Imagine being so hungry that you’re willing to give up your birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. That’s what Esav does at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. Esav was a hunter—a man who lived by his appetites. He comes home from the hunt and sees his brother Jacob—a man of the tent—cooking a red dish. The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 63:11) teaches this was the day Abraham died. Perhaps Esav couldn’t face it and so he went off to play instead of going to the funeral. Jacob was making a bowl of lentil soup for the meal of condolence because lentils—like today’s use of hardboiled eggs—is round, signifying the cycle of life.
The Torah (Gen. 25:30) tells us: “Esav said to Jacob, give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I’m famished.” Esav was begging his brother to give him the soup, so Jacob demands his birthright in exchange. After all, what good will the birthright—the responsibility to become the leader and upholder of the faith of Abraham—be for someone who didn’t even show up at grandpa Abraham’s funeral? Esav answers: “I’m at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me.” In fact the Torah (Gen. 25:34) tells us: vayivez Esav et hab’chora (Esav despised his birthright). Esav was a man who couldn’t control his appetite for food and sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils.
The Bible is filled with characters that couldn’t control their appetites. Noah couldn’t control his appetite for wine—planting a vineyard and getting drunk immediately after leaving the ark. Laban, Jacob’s uncle, couldn’t control his appetite for money. King David, after spotting Bathsheba bathing on a roof, couldn’t control his appetite for beautiful women. He took Bathsheba, a married woman, into his household, and when she became pregnant, he arranged to have her husband killed.
How relevant is this when every day we read of powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Al Franken and even 93-year-old past President George Bush senior not being able to control their appetites and so they are accused of sexual misconduct.
We have a name for the inability to control one’s appetite whether for food, for money, for alcohol, or for sex. We call it addiction. All addictions can be tragic, but today perhaps the most painful is opioid and other drug addictions.
I once attended a rabbinic program on addiction. The social worker presenting tried to explain to a room full of rabbis—hopefully none suffering from addiction—what addiction is like. She said, “Suppose at the end of the program we served cookies in the back. An average person might take one cookie, might take 2 or even 3. But after eating a few cookies, they would know that they ate their fill. An addict would take a whole tray of cookies, and would desire the last one on the tray as much as the 1st one.” I once asked a former smoker about her addition to cigarettes. She mentioned how—even when she was smoking one cigarette—she was thinking about where to get the next one. The cravings are that deep.
The social worker maintained and the rabbis agreed that addiction is not so much of a moral issue. While there’s a degree of culpability or weakness in allowing oneself to become and addict, an addict is not a sinner. Blaming an addict for his/her addiction is like blaming a cancer patient for the cancer. Our tradition teaches that we each have appetites; it calls these appetites the yeytzer hara (the evil inclination), and apparently the yeytzer hara of Esav was particularly strong. However, our sages (Gen. Raba 9:7) taught that the yeytzer hara isn’t all bad because without these appetites, no one would build a house, marry, have children, or conduct business. The trick is not to allow your yeytzer hara to control you.
Today, we know that addiction has a genetic component to it. Some people are more prone to addiction than others. But knowing that one is prone to addiction doesn’t justify it or excuse the continued abuse…any more than being a diabetic excuses one from not being careful about one’s diet. Life can be unbearable at times and the problems we face can be over whelming but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to act in a responsible manner or seek help when we need it. Instead of turning to his family or turning to Gd when he came out of the ark and saw all the devastation around him, Noah crawled into his tent and began to drink.
Let me suggest a simple rule: if you feel a drink will help relax you after a difficult day…or you’re with friends and want to make a l’chaim, go ahead and have one. But if you feel you’re going to need more than one…if you feel like you need a drink more than you want a drink…you probably shouldn’t start. If you drink because you feel bad or depressed, you should ask yourself: how else can I address my pain or my discomfort? Judaism condoned alcohol by sanctifying it in moments of celebration and rejoicing like a wedding or a Bris. But alcohol is not medicine and it certainly shouldn’t be a crutch.
All you need to do is to pay attention to the news and you’ll see the fruits of this kind of behavior. We hear about a woman driving her car on to the wrong side of the highway because she combined alcohol and drugs before getting in the car with her children…or a family destroyed because they were racing their boat much too fast after partying on Lake Lanier. A few weeks ago Louisiana State University freshman Maxwell Gruver died after a hazing event at fraternity Phi Delta Theta from alcohol poisoning. But what we don’t read much about are the families shattered by addiction, lives lost to alcohol and opioids—children and spouses who are victims of abuse.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have an occasional drink. Gd knows I do. What I am suggesting is that we recognize that we live in a world that celebrates over-indulgence—a world where the answer to every problem seems to be a pill or in a glass. Instead of addressing our pain, we dull it. Instead of experiencing life we numb it.
We have a responsibility to honestly confront this. There’s not a single person here who doesn’t know someone who has suffered from some form of addiction—whether it be alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, shopping, food, pornography or the internet. Rather than covering it up, reach out to them and offer your help. Jewish Family and Children’s Services have a comprehensive substance abuse program that also offers support for affected families called, HAMSA—Helping Atlantans Manage Substance Abuse, https://www.jfcsatl.org/services/counseling/substance-abuse-awareness (770-677-9318). Give them the number or the website or, better yet, offer to go with them to find out more.
And if you’re the one with the addiction, you have a responsibility to begin with yourself. There are a thousand reasons to take a drink or pop a pill, and only one for you not to do so—you may be saving your life and the lives of your family.
This Thursday we’ll be sitting down with family and/or friends at Thanksgiving dinner to thank Gd for all the bounty He has showered upon us. Yes, sometimes life sucks—as our kids might say. But let’s never lose sight of the big picture of how much good there still is in our lives—how much Gd has blessed us with. The truth is life can be intoxicating—especially Jewish life. You don’t need alcohol or drugs to experience the miracles of the world. That’s where the greatest highs are. There’s so much good, so much wonder, so much joy to be found in the everyday and the common place. The best drink, the greatest pleasure of all is to drink fully and completely from the cup of life! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis