to eliminate the need (by becoming a passive bore), but to relieve its pangs by feeding it with the surrender to the Divine.

The ultimate relief of the soul’s profound tension is bittul – humble submission to the world of spirit. The greater the soul’s hunger and passion, the more its need for selflessness.

The story of Aaron’s sons teaches us that the spiritual state fills the healthy human need for transcendence. But this healthy need can be filled in unhealthy ways, served by unhealthy tools; the desire can be pure, while the objective of the desire may not be, turning the flame into a firetrap.

From Aaron’s sons we learn why the Torah utterly rejects any induced state of altered consciousness. Besides for the obvious issues of health, addiction and complying with the law – all fundamental concerns in the Torah – the mere fact that one turns to a “strange fire” to access spirituality (even if the experience was in some ways genuine) reflects the abovementioned distortions: A yearning driven by self-interest, unearned, escapist and non-integrative.

Even when using healthy and natural methods and means to achieve spiritual highs, the key lies in your actual attitude and drive: If transcendence becomes another extension of yourself, and is driven by your need or desire to get high, then even if you use healthy methods, ultimately transcendence will elude you. Only when you realize that you have to let go – let go of your drives, needs and even hunger – then the spiritual high will emerge.

And then, its will also be an integrative experience instead of an escape. It will open you up to spiritual freedom, instead of becoming an addictive monkey on your back.

Ecstasy that is driven by human politics is politics not ecstasy; ethereal perhaps, but still man-made. Spirituality on human terms not on spiritual terms.

The fire of the soul is our greatest asset. The passion that burns in the unfettered spirit can overcome any challenge. Yet, our success in harnessing these powerful flames is in direct proportion to our humility and selflessness in appreciating them. And carefully protecting and nurturing these flames.

The question we must always ask is twofold:

Are my fires burning?

What will I do with these fires – will I indulge myself in them or will I allow them to lift me and the world around me to greater places?

* * *

Question of the Week: Do mind altering drugs help or impede the spiritual search?


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17 years ago

If mind altering drugs impeded the spiritual search, why would we make kiddush over wine? Of course we clearly do not make kiddush over cocaine or LSD. Did not the Rambam say we should be moderate?

Rabbi Craig Wyckoff
17 years ago

Rabbi while your response was enlightening I felt it was a little esoteric. You might simply have quoted Genesis 9:20 Noah debased himself by drinking the wine and becoming drunk! That pretty much says it all and answers Davids question –If we use drugs or alchohal to alter our perception then we debase ourselves in Gds eyes. Than you and Shabbot shalom. Rabbi Craig

David Lifschutz
17 years ago

The human brain is designed to enable one to achieve spiritual highs through natural means. Whatever external substance one can think of to attain a high has inherent risks involved. Alcohol in excess ravages the body and the brain, the very instrument one is attempting to attune height. Heroin puts its users in a stupor; Cocaine and amphetamines (which work similarly) cause paranoia and psychotic symptoms. Psychedelics can take one to strange/psychotic realms from which return may not ever occur. Attaining highs by natural means (yearning, prayer, tzedakah, mitzvot) does not expose one to the risks,and as Rabbi Jacobson pointed out, once one is tehre, it is not something to be sought but somethign one struggles to sustain by unselfish means.

17 years ago

While overall Rabbi Jacobson gave a beautiful answer with a lot of insight into the depths of the human soul and the causes behind drug abuse and addiction, there is one thing that seems have been mis-portrayed.
Drinking in Judaism is completely acceptable. Theres a passage somewhere about how wine lightens the heart and helps one rejoice in G-ds glory and its a Mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. More often than not, there is drinking at a Friday night oneg. All of this is done within certain contexts and confines, and certainly abuse is not acceptable.
Im confused about is how, or why, Rabbi Jacobson portrayed Judaisms view of alcohol consumption (and other drug consumption for that matter) they way he did, in light of the aforementioned customs to engage in drinking.

David Harold Chester
1 year ago
Reply to  Noah

I reckon I know why Noah deliberately became drunk after the flood was over and the animals and people were again able to populate the earth. It was because he was frustrated in the way these people were now behaving including his family. Noah must have felt that having seen the elimination of all evil and wrong-doing behavior due to the flood, it should have prevailed from that time and experience in the ark, but many persons continued to behave no differently!

