Rehab and Repentance
[Editor’s Note: This may be the first time that we have violated our usually iron-clad policy against anonymous posts. Read it, and you will understand why it had to be anonymous, and why it was worthwhile breaking the rule.]
מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין
“In the place where a returnee stands, even a totally pious person cannot stand,” (Gemara Brachos, 34a)
This is a very challenging Gemora to understand. I stand in awe of those that have given up so much to embrace a Torah lifestyle. The typical Ba’al Teshuva is faced with many obstacles; familial, social and often financial – putting aside the emotional challenges that come with such a change. Nonetheless, how could it be that our pious sages that dedicated their every breath to Hashem, His Torah and His people are unworthy of standing side by side with a person who spent years, and usually decades devoid of Torah, and more often than not, unaware of their Jewish identity and the Nishmas Yisroel that resided inside of them?
One answer that always resonated with me is that of Rav Dessler,zt”l. I will illustrate his answer with a personal story.
On Motzei Shavuos of this year, I flew out with our daughter to enroll her in an intense 90 day treatment program.
Leah is 21 year old and is presently on her journey to recovery. After suffering from the painful lifestyle of addiction, she willingly consented to enter rehab. Her troubles began in her early teens, and by the time she was in her sophomore year of high school she was spending her days sleeping, watching videos, texting friends and arguing with us about the myriad of things that we were doing wrong.
Drugs were soon to follow and with that, it became a life of hardship (read: torture) for the entire family. Over the course of five years, we spent tens if not hundreds of hours speaking with therapists, professionals or just about anybody that would guide us, direct us and help us help our daughter.
This wasn’t normal life as we had understood it. After 9th grade, she didn’t stay in any school for more than a few months. She was in more high schools than there are years of high school!
Rehab programs are tens of thousands of dollars a month; insurance paid in part, most of the rest was covered by generous friends and family. This was besides getting her there, visiting her once and then bringing her to the next stop of her journey; thousands of dollars which we could not afford. Yet these are, and remain, the “superficial” investment.
The sleepless nights. Tracing a 16 year old’s phone at 3 or 4 am, and then pounding the pavements trying to find her. Sometimes we just laid awake, waiting for “the call” or planned her funeral in our minds. When she walked into the house everybody tensed up. The floors of our home became cracking eggshells. This is merely what was going on outside our bodies; then there was the pain, hurt, disappointment,frustration, shame and anger that comes along with this roller coaster journey. We didn’t realize how tense things were until the first time that she went away to a program, the first of many, that was supposed to be “the one,” and our home felt expanded.
There is no doubt, that this one child has drained us, physically, emotionally and financially more than any ofthe other children individually or in combination.
Now, Baruch Hashem, she is finding her way home. The program she entered is very regimented, with limited communication with us; e-mails twice a week, and bi-weekly phone calls. The first e-mails were like manna from the heavens. She was suffering through detox, adjusting to her new life, one that now had boundaries and rules – but she was happy! My wife brought an album for her emails, like an old-school photo album to preserve the precious moments of pride and joy. And then came the first phone call. We were nervous, not knowing what to expect. The therapist placed the call, made sure we were all there, andhanded the phone to Leah. There was a pause. We held the phone closer to our ears to make sure we were hearing right, Leah was crying. She laughed at herself for getting so emotional. As the allotted time of one hour flew by, my wife and I were committed to sticking to the rules, so unwillingly we began to say our good-byes to our daughter. “There are still a few more minutes,” she cried out.
Did my wife or I ever imagine that we would make an album from emails she sends us? That we could have an enjoyable and mature hour-long conversation with her where neither side wanted to hang-up? That we no longer answered her calls with a headache or heartache, but now, instead, with joy in our hearts?
During this process of recovery, my wife and I had many moments of reflection, many heart-to-heart conversations about “our journey” in this process. Taking an honest look at our present attitude towards Leah in contrast to her siblings, the attitude is almost unjustified. Her siblings are and have been great kids; fun, great middos, frum, sincere, chesed-oriented and some actually did really well in school! Yet, we don’t save their emails, nor do we work our schedule around their calls or send them constant cards of love and encouragement.
This, explains Rav Dessler, is the difference between a Tzaddik and Ba’al Teshuva. The righteous Jew in contrast to a returnee isn’t a “better or worse” judgement, rather the distinction lies in the unique relationship that each one has with Hashem.
