By Rabbi Eitan Eckstein with Shoshana Schwartz –
It’s a fascinating sight: Around 150 individuals, mostly from religious homes, men and teenage boys on one side, women and teenage girls on the other. Most come from religious homes, but today they range from chasidish and yeshivish to entirely irreligious. I speak often to this entire community, and though the topic varies, the central components do not: How is the Torah relevant in addiction recovery?
Once while discussing Parshas Kedoshim we made reference to perhaps one of the most famous pesukim in Tanach: Ve’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha—Love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra 18:19). Rabbi Akiva famously said that this is a “fundamental tenet of the Torah” (Yerushalmi Nedarim 30b, Bereishis Raba 24:7). The Rambam writes, “It is incumbent upon everyone to love each and every one of Israel as he loves himself” (Hilchos De’os). On this many ask: how can you love someone else as much as you love yourself?
After this classic opening, I read aloud “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. Despite the illustrations and childlike style of the book, it seems to be written for adults, as his message is somewhat problematic. The story concerns a tree that loved a child so much that he gave the child everything he had—his fruit, his branches even his trunk—to make the child happy. It was only this giving that made the tree happy.
When I finished reading the story, I asked my audience: is this love? Is this what it means to love another person as much as we love ourselves? One of the teenagers raised his hand and said, “Rabbi, that’s not love, it’s codependence.” I asked, “What’s the difference between the two?” He said, “Love is when you give to another person. Codependence is when you give to yourself but make it look like you’re giving to another.”
In other words, codependence is an addiction. With addiction, the substance I use or the behavior I engage in helps me feel better. With codependence, it seems on the outside like love, but in reality I am using these behaviors in order to feel, to experience something exciting.
“Then, how,” I asked, “can I know which is which?”
Without hesitation the youth said, “It’s quite simple. Love is when you give of yourself. Codependence is when you give away yourself.”
This is the Rambam’s explanation. It’s generally thought that the Rambam is stringent in his expectation of love, that it is incumbent upon us to love others as we love ourselves. But perhaps the Rambam means just the opposite, and instead of offering an unlimited definition of love he is actually establishing for us boundaries so that we don’t downslide from love into codependence.
Perhaps this is what Rabbi Akiva meant regarding the two travelers who had only enough water for one to survive (Bava Metzia 62:1). Ben-Ptora insists that it’s better for both of them to share the drink, so that neither one would have to see his friend die. But Rabbi Akiva teaches that chayecha kodmim—your life takes precedence. The same Rabbi Akiva who stated that loving others is a fundamental tenet of the Torah establishes boundaries to what love means—that loving another does not mean at the expense of your own life. The tree, in our story, was giving, it was loving, but it was also codependent.
In Retorno, we often find that youth, and sometimes even adults, have great difficulty loving the parents who have hurt them (of course, we are speaking about serious injury or abuse. They face a dilemma: should I love someone who has hurt me? Will this undermine my integrity? In all the years I’ve been working with addicts, I have never tried to influence anyone’s decision.
Last week, a radio interview offered an interesting perspective. A survivor of the Birkenau concentration camp publicly declared that she forgave the Nazis. “I know it sounds terrible,” she explained, “but it’s not for their sake, it’s for mine. I need to get them off my back! For too many years I’ve carried them already….”
Rabbi Akiva said that loving your neighbor is a fundamental tenet of the Torah. Why did he choose love as the fundamental value and not some other value?
For 33 days, Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim died in a plague because they did not respect one another (Yevamos 71, 72). It seems strange that they were singled out, because if there was an atmosphere of disrespect for one talmid by another, it would not have affected only Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim; it would have been a widespread problem. Why were only they punished?
Rabbi Akiva’s history is well known. Rachel, the daughter of Kalba Savua, agreed to marry Rabbi Akiva, a simple shepherd, on condition that he study Torah. After 12 years of study he returned home, and yet before he entered his house he heard his wife being teased by one of the neighbors because her husband abandoned her for the sake of Torah. He then heard her answer—that if it were up to her she’d send him for another 12 years. When he heard that, he turned on his heels and left for another 12 years of Torah study.
After 24 years, Rabbi Akiva returned home accompanied by his 24,000 talmidim. Amongst those who greeted him was Rachel. She was pushed along in the crowd until she fell to his feet and hugged his legs. Those who did not recognize her tried to pull her away, but he stopped them, saying, “What’s mine and what’s yours, is really hers” (Kesubos 9).
What did Rabbi Akiva mean?
Rav Dessler explains in Michtav Me’Eliyahu that loving is giving. The greater the act of giving, the harder the sacrifice, the more love that is created by that giving. Rabbi Akiva knew full well what a sacrifice Rachel made for the sake of his limud Torah. By saying, “What’s mine and what’s yours, is really hers” he was explaining that his love of Torah and his love of Hashem, which he bequeathed to his talmidim, was only possible because of Rachel’s lesson to him about what love really is.
How do we know that her sacrifice was really out of love and not codependence? Because of her answer—that she would gladly send him away again for the sake of Torah. Her love for Torah was so great that she chose to let him go away for so many years. She didn’t know her husband was standing outside; she was not trying to impress him or people-please him; she was speaking from an honest place within, in line with her values.
Rabbi Akiva’s statement “What’s mine and what’s yours, is really hers” might explain why it was only his talmidim who were punished for their lack of love for one another. They, more than anyone, had an ongoing example of what love is.
Unconditional love is one of the most powerful tools, not only in addiction recovery, but in our families and communities. By giving of ourselves (while not giving ourselves away!) we become connected to the people around us. By experiencing love for another we can begin to understand, appreciate and develop a love of Torah and a love of Hashem.
Rabbi Eitan Eckstein is the founder and CEO of Retorno and one of the world’s most foremost experts on addiction. Shoshana Schwartz is an addictions counselor and therapeutic riding instructor in Retorno, and has published four books including “Three Steps,” a novel about addiction and codependence.