So, all of Noah’s work in building the ark and caring for its inhabitants seemed to have been a huge, wasted effort. At least two of his sons showed him respect afterwards, but what about Ham?

John W McGinley
17 years ago

As someone who works in a drug and alcohol rehab — and, more
importantly, as someone who indulged in strange fire for many years in
an ego-cenrtric manner — your words, your article, was perfect.
Addicts ar people who Jewish or non-Jewish, are on a spiritual quest:
and precisely in the wrong way as your aritcle makes so very clear.
By the way, I was very much helped by JACS. Keep up the good work.

17 years ago

Hi Simon,

I really enjoyed this Torah of yours! In spite of the Times propaganda, it turns out that a poll taken a few years ago and reported in either Science or Physics Today (I think the former) reported that 40% of the scientist respondents believed in God. Among my personal scientist acquaintances, I can cite Professor Barry Simon, the IBM Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Cal Tech, who is devoutly observant (he used to wrote a column for the OU magazine, Action), and a friend, who goes to my Shabbos morning shiur that Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard gives and is one of the top mathematicians in the world. He is a professor at the Courant Institute at NYU, very modest, and I had to learn from others how esteemed he is in his field. Last year, at his 60th birthday, a festschrift was held, where eminent mathematicians from all over the world came to give talks all week long to honor him. So, the Times is just pushing its own point of view, among all the German-influenced secular Jews!

Respectfully, with much love.

17 years ago

Rabbi, so many words when in reality where is the math. Where is the time fields, where is physics, where is cause and effect in that which we cannot see, where does random and chaos not exist, where is the blueprint of the dna and how historically and that is not 3000 years but millions of years in the fission and fusion, selfish and selfless, where do the boundaries here fit into the selfish and selfless starting from the physical boundary up.

Why is mans nature repetitive despite all the words, what do other physical territories on the earth with different everything have to do with interpretations of what was 3000 years ago, why is Africa, Afghanistan and the life death cycle there so different than here in New York with all the words, where do jobs fit into mans negative nature, where does anachronism of job structure fit into necessary change for survival. Why are we talking what was and not what is in reference to man replacing the organic with a machine successfully or not, the speed we are dealing with now and toxicity of the earth and dna now.

What’s with the numbers as in more and more people needing protection slots that are positive when so many are negative and useless, as in money in your face now and spinning for it and finally the real numbers that control the ebb and flow of time and is the language of the real movement. If we that means all do not take part in restructuring over weighted capitol into jobs protection slots that do not sacrifice human life, don’t finish off the erosion of us and the earth, cure disease when we can and keep-it alive to absorb the paychecks and suffering becomes a form of human sacrifice, then the fission and fusion that moves and comes together as g-d like one entity will not be happen no matter how many words.

Message is the stamp not messenger. Messenger has not changed man at all; the dna cancels itself out in this dimension. Every few thousand years what is outside this earth puts us, all, not just Jews or all the other boundaries here, all to balance and now we have to deal with the numbers, speak, move money to ensure the sanctity of human life. Only jobs can accomplish this, out of oil, reading the dna to cure disease and supporting the earth to override damage. Talking 3000 years ago is not specific in collective action now. can we replace flesh, eyes, ears, vibratory mechanisms voice with this machine. and what about the electromagnetic fields around us. There is over weighted capitol in this ship and it has to be brought to center to create balance for higher definition humanism, we have to create jobs for this and remove those which clutter and reinforce lack of trust, fear, lack of protection and downright accomplishing nothing but stagnation.

Religions have not accomplished this for the en masse premium package dna on this earth. Now, the earth, sun, tides, and universe is demanding it. This is discussions we should have.

17 years ago

Rabbi Jacobson,

Thank you for a very comprehensive response; but I have a practical question.

What about alcohol? Its use is tolerated, advocated and sometimes required. Kiddush, Purim, Simchas Torah, farbregen, etc. I heard that the Rebbe said that until you are 40, one is limited to four drinks. So lets say that applies to every holiday or event. Why is that acceptable and other substance use in moderation is not?

If the answer is that alcohol is fine in moderation with the spiritual purpose of the holiday or event, then why not something else? Illegality is an issue, but lets assume it wasnt. Just to note, the drinking age is 21 yet I dont think the Torah requires us to use grape juice for kiddush until we turn of age.

And what about caffeine? Is a little coffee okay if it boosts our productivity temporarily? for work or learning Torah?
Im not advocating drug use and I mainly agree that its use is selfish even if a person has holy intentions. But if alcohol is acceptable (or even required) why not other substances?

