Speak to any of our youngsters with an alcohol problem and he will tell you he was introduced to liquor at a shul Kiddush, bar mitzvah or wedding. Those shuls that have done away with serving alcohol in all of its forms, and that even insist on substituting grape juice for wine for Kiddush, are to be commended, as are those individuals, thankfully on the increase, who have stopped serving alcohol at their simchas.
There are many reasons why people turn to alcohol and other drugs. For alcohol, the main reason is plainly and simply its easy availability. Whatever parents, or the community at large, can do to reduce that easy availability and to make it more difficult to obtain alcohol would ameliorate the problem considerably.
Having identified easy availability as one of the primary factors in alcohol abuse, it must be further pointed out that there are other substances that are readily available, if not in synagogues and celebrations, then in every private home. I speak of the wide variety of dangerous substances in the typical medicine chest of most Orthodox Jewish families.
Recently, together with New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, whose district includes much of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, I worked with the Orthodox Union to convene a roundtable discussion on the problem of addictions in the Orthodox Jewish community. During this discussion the audience learned of the growing problem of children who abuse medications found in nearly all our homes.
Beginning with over-the-counter drugs such as cough medicines, and moving on to prescription drugs like pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers and stimulants, children are exposed to a frightening variety of serious dangers. Our teenagers have learned that certain cough medicines can cause emotional “highs.” They have discovered that pain relievers used by their parents, such as codeine and OxyContin, can give them an even more intense high, and straight from the medicine cabinet at that. Kids know that Xanax and Valium are great tension relievers and easy ways to deal with the stresses of family, school and peers.
These common substances are extremely dangerous and it is time parents and schools woke up to the problem. Education about drugs and alcohol should be part of every curriculum. Parents must learn more about their children and what they are doing and must invoke their unused “parent power” to gain control of this problem. For example, keeping one’s medicine chest locked is one easy intervention.
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Purim is just the tip of the iceberg, just one day out of the year. But there is in Purim a lesson that can be helpful with this entire problem. For while it is true that a primary factor in the use of alcohol and drugs by our children is their easy availability, it is also true that another factor is the search for the emotional high. Our kids lead stressful lives, no question about it. It is no wonder they search for ways to feel better, for avenues to elevated moods.
We must teach our children not only to avoid these dangerous substances but also how to deal with life’s challenges and stressors. We must provide in educating them in conflict resolution, problem-solving skills, and healthy ways to relax, express their emotions and talk out their problems.
But we must also teach them how to obtain emotional highs legitimately through intellectual, social, and spiritual methods. This is where the proper celebration of Purim can be a resource and a learning tool.
“For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16).
The lesson of Purim, properly observed, is that the highs of “ora, v’simcha, sasson, v’yekar” do not require artificial stimulants. Rather, they can be achieved through friendship and charity, music and song, Torah study and story, dance and masquerade. Those are the substances that make for a happy Purim. And those are the substances that make for a happy life.
I close by quoting from a chassidic sage of 150 years ago, R’ Yechezkel of Kuzmir. Commenting on the traditional greeting “ah freiliche Purim und ah kasher Pesach” – “A happy Purim and a kosher Passover” – he insisted that it be the reverse.
“Purim,” he said, “will certainly be celebrated happily. We must be sure that our celebratory behaviors are kosher. For Passover we will surely be careful that it is kosher, but must be careful to celebrate happily as well.”
So I wish you all “A kosher Purim and a happy Passover.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.