Sermon Parshat Shemini

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. The very core of our Torah reading this Shabbat is about the day that the priests were installed to their positions in the newly constructed Mishkan, the sanctuary that our ancestors built in the wilderness. It should have been a day that Aaron and his family would remember forever. But they would remember that day for a very different reason.

3. At the height of the installation ceremony, suddenly, the two eldest sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu are suddenly struck down by God for offering “strange fire before the Lord”. The ancient commentators and even the modern ones are not really sure what exactly they did. We are not sure if it was a breech of Temple protocol, if it was a character defect in these two young men or if they (as all too often is the case) were just the spoiled sons of the High Priest and unworthy of becoming priests. We are not really given a reason for their sudden death by the hand of God. But perhaps there is a hint about the problem that can be found in the text.

4. Before the story of the installation can continue, there is a short passage that gives a new responsibility to the priests who are officiating in the Mishkan. Aaron is informed by God that priests are not to enter the Mishkan while under the influence of intoxicants. Wine and beer can be consumed when not on duty, but when the priests are to officiate, they are to be completely sober.

5. Not surprisingly, Many commentators point to this passage, coming so close on the heels of the death of Aaron’s two sons, and declare that the sin of these two young men was that they appeared before the Lord, drunk. Unable to properly perform their duties, God struck them dead. One cannot perform holy service unless one does it with a clear mind and with complete control.

6. The problems of alcohol and drug abuse are still with us. The ability of substances to impair our abilities seems to know no bounds. Just listen to the news on any given night and we can see quickly the devastating effect that substance abuse has on our community. Just yesterday, a 28 year old man appeared in court on child endangerment charges. His two toddlers were found in his car at 2 AM, parked in front of a bar. One child was sleeping, the other flagged down a passing woman to tell her that they needed to eat. The young father and his brother were drinking in the bar. There were open cans of beer in the car. They had been drinking all day and had forgotten to feed the children. The police arrested them. Where was the mother? The parents were divorced and it was the young father’s day with his children. Only he forgot to spend it with his kids, he spent it instead partying and drinking.

7. Just like Nadav and Abihu, the children of the wealthy and famous seem to be the ones with the biggest abuse problems. They are in the news all the time. Sometimes they think that their rich and famous parents will get them off the hook when they are arrested. But let me tell you a secret. Substance abuse among the famous may be the fodder for tabloids, but the problem affects many families from all walks of life….. Including seniors and including Jews.

8. I know that there is a common saying that Jews don’t get drunk. I can tell you from my Rabbinic experience, that this proverb is just plain false. I have helped Jewish teens battle drug problems. I had money from a Purim carnival stolen to buy cocaine. And it does not stop there. There are all kinds of addictions that plague humanity. I had a woman embezzle money from the Sisterhood gift shop to pay for her gambling habit. Eating disorders are often just food addictions. I am not talking about someone who just craves chocolate, but someone who has no control at all over their eating.

9. Addictions are not a problem of self control, they are a sickness that is in need of specialized care. It is often not the case that someone can just choose to stop drinking, drugging or gambling. The reality often is that their inability to stop is what is feeding their addiction. The more they drink, the worse they feel because they are out of control, the worse they feel, the more they drink to stop the bad feelings and the cycle goes on until they die, or get some serious help.

10. Do you know someone with an addiction problem? Chances are you do. The signs of addiction are all around us if we choose to open our eyes to the reality. I will bet that most of you don’t know where to buy illegal drugs. Or at least you don’t think you know anyone who sells drugs. I will bet, however, that you do. In almost every condominium and senior neighborhood, there are people, people you know, who always seem to have an endless supply of prescription drugs to share with neighbors. Especially pain killers and anti-depressants. Where do they get this supply and how can they pay for those drugs? They trade for them with your neighbors and sell them so they can buy more. Are you sure that you don’t know anyone? Next time you are at the pool, just ask a friend who you should ask to get a pain killer for “a painful hip”. Chances are someone will tell you right away who you should go to for Oxycontin or Percoset.

11. Hospice nurses tell me that when a senior dies at home, the first thing they tell the family is to destroy the extra drugs that are no longer needed. This way they cannot be stolen when the family is sitting Shiva. I have heard of seniors and others, who, when invited to a party, use their time in the bathroom to explore the medicine cabinet to see if they can steal a few pills while they are there. Sometimes seniors take more than napkins and sweet and low from the table. I have heard of people who have stashed in their purses bottles of wine when they think no one is looking or when asked to “water the plants” when someone is on vacation, they help themselves to a few drinks thinking nobody will miss a few glasses of wine.