17 years ago

Dear Simon

I dont know how much experience you have had with drugs (Ill bet you have taken some in the past week – eg coffee, tea, sugar, alchohol, tabacco, prescribed /legal drugs)

Whilst there may be something in what you say, and clearly the guy writing to you hs suffered from addiction to them, I have found them, in particular marijuana, to be very beneficial to me and I am constantly amazed when people (including teachers like yourselves) write/speak as if they know what is good/bad for everyone.

How could you possibly know even if you do have a lot of personal experience?

17 years ago


I have always kept the mitzvot, the commandments, out of fear, not out of love for G-d. I feared disappointing those people around me, whom I loved & cared for. I sought approval & affirmation.

During my active addiction, especially, I feared getting caught – I was paranoid & nervous. I was afraid of G-d. I disconnected myself from everyone & anyone for fear of their disapproval G-d included.

I was spiritually dead.
I was sentenced to rehabilitation.
My journey to freedom began.

I could not feel for a long time.
I felt lost, afraid, alone & scared.
I had lost all that was precious to me –family, children.
The desire to live.
My soul.
I knew they existed, but I couldn’t feel them – I rejected them.
Suicidal thoughts.
All I wanted was another line of cocaine or Pethadine to numb the pain.
I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t laugh.
Extremely dead.

At Crescent clinic, I struggled to do what I was told.
Wondering from lecture to lecture.
Eating everything in sight.
Unable to cry.
Searching for answers.
Blurting out any thought that came into my mind.


Who had I become?
Who was I?

I heard words like Higher Power, step work, Narcotics Anonymous, serenity, courage, wisdom & secondary care.
I couldn’t connect.
I couldn’t cry.
Wondering through my dessert of insanity, wanting so badly to escape – to go back to drugs, to all that I knew, my comfort zone world of using, of madness.
“You can check out any time you like – but you can never leave”.

The day I davened (prayed) at Crescent Clinic, early in the morning, was the day I felt something real for the first time in a very long time.
A touch of emotion.
A touch of myself.
A few tears.

I hesitantly went to the Gap, secondary care, knowing in my heart, I was making the right choice. Wanting so badly to feel more & to fear less.
My journey was scary at first, but the more I shared, the more relieved I felt.
They say exposure eliminates shame. I found this to be true.
I learned to recognize pain for what it was, to see it as nurturing & constructive, rather than destructive & harmful.
I learned to build bridges & not barriers & that boundaries are precious tools, which serve to protect me in the long run. They nurture the kingdoms of my body – nourishing it with self-respect, dignity & modesty.
I learned to eat healthily.
I learned to put my needs & recovery first & that through self-acceptance, comes tolerance of other people.
I walked into this Treatment Centre unable to wait for things – intolerant, impatient & very judgmental.

I still have a long way to go. However, I can see how far-reaching one innocent unintentional comment reaches – that what happens in one small corner of the world, affects an entire world.


I have realized that sometimes I need to be cruel to be kind – needing to put my family’s needs before others’.
I cannot heal the world until I am healed.
My recovery comes first – even though I am a healer.

Slowly, I began to ingest the program, step by step, piece by piece.
I learned to listen.
Hearing & seeing those parts of myself that I did not wish to see.
Once I became familiar with all the obstacles to my recovery – dangerous people, places & things, triggers, risky situations or feelings, I began to feel again.
In Crescent I had been abstaining from chemicals
Now my process had begun.

I woke up every morning & felt a need to pray.
Filled with immense gratitude for the support & love, that I could feel surrounding me.
Grateful to be alive, I was now able to hear the birds chirping in the garden

Admitting that I had a disease was difficult – that I am an addict.
Acknowledging that for so long I have been disconnected from G-dliness.
Knowing that when I’m truly healthy, there’s no place for dis-ease or death.
I wake up every morning, I say Modeh Ani – “ I offer thanks to You, living & eternal King, for you have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great”.
I say the blessings that follow, thanking G-d for all he has given me.
But there is something missing, something lacking.
I have my soul back.
I still feel alone.
It’s not enough to have faith.

I begin Step One.
I admit I am powerless over my addiction & my life has become unmanageable. The passage between my mind & heart feels blocked.
My thoughts are clouded by my emotions.
I feel insane still

I explore the past, trying to understand my father’s wisdom, his thoughts, his mind – trying to gain an understanding of his silence.
Learning that silence sometimes promotes wisdom & knowledge.

