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Dvar Torah - Ki Tisa

I had the great privilege to attend a lecture this week from Dr Eli Kotler about recovery from different addictions. Dr Kotler titled the talk: "Addiction is not a brain disease, and it matters." It was all about how addiction doesn't necessarily indicate that our brain is malfunctioning. Instead, it might be a coping mechanism for dealing with adverse life experiences.

During the lecture, someone observed that discussing this topic was appropriate during the week of Parshat Ki Tisa, perhaps the most extraordinary story of Teshuva (repentance) in the Torah. At first, I reacted to this very poorly. Addiction is rarely a choice, so what does it mean to repent from it? But as I thought about it, I realised that addiction recovery has a tremendous amount to teach all of us about Teshuva and self-improvement in general. 

We tend to think of Teshuva as the decision to do better. Usually, over Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we will be urged to make better choices and improve ourselves in ways big and small. Repentance is presented as a volitional act. We can choose to be better. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. There must be good reasons why we have yet to repent. There should be excellent reasons why most New Year resolutions fail. Otherwise, we would succeed more often.

Why do so many efforts at repentance and improvement fail? In the world of addiction, it is obvious. A feeling of compulsion and impulsive decisions characterise addiction. It's hard to improve because we feel like we can't, and even when we can, we seem to almost automatically not do so. It only rarely reaches the level of conscious choice. This is true of many other things in our lives as well. If we regularly make decisions or do something that we aren't proud of, it's hard to improve. We get used to doing certain things, and they become rote or routine. Rabbi Dessler describes a horizon point of decision-making that exists in each of us. On one side of that point are automatic actions we are proud of. On the other, there are automatic things we wish we didn't do. Only at the horizon point (the point of decision in his description) do we make choices, some good and some less so. The decision point is far smaller than the sea of actions on either side. Our life's work is to shift that point to make more choices we desire automatic and to reduce the number of mistaken decisions. We can change towards achieving our goals more consistently by moving the decision point in the direction we like. But how?

Moving our point of decision always takes time. However, there are things that we can do to make it easier. One of them, whether our problem is one of addiction or something else, is to ask for help. By consistently reaching out to others for support, we can help celebrate our successes and buttress ourselves after our inevitable failures. By using a network of friends, family, and supporters, we can solve our problems better over time. 

This week, the Jews make a series of catastrophic decisions that have long-term harmful effects. The only way to return was when Moshe and the Leviim were back to help. Let's learn from their example and reach out to our support networks in moments of difficulty, however slight. That way, we can solve problems as they arise and not allow their impact and the things we must do to cope with them overcome us. 

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