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Addiction Is Not the Problem; It's the Solution

The Golden Calf We Construct In Our Lives

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • February 14, 2011
  • |
  • 10 Adar I 5771
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The Soul of Addiction - The Golden Calf You and I Construct

Dedicated by Dina Dornbusch

Wisdom of a Child

A child sees the bulletin of the Synagogue announcing that the congregation had just hired a new rabbi, his name is Rabbi Dr. Mark Epstein. The child is so excited that the new rabbi is also a doctor, that the next time he has a stomach ache, he calls the Synagogue.

"I would like to speak to the Rabbi Dr.," the boy says. The rabbi gets on the line and asks how he can be of help. "Well rabbi, the boy says, I have a stomach ache and I was wondering what you suggest I do."

"Sorry son, I'm not a medical doctor," replies the rabbi.

"What type of doctor are you?" asks the boy.

"I am a Dr. of Philosophy," was the response.

The child thought for a moment and then asked, "What type of sickness is that?"

What's the Big Deal?

It is difficult for us to relate to the boundless passion that inspired the Jewish people to create and worship a calf of gold, merely 40 days after they stood at Mt. Sinai and heard the Divine decree[1] "You shall have no other gods before me." Who today would find delight in dancing around a molten calf and declaring, "This is Your G-d, O Israel?[2]"

Even a superficial reading of this week's Torah portion, Ki Sisa, in which the story of the golden calf is related, indicates the cataclysmic effect of this seemingly meaningless event on the eternal destiny of the Jewish people[3]. Why did the creation of a foolish idol by a group of Jews in the Sinai desert become one of the most central episodes in our history?

Abraham's Search

In Maimonides' laws on idolatry, where he describes the first Jew's quest for truth, he says that initially Abraham was "immersed amongst the foolish idol worshippers of Ur Kasdim [a city in Mesopotamia]; his father, mother and the entire population—he amongst them—all worshipped idols[4]."

Asks Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi[5]: Why did Maimonides find it important to emphasize in his book of Jewish law (not Jewish history) that the first Jew was steeped in idol worship[6]

The Soul of Idol Worship

By failing to understand the underpinning virtues of idol worship we are unintentionally engaging in our own pristine and subtle form of idol worship. We are confusing the external form with the inner substance.

What is the essence of idol worship? What does it look like in the 21st century?

It is a person trying to fill a void, yearning for a need, craving for some form of fulfillment, and then attributing the power of filling that void to a particular substance or person. I then begin to "worship" him, her, or it. 

The problem of idol worship lies not in the yearning that leads me to the act of worship; in fact, this yearning is often innocent, perhaps even sacred and noble. It is in accepting the notion that a worthless and lifeless object, or a person outside of me, carries within him/her/it the power to fulfill my true aspirations—that is what turns idol worship into a meaningless and often destructive pursuit.

The Soul of an Impulse

We all experience in our daily lives various impulses and urges directed toward certain people or particular substances, objects, and behaviors. Some of us become addicted. 

Are you infatuated with a particular person? Are you starving for attention, compliments, and approval? Do you crave nicotine, alcohol, or drugs? Are you obsessed with an unceasing urge for physical intimacy? Do certain websites and images play a central role in your life? Are you a gambler or a binger? Do you feel the need to control other people's lives?

The great spiritual masters taught[7] that these impulses and many others are not evil in and of themselves. All these cravings may be expressing the purest and most spiritual needs of the soul. At the core of a crush on another human being or an obsession with intimacy, attention, or drug addiction, is the longing of a person to escape loneliness, shame, trauma, inner worthlessness.

Addiction is not the problem; it is the solution. The addiction is coming to assuage fear, to fill an intense, sometimes subconscious, void. Can I identify the core of the problem that is fueling my addiction? Can I identify my sense of shame and worthlessness?

Our coping skills distort our clarity and attribute false symbolisms to essentially hollow pursuits. As a result of this distortion we—just like the Jews in the desert—devote our time and passion to carefully construct and worship our personal "golden calves" in the mistaken belief that they will fill the void in our hearts and nourish the hunger of our souls.

You can't fill my void, the drugs can't fill my void, because what I am really searching for is inner wholeness. I am searching for G-d.

Behind every addiction, there is a profound yearning to receive or give love. We are searching for true intimacy -- with ourselves, with another person, with G-d. But our minds are often so bruised and wounded that the outlet we target with our addiction to achieve that love is an “idol,” a futile target which will only distance us from the true love we are searching for.

Abraham’s Passion

This is why it is important that we know that the first Jew once passionately worshipped idols. Had this young man been indifferent to the idols of his native land, he never would have searched for and discovered the true G-d. Since Abraham yearned for truth and craved intimacy with the ultimate core of reality, G-d, he passionately devoted himself to worshiping the idols of his father's home in the erroneous belief that they embodied the ultimate truth of the cosmos.

Underlying Abraham's fiery idol worship was a soul yearning for the one living G-d. So when he matured, he discovered that his sacred craving needed to be redirected toward the true G-d and not to the false substitutes for G-d.