I try to gain insight into my mother’s creativity & zest for life.
Learning that through restraint comes understanding & love.

I learn that my parents know what’s best for me.
I learn that G-d knows what’s best for me.

I continue with Step One.
My life has become unmanageable.
I have lost the ability to what is good & pure.
I cannot love those around me.
I am filled with shame, fear & guilt.

Step Two – I came to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I am insane. I have a disease.
I have hurt those people around me, that I care so deeply about.
I cannot love myself.
I learn that all I need to be is honest, open-minded & willing.
I learn from my children – “Mommy, please, help me”.
I ask for help.
I follow suggestions.
I go to the meetings. I work the NA program. I get a sponsor.
I seek help from the ultimate sponsor – G-d.
I say the Shema – ask the heavens for help to listen, to hear me.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is out G-d, the Lord is one.”

I learn in yoga that what I put into the Universe, I will get out & that when I fall down, judging myself isn’t helpful.

As long as I don’t pick up drugs & work the program, with the help of G-d, I have nothing to fear.


The journey gets harder.

I mourn the loss of my drugs.
I miss the chaos – it’s easier than the pain.
It feels like I’m climbing a staircase – learning about denial, anger & acceptance.
Every time I fall down, it feels more painful, more embarrassing.
I lose my temper along the way – I lose my dignity.
I am taught to have a window of tolerance & compassion for myself & so I keep coming back.

I’m a perfectionist & this time the slogan, “half measures availed us nothing”, works in my favour.
I internalize my faith.

I have lost the desire to use for now.
My tears are painful, yet they heal me: I grow through each painful moment. I feel that I am controlling myself to death. I realize I am going to die if I don’t start listening more, take better care of myself & let go & let G-d.
So I “make a decision to turn my will & my life over to the care of G-d as I understand him”.

I realize that love is about loyalty, obedience, verocity & everlasting trust in myself. It’s not about rescuing, affirmations, co-dependency, lust & hostage-taking of another person.
I begin to pray harder.
I follow more suggestions, compromising on some of my old principles along the way.
One minute at a time.

“Bishvili nivrah haolam” – for me the world is created, knowing that G-d’s will is pure, that my self-will had lost direction & that my life had become unmanageable.
Every time I take a short cut, my higher power points out that there is a longer, shorter way, filled with insight & greater lessons to reach my destination.

Letting go the need to control & surrender my will is painful but necessary.
Each time I do a mitzvah, an act of kindness for myself, my family or another human being, I feel cleaner. Each time I tell the truth, I can go to bed at night not having to worry about what I’ve said during the day.
“The reward of doing a good deed – is the deed itself”.
Unconditional love.
Evil is the absence of good.

The more I worked the program, the more I got in touch with G-dlinesss.
I have been given many gifts in recovery, a loving caring husband, who puts out a red carpet wherever I walk, a family who support me unconditionally. & two precious children who never judged me.
Priceless gifts – the desire to live to be mother again, a wife again, the desire to pray, to eat healthily, to learn to recover, to care.

Being in treatment & having the opportunity to do Step Four, has been a privilege for me – “A fearless & moral inventory of myself”.
I remember learning in the mystical book, called the Tanya, how everyone has 2 souls – a holy soul & an unholy soul. The unclean soul is like a shell.
Like a fruit, the shell is discarded after the fruit is eaten, but is necessary to protect the fruit, while it gets ripe. Afterwards the shell has no purpose.
I recognize now that through pain comes growth, through darkness & concealment (consequences), it is possible for me to start recovering.
Examining my personality & taking an accurate account of my spirit (Cheshbon Hanefesh) – those parts of myself which I fear facing, has been a truly humbling experience.

One of the most difficult consequences I received in treatment was not being able to give any materialistic gifts to anyone in my treatment centre for a week.
I learned that endless giving shows a disregard for myself & that only once I am free from my own personal constraints, can I truly care about the Universe.
Humility means not thinking less of myself but thinking of myself less.


The drama queen – “I want it all & I want it now” – inconsiderate & impatient.
“Layehudim hoyoso orah v’simcha v’sosson v’yikor” – “For the Jews there was light; joy, gladness & honour”.
When Shabbat finishes, we say this prayer to go back to the ordinary days of the week to distinguish between mundane, normal days & holy days.