The consistently “good Jew” is like the other “good children.” They have developed a foundation of trust, reliability and respect. A parent enjoys letting them get their license, go away with some friends, and at times, indulge them in the deserved extras of life. That relationship is built on like, love, trust and pride.
One article discussing kids at risk was appropriately titled, “You love me, but do you like me?” The wayward child is different. The foundation of that relationship is the polar opposite; no trust or reliability, instead it is full of disappointments; love, but often not like.
But when that child is ready to “come home,” there is no greater joy for the parent. A relief for their aching hearts. Parents will readily reach out to help this child out of their murky life and their quicksand of poor choices.
As the child begins their journey of return and recovery the parents begin their own odyssey. A journey that will occupy much of their time, their emotional strength and finances, but this time it feels right. They must be supportive and not resentful. With a warm smile they must grasp tight the hearts of their vulnerable and struggling child as there is always the risk of old habits hampering this new beginning.
This level of support, commitment and dedication is unknown territory to the other children in the family, it is simply a type and degree of relationship that they never needed. Their relationship is based on an easy love, the standard expectation and fulfillment that generates pride and joy; the other is based on theexultation of one who seeks another chance, the opportunity of return and regrowth – It will be, iy”h, a different walk down to the Chupah.
Rav Dessler explains that the reason why the consistently righteous person cannot stand in the same space of the Ba’al Teshuva is because the returnee has a special relationship with Hashem that the Tzaddik does not. While the returnee cannot enjoy the relationship of years of mitzvos and good deeds, the righteous will never appreciate the journey of the at-risk child becoming risk-free, reaching out, and struggling, to resume their relationship with Hashem with strength and commitment.
In the early 1900s, there was a great Rav who was approached by his students. They were grappling with a “shverer Rambam.” The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuva writes that even a great sinner, who was despicable can repent and become beloved and endeared to Hashem. How could it be, they questioned, that someone can be so despised yet so easily become beloved?
The Rav responded. “As you know, I have a son that totally abandoned us and the Torah. We haven’t heard from him in years, we have no idea about his present status; if he is married, or even alive. All we know is that he left us and Hashem. Imagine if my son would walk through the door and say, ‘I am ready to come home.’ Do you think that I will start questioning him, ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? Why didn’t you even write us?’ Of course not! We would smother him with hugs and kisses, feed him whatever he likes, and never let go of him again.’”
If this is our human response, can we imagine that of Avinu Shebashamayim?! As the Yamei HaRatzon are upon us, we need to recalibrate our mindset to how we relate to Hashem. We all have addictions of sorts, and there are times in our lives that we feel, “Who am I?” “Why would Hashem want to even look at me?” But, the truth is that more than we hold out for the return of our children, does Hashem wait for ours – with even greater anticipation. He awaits to print our emails of Teshuva, and is willing to work His entire schedule around our tefillos. He is waiting for us to walk through that door and say, “I am ready to come home.”
During our visit in August, besides for the conferences for the parents, we had a three hour intense therapy session with our daughter. One of the first things she said to us was that we should feel comfortable in asking her anything that we want. What drugs did she use etc. We told her that we didn’t need to know, as long as she is growing in her recovery process.
I can’t imagine that the Ribono Shel Olam feels any different. He is more than willing to forget the past, as long as we are committed to our recovery.
At the very end of the session, we needed to do a very unique exercise. Leah sat in a chair, and we took turns sitting opposite her, knee-to-knee. She then held out her hands with her palms up, and we would place our hands on hers. Leah would then begin her sentences with the words, “I see,” and tell the other about the qualities she sees in that person. When finished, they would reverse roles, and the parent would begin their sentences with the words, “I see,” listing all of her qualities. When it was my turn, we sat knee-to-knee, palm-to-palm. She looked me straight into my eyes and began, “I see.” She began to tell me what she saw in me, my positive qualities that she liked about me, that she discovered in me. Then it was my turn. I held her hands, looked into her eyes and said, “ I see.” After listing off her beautiful qualities, her strength and commitment to her growth, I said, “I finally see my Leah.”
We can’t sit knee-to-knee with Hashem, but we can close our eyes, open our hearts to a renewed relationship with Hashem, and allow Him to say to us, “I finally see you, My child!”
Due to the sensitivity of the topic, the author prefers to remain anonymous. The author is a seasoned teacher in Jewish education and outreach.