12. Gambling is another addiction. I was not the least bit surprised that there were so many arcades in Delray Beach when I got here. I was also not surprised that there is regular bus service to regional casinos. It is one thing to lose money in a casino. It is another to lose your entire retirement fund thinking that the next win will let you replace it all. Only that one win never comes. Hey, I used to like to take a few dollars and try my luck from time to time. I can’t go to casinos anymore. I see the vacant eyes of the men and women mindlessly feeding the slot machines, with endless cash coming in from their credit cards, and I lose my appetite for gambling.

13. With the Internet, gambling has taken on a new dimension. You don’t even need to go to a casino, it is as close now as your own computer and all you need is a credit card to start playing. I have yet to see a cruise ship without a casino that opens just as soon as they are out of United States waters.

14. As far as I know, there is no cure for addictions. One can only learn to live with the understanding that the gambling, the alcohol and the drugs are the enemy and the only good day is one when we are successful in that we don’t abuse anything for the entire 24 hours. Addicts measure success in how many days since their last drink. They support each other in their daily struggle to stay clean and sober. The next time you are on a cruise, you know how much the cruise lines push alcohol, notice on the daily schedule that there is always a group meeting, usually before dinner, for “friends of Dave”. Dave is the name of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The meeting is a support group for those who know that if they start drinking again, they will lose their friends, their family and maybe their lives.

15. If you know an addict or someone with an addiction problem; drinking, prescription drugs, gambling, and you want to help, what can you do? First, you have to be determined to stop enabling their habit. Don’t loan them money, don’t give them gifts, don’t cover for them when they get in trouble and stop making excuses for them. They are sick and need help. Talk to their doctor so he will stop giving them pills they don’t really need. Tell family members that there is a problem and they need to intervene. Take the car keys away from someone you know is impaired. Tell them they are no longer welcome in your group if they continue to abuse.

16. I will tell you, this is not easy. Those of us who work with addicts have a saying. We ask; “How can you tell if an addict is lying?” the answer…”His lips are moving.” an addict will tell you anything they think you want to believe to cover for their abuse. They will tell you they have stopped drinking, they have thrown away all their pills, they haven’t been gambling for “a long time” but they need just a few dollars because they are short this month, just until their next check arrives. You think this person is your friend, but they have no friends, they only have their addiction, and they will sell our their friends, their family and anyone who will listen just as long as they get what they want, the money to get their next score.

17. How do they manage to remain addicted so long? Usually they have an enabler, someone like a spouse or a child who does not want to believe that there is a problem or would be too embarrassed to admit the problem. Those of us who work with addictions, also believe that addictions can be hereditary. Just another genetic disease. Do you know someone with children who have addiction problems? Don’t be surprised if they have a parent or a grandparent with their own addiction problem.

18. A person with a serious addiction needs effective intervention. Only when they lose the support of their family and friends, only when they hit bottom, arrested, broke, thrown out for their homes, can they see that their lives are out of control, and only then can they begin to fight back to take control of their lives. It is a painful recovery. They will need to ask God to forgive them. They will need to seek forgiveness from the people they lied to and cheated when they were using, and they will eventually have to find a way to forgive themselves. I have sat in on these “confessions”. There are the lies and the cheating or course, but some have done worse, they have sold their bodies, stolen money from children and parents, embezzled cash from their jobs or from the causes where they volunteer, they have done whatever it takes to get the next drink, and now they have to face the disease and speak out loud the sins of which they know they are guilty. Only when it is spoken out loud, in public, can they break the cycle of abuse and start to heal.

19. I have to ask, sometimes, if we at Temple Emeth are enabling those who may have a drinking problem. We all know that there is wine and hard liquor in the back for those who want a drink and nobody there to limit what they might drink. A small shot of whiskey is one thing. I have seen people, here in our congregation, go out early for Kiddush, and drink their scotch from a coffee cup. We serve wine at every dinner, but never do we offer grape juice for those who don’t drink. I think it is time we had some second thoughts about how we serve alcohol here in our Temple. Certainly everyone who wants a shot of bourbon is not an alcoholic, but do you know how much liquor we go through in a week? And we buy the extra large bottles! I suspect that there are those in the kitchen who know who comes in early and drinks a bit too much. I think what is needed is something more than just looking the other way.

20. Nadav and Abihu paid with their lives for their drinking. Their example should give us all pause. Must we wait until someone dies before we take some sensible steps to control the consumption of liquor at our synagogue and the exchanges of pills in our condo? We know the harm that it does, the auto accidents, the falls and broken bones, the broken families and the broken lives. We need to speak up, to learn the signs of addiction and know what we can do to really help those who struggle with this terrible disease. We may not all be guilty of substance abuse, but we are all responsible. Speak up if you know someone with an addiction, and together we can find a way to help that person find their way to get back control of their life.

21. May God help us do the right think and bring healing back to those who are afflicted. As we say… Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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