Recovery taught me patience.
It gave me hope.
Serenity within.
I learned that time takes time.
I learned to appreciate what is sacred & holy to me.

I am grateful for this journey – only once I lacked all that was precious to me. Only when I was stripped of my emotions, could I truly appreciate that which I took for granted during my active addiction.

Like a candle burning in the daylight is not visible – I found G-dliness in a place of loneliness, darkness, a place of no feeling.
I felt G-dly & wanted to connect.
I found G-dliness through the gifts that I received in recovery – tolerance, assertiveness, gratitude, humility & the ability to let go of resentments of the past – to surrender.
Bringing heaven down to earth.
Loving every step of the way.
Enjoying precious moments with my husband & children.
Priceless gifts.

I have gained a deeper understanding of my soul.
I am grateful to be alive. With G-d’s help & the help of those around me, I pray that I will be able to wake up every day feeling as motivated, loved & full of gratitude as I feel today.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can & the wisdom to know the difference”.
—o0o —


There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.

Thank G-d, the Rebbe has blessed me with the desire to learn & reconnect with my source, the strength to recover & heal, with Chassidishe Naches, from my kids, with support from my husband
A desire to live again.

Today (116 days clean), I feel grateful for all I have, for the many 24 hours of clean time I managed to accumulate with the Aibishter’s help.
Actually what I am really grateful for, is Teshuva.

I’m Tanya.
I’m an addict.

During active addiction, my choices were clouded in judgement & guilt-ridden. My inability to deal with my intense fear of abandonment & dependence on the world around me left me feeling full of shame.
I did not have the wisdom to decide the worth of anything.
I had lost touch with who I was.

Cocaine – cunning, baffling, powerful.

Allowing me to disconnect my mind from my heart.
Deluding myself, hurting those people I care deeply for & disappointing myself in the process.
A vicious, destructive cycle.
Drowning in insanity & deception – wanting so desperately to overcome my addiction.

Insanity – doing the same thing over & over & expecting a different result.
Hurting people I care about.
Losing the ability to love sincerely.
Losing the mensch inside of me.
Losing the ability to choose right from wrong.

The world is created Yesh Meain, from nothingness.

When I lost the desire to live, when I hit rock bottom, when I lost myself, the mensch inside of me – my “Tanya” – that is when I got my life back.
Feeling so helpless & so empty, I realized that I could not fill the void in my soul with drugs anymore.

“One is too many, a thousand never enough”. (Narcotics Anonymous)

Remembering what the Alter Rebbe has taught me – the only quality a person needs, is the ability to take control of their life. (Pirkei Avot)

I am consumed with fear.
I have ruined this privilege.
I have abused the right to control my life.
I have deprived myself of my ability to control my thoughts.

I am powerless over drugs, my life has become unmanageable. (Step One.)

I am taught to listen.
I trust that something greater than myself can restore me to sanity.
(Step Two.)

The fear is less traumatic.
I am filled with shame, yet I feel comforted that I have made a decision to turn my will & my life over to G-d. (Step Three.)

I pray for serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
I desperately try to understand my essence more everyday.
I do a moral inventory. (Cheshbon Hanefesh) (Step Four.)
I pray for Hashem to remove my character defects, to help repair the broken shameful parts of my past: of my soul – regret, remorse, shame.


I am grateful for the moments of inspiration where I feel my head & heart are aligned, where I can absorb wisdom, find courage to make cleaner choices & strive for more equilibrium – an opportunity for Teshuva, for growth.
Another moment of sobriety.
Being high on Chassidus.
Infused with choices.
One moment at a time.

Hashem is the King of the Universe, not me, – powerful & majestic.

I needed to lose everything precious to me, in order to appreciate all I had.
I needed to lose myself.
I was controlling myself to death.
Fighting everything & everyone around me, like the queen of the jungle, arrogant, fearless & self-absorbed.
Blinded & unaware of the pain I was causing those around me.
Thank G-d, I have lost the desire to fight – by surrendering my will over to Hashem – I have gained the power to do Teshuva.
I guess I needed to lose the grandiose, self-centred addict to make way for the new person I hope to create.

I am struggling with the concept of Tikkun. (Reparation)
Being an addict, I find it hard to accept that Tikkun is a process & not a choice or a decision.
Using chemicals to numb pain or disconnect myself from my feelings, has always been an instant decision, an immediate solution.
Although there have been severe, painful consequences, instant chemical gratification relieved the symptoms short-term & masked any real emotional trauma.

Tikkun means I have had to sit with feelings, struggle with my greed, guilt or less desirable character traits. I have had to process the past, digest the pain, swallow my pride & face the depth of my insanity.
I have destroyed & hurt many people over & over, (insanity) & expecting a different result – wanting so desperately to escape my disease.


(When I wrote this, I am disgusted & saddened at who I became.
I want to run to escape the pain I feel right now – shame & guilt.)

I guess I had to lose my strength to realize how I drained the energy of those, I loved so dearly. I had to feel un-cared for, in order to appreciate what true love, unconditional concern for another human being is – selflessness.

I have learned that the most priceless gift the Abishter could give me was a broken heart. When my heart did not know how to live anymore, I guess
the Abishter shattered it.
I feel devastated & broken.
When I think of the irreparable damage, hurt & pain, I left behind me, while trying to mend the broken pieces of my heart, my disease progressed even more. I felt angry with myself for destroying relationships with people who meant the world to me, my source of inspiration, wanting the best for me.
I felt paralyzed with anger, false pride & had lost the ability to control my thoughts & actions.

Wanting so desperately to break the cycle of anger, of depression, of habitually using drugs to numb my sadness, I decided to focus on the joy in my life. I was told to write a gratitude list in treatment.
All I could come up with in the beginning was “I am grateful to be alive”.
I guess only once my life was threatened & in danger, could I appreciate my soul.

Once I learned to love myself, with time, I could begin to appreciate those around me. First I had to lose the previous love & support of the people who cared most for me so that I could appreciate my own existence & draw on my own strength.
I learned to be more independent – oneness & separateness.
I learned that I am capable of living an independent existence; that I don’t need to feel lonely in a room full of people.
The Abishter is always with me – a G-dly soul in a material body, mutually exclusive.


What no one prepared me for was how painful a broken heart feels.
Yet the relief & heart-warming feeling I experience with every day of sobriety makes my journey to freedom all the more worth while.

Whilst I still feel loss & don’t always gracefully accept the challenges Hashem gives me, I am more accepting of pain. I try welcome feedback & try to see it as constructive rather than destructive.

I used to fear thunderstorms.
I am less frightened.
Rain nourishes the earth.
Being close to Hashem nourishes my soul.
True love.
Scary, because it’s a really hard relationship to maintain.
Daunting & challenging.

I pray that I shall be worthy of the Aibishter’s blessings.
I hope I will learn to appreciate what I have or what Hashem gives me without needing to lose it, to realize how scared or precious it is.

I pray that the people I have hurt will find it in their hearts to forgive me one day for the pain & suffering which I caused them.

I pray that I can turn this experience into a Brocha.

I pray that I will be able to heal the cracks in my heart with integrity & acts of kindness.

I pray that Hashem will heal those around me, whom I have hurt & grant them serenity.

I pray that the Abishter will give me the strength to move forward, to learn from the past, to live in the moment & to be inspired by the future, with willingness, open-mindedness & honesty.

I am truly grateful.

Lee Shinefield
17 years ago


Thank you for this article. It has stimulated some thoughts that Id like to share.

Its very interesting that in the Stone edition Chumash (Shemini, Chapter 10, Verse 8) Hashem spoke to Aaron, saying: Do not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die…
What I interpret form this is that a little pleasure in life is acceptable in private. However, do not use artificial substances to produce a high, and then presume to be in touch with the divine. I interpret that a self-induced high is a substitute for the authentic experience of divine connection, symbolized by the Tent of Meeting. To me, Hashem is saying that there are severe spiritual (and physical) consequences when we mistake artificial pleasure with the authentic pleasure of being in Hashems presence. Plus, my own experience is that. although drugs offer a buzz, they actually dull my ability to be present, awake and aware.

Thank you for this article – its given me some profound insight into the potential hazards of fooling myself into thinking Im getting closer to G-d, while in reality putting a wedge in-between myself and divine revelation.

Lee Shinefield

2 years ago

what an interesting article…. so many people are using ayahuasca and other plant hallucinogenics to heal wounds within, not really to chase ecstasy, what is your view on that?

