This week on Yud-Tes Shevat marks the first yartzeit of one of the true luminaries of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski ZT”L.
Rabbi Twerski was a descendent of holy Chassidic masters and brought the teachings of his ancestors—most notablyMeor Aynayim and the Bobover Rebbe—to the masses. Through his positivity and loving approach to Torah, the Rav inspired thousands of individuals and their families to grow closer to Hashem. This was something he did gracefully across both the Jewish and the non-Jewish world.
Throughout his academic career as founder of a top-notch Rehabilitation facility and author of over 80 books, the Rav built an “international reputation as an authority on addiction.” But these accolades from The New York Times were nothing compared to the simcha Rabbi Twerski felt through living and working as a Kiddush Hashem.
I still remember sitting with The Rav towards the end of his life. The smile on his face shone brightly as we discussed various public health initiatives and their positive impact. The Rav told me about the feedback he’d received from an Arab living in Berlin after an online talk he’d given on the power of resilience: “If we can make a German Muslim excited about the teachings of a Jew, we are on the right track!”
But for all of the good the Rav did in this world, his greatest impact may have been the work he did on behalf of Jewish addicts.
I was once zoche to meet a recovering alcoholic who had once been found guilty of some pretty aggressive vandalism while he was drinking. This man was ostracized from his shul and finally hit rock-bottom following his arrest. He found sobriety, eventually becoming one of these inspiring people who lives an honest, yosher life, ironically, infinitely greater than anything they could have possible achieved had they never picked up a drink in the first place.
The man eventually came home and had the courage to return to his previous minyan. Sadly, at the urging of many of his fellow congregants, the Rabbi of the community refused to let him back in. This man called up Rabbi Twerski (ZT”L) who told him that he belonged and that if the shul wouldn’t have him back, it was their loss. This was all well and good, but he didn’t just talk the talk, the Rav walked the walk, calling up the shul’s rabbi and telling him personally to take the man back into the shul and the community with open arms. Beautiful.
I remember sharing this story with a fellow psychiatrist who was impressed with the Rav’s fierce defense of the recovery movement. “This is fantastic,” he told me, “But what about his personal life? Did this Chassidic Rebbe Psychiatrist really stand side-by-side with addicts?”
The truth was that he did. I remember The Rav once telling me, “I only trust addicts. My dentist is an addict, my accountant is an addict, my lawyer is an addict, my surgeon is an addict. These are the only people that have done real self-work and that is truly worth something.” He was as pure on the inside as he was on the outside: tocho keboro–THIS is Gadlus.
Like Avraham Avenu, he opened up his tent to bring in those who needed a place to find themselves. The Gemara in Sotah teaches that Avraham and Sarah had a hotel of sorts in the middle of the desert to provide travelers with a place to stay and a warm meal. When they’d finished their food and were ready to leave, the guests would ask Avraham Avenu, “how much should we pay?” He would smile at them and tell them, “I just served it to you, Thank The One who created it in the first place.”
Rav Avraham Twerski was a true Avraham Avenu, providing a place for Jews in need of support in their battle against addictions to find their place in yiddishkeit. So many Jewish addicts had been turned off by a system that scared them away from Judaism. They were therefore wary of Alcoholics Anonymous and a