While many people can’t wait to crack open the booze each Purim, some in Baltimore’s Jewish community find themselves in a difficult situation, struggling to balance a recovery from addiction with a religious tradition.
“I think Purim is, in some ways, an exception to prove a rule, which is that, by and large, our approach toJudaism is one of moderation,” said Beth Am Synagogue’s Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg. “Purim is like that one day a year that, yeah, you’re encouraged to let your hair down a little bit. So I think drinking a little more than usual is called for on Purim.”
Among the traditions associated with Purim, such as reading the megillah, giving to the poor and exchanging gifts of food with friends, is to enjoy a festive meal. Religious tradition has ascribed imbibing more than usual to the feast, with the Talmud saying that a person is required to “spice himself” on Purim to such an extent that he cannot tell the difference between Mordechai’s blessings and Haman’s curses.
But for those struggling to recover from addiction, health and well-being must trump tradition and even religious commandment, said Burg.
“For someone who is a recovering alcoholic, the tradition actually would be pretty clear that not only is that person discouraged to drink, but that person is forbidden to drink,” said Burg. “There is an understanding that this is an illness and that if one who is a recovering alcoholic has even one drink, we know that that would be putting that person at risk, and health and life trump really any other considerations in Jewish tradition.”
Though many recovering alcoholics might wish ideally to avoid all tempting situations, sometimes religious obligation and the desire to participate in everyday observance means those in recovery find themselves having to test their sobriety at a Purim party.
While every day in recovery is a challenge, holidays centered on letting loose and celebrating can be especially difficult, said Heather Press, a recovering addict and an administrator at Right Turn-IMPACT, a local recovery house.
“In the past, that’s all we know of that holiday,” she said of consuming alcohol with traditional religious celebrations.
As part of her recovery, Press skipped celebrations during most of her first year of sobriety. But when she decided she wanted to return to attending holiday gatherings, she made sure she first set up a network of support.
If a person finds himself or herself in a situation where there is a lot of pressure to drink, Press suggests keeping a non-alcoholic drink on hand at all times, “so people aren’t tempted to offer you an alcoholic beverage.”
She also suggests attending a recovery meeting soon before and soon after the event and to know where the nearest meeting is. A sober companion can also provide added strength when temptation is all around. Press said all of these tools helped her re-enter holidays when she felt comfortable enough to try.
Most importantly, Press said, recovering addicts have to learn to trust their gut instinct and be ready to leave early if they feel being present could jeopardize their recovery.
“If you’re uncomfortable and you’re starting to have thoughts and cravings, get out of there,” she said. “Your life and your recovery is more important at that point.”