Jacquelyn H Contreras
2 years ago

Whose we? The most abhorrent are those who do not realize salvation is a gift and their knowledgeof GD puffs them up into trying to be righteous. Love edifies. GD is pleased over one sinner who repents, who rests from his endless sacrifices and who cries out, be merciful to me , a joyless, empty vessel. Heal me, I am broken. Find me, I am lost, never leave or forsake me, I am alone. There is a Rest for the people of GD. Bring me not into hard testing.

2 years ago

As a person who struggled for many years with addiction and overcame it (now for many years as well) through work with plant medicine– an approach that can also be addictive– I’m very grateful for this post.

If your soul strives for transcendence, it can be used but only if you can stop and take it back as an internal understanding of the beauty that is meant for this world– it can be used to keep your spirit alight when you go into the dark places with the task of reminding people of why it is worth it to be here at all.

This world can do a very good job of hiding that. I believe that’s why work with medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca is proving such a powerful tool for overcoming depression, addiction, and fear of death.

sherry-lee heschel
2 years ago

As a person who struggled for many years with addiction and overcame it (now for many years as well) through work with plant medicine– an approach that can also be addictive– I’m very grateful for this post.

If your soul strives for transcendence, it can be used but only if you can stop and take it back as an internal understanding of the beauty that is meant for this world– it can be used to keep your spirit alight when you go into the dark places with the task of reminding people of why it is worth it to be here at all.

This world can do a very good job of hiding that. I believe that’s why work with medicines like psilocybin and ayahuasca is proving such a powerful tool for overcoming depression, addiction, and fear of death.

I agree that substances are not the route to transcendence that can be used in a healthy way because they have not been earned. But I would go further and say that the journey of addiction Is the earning– the self-abnegation, the humbling, the letting go and surrender to Creator– these are all parts of the successful culmination of recovery from addiction. As I’m certain your David will or already can attest.

The recovered addict can be a profound, profound agent of healing.

I think it’s very important to keep this in mind– the instinct toward an internal discovery of transcendence is always potentially holy. The sensitive souls that become so distraught at the horrors of this world that they turn to substances have this instinct and are very vulnerable, in this sensitivity, to the rejection of the people around them. I salute David for his courage to ask this question- one that always conjures judgment from others. I know from experience.

As I took my anti-depressant one day, sad that I needed a pill to be able to function without crying all day, I realized that G-d exists in all things, including that pill. I surrendered to that concept and now, half a decade later, I don’t need the pill anymore.

It’s impossible to say that this understanding impacted my healing for sure– but I very much sense that it did.

2 years ago

There are two three very different subjects getting mixed up here.
1) Drug addiction happens out of carelessness (often as a start), fun-fun-fun, escape from difficult life situations, depression, despair, performance enhancement, cultural environment, and quite often genetic disposition (especially in the case of alcohol). Drug addiction is very rarely related to spiritual search.
2) Spiritual “enhancement” – for lack of a better word -, on the other hand, has for ages been connected with mind altering substances in different cultures, mushrooms, cacti, hashish, ayahuasca, datura, ivy and belladonna extracts, and many more. These substances require careful preparation and supervision, because they can kill you. LSD has provided a shortcut to the same effects, fairly safe physically, but with potential danger of inducing psychosis in unstable individuals. None of these substances are addictive, because of the extreme states of mind they induce. That’s not something one can do every day for recreation.
3) True spiritual search might on occasion be aided by mind altering substances, again under strict supervision. It can also be achieved by certain techniques of meditation or agitation. If the process is hastened it can be dangerous. I once heard or read a guru (I think it was the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) say that you can achieve enlightenment in 6 days by intense dancing, but you will very likely die, because you’re not prepared for the light.
What ever happened to Aaron’s sons, it was certainly not drug addiction, and maybe not the use of any substances at all (though there is that “strange fire”, what might they have been burning in their pans?), but most likely the third scenario, a self-induced, extremely intense mental activity that ended, literally, in burn-out.
Recovering from drug addiction is slow, every-day work. Striving for spiritual enlightenment is also slow, every-day work. They do have that in common.

1 year ago

Sounds similar to the garden decision to know G-d: another way other than the command. This too incurred death. Exile.
The mind altered is a dangerous thing. A strange fire. We need to be able to distinguish discern, make good judgements for life and living.
Why administer something from without to tap into that which is within?

2 months ago

This was perfect in every way. I’ve been holding my map upside-down for 20 years. Thank you.

The Meaningful Life Center