The Torah's war against the creation of the golden calf is central to our mission in life. It symbolizes our daily relentless effort of turning our attention from the false carriers of value to the true carriers of value.

The late Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky, an expert on addiction, told me once that the addicts among us are among the most spiritual souls among us -- those souls whose void due to their lack of experience of genuine spirituality and love caused them to lose their sanity.

We put so much focus on the addictions; in truth, we need to focus much more on the pain behind them. It will make all the difference. Because as we know today, the antithesis of addiction is not sobriety; the antithesis of addiction is connection.


[1] Second of the Ten Commandments proclaimed at Sinai, Exodus 20:3.
[2] Exodus 32:4;8;19.
[3] Cf. Talmud Shabbos 146a; Zohar part 1, 52b. Tanya chapter 36. Igros Kodesh by the Lubavitcher Rebbe vol. 5 p. 30 and sources noted there.
[4] Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Idol Worship, 1:3.
[5] Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812) was the founder of the Chabad school of Jewish spirituality. 
[6] Maimonides' Mishneh Torah is not a book of history; it is a book of law and a guide to Jewish daily living. In that context, the depiction of young Abraham as an idol worshipper seems unnecessary.
[7] Cf. Kesser Shem Tov section 194. Likkutei Sichos vol. 1 p. 177.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -7 months ago

    So youre saying that really addicts are only addicts because of their yearning for G-d but what is a practical solution for this that will actually help with the root of the addiction?

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  • D

    Dina -2 years ago

    The q is why. Why the idols? Why the addiction? Why the need for my dopamine hit? I heard R. Joey Rosenfeld say this: we come from the seat of pleasure. We come into this world having experienced the purest pleasure there is to enjoy, at the feet of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

    This is what we look to recreate our entire lives down on this earth. The closer we were to Hashem, I imagine, is the harder we look in this world. Hence our holy addicts.

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  • V

    vilbert -2 years ago

    never read such a postive article... thank you Rabbi... yes you are Gods Servant

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  • N

    Netanel1a -7 years ago

    The divine core of every human being seeks to express itself by connecting with its outside source, but can only express itself with the aid of a carnal soul that is itself in need of direction. The divine core thus has to gain mastery over the carnal energies that are its only means of expressing and realizing itself. This is a struggle, the divine core having to rein in these primal energies on which it, the divine core, ultimately relies (willpower, resolve). The expression of the divine core has to be outward, because the source it needs to connect with is outside. Two general mistakes can thus be made as the core strives to realize itself by gaining mastery over the carnal energies it needs to propel it: (1) the divine core can be diverted by the brutish and unenlightened carnal energies to collapse in on itself as an expression of itself (Freudian and Cartesian solipsism), but this is not going to help it realize itself because the core has nothing to add; or (2) the divine core can be enveloped and misdirected by the unenlightened carnal energies when seeking to express itself outwardly by being diverted to other meaningless targets, away from the true source of its expression (idol worship). In both cases, the divine core will not make the connection it needs with its source and will be left unfulfilled. Alternatively, we could identify Western worship of the self (1) as another (inward) form of idol worship.

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  • SL

    Shmuel Lemon -7 years ago

    Shmuel Lemon

    I love what you said “By failing to understand the underpinning of idol worship we are unintentionally engaging in just that: idol worship.” Because I believe that if one fails to understand the underpinning of ANY negative trait / value / virtue etc. one is unintentionally engaging in that negativity.


    The Mishne in Ovois (4:1) asks, “Who is a wise man? And answers “someone who learns from everybody”. How do we understand his words? The term wise infers that he is someone “who knows.” But if he is learning from everyone that means that he is someone “who doesn’t know?”
    Does he know or does he not know??

    Secondly,what motivates / drives a person to do that? Why are such people so rare?

    Rabeinu Yonah gives the following explanation in the name of “the wise men amongst the nations of the world” (referring to Socrates or Aristotle, who is known to have said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. “True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”)
    A person’s great love and desire for wisdom, i.e. knowing that he doesn’t know, is what is referred to being a wise man. Why? Because his strong desire will drive him to acquire wisdom.

    In other words:


    He knows that there is always more to know. This creates a feeling of “not knowing.”
    He knows that even what he has learnt and knows, he hasn’t as yet plummeted to know all that is to be known on the subject. He can still go deeper into it.

    He knows that however much he thinks he knows someone, it is never the full picture and therefore knows that he doesn’t know certain aspects of that person’s life.

    It is so rare to find such a wise person because we naturally believe “we know.”
    We don’t want to feel that we don’t know and therefore we unintentionally live the life of a fool.

    It’s exactly like what you said at the recent Amudim awareness event “We need to understand that we don’t / can’t understand”

    Shmuel Lemon

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Essay Ki Sisa

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • February 14, 2011
  • |
  • 10 Adar I 5771
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by Dina Dornbusch

Class Summary:

The Soul of Addiction - The Golden Calf You and I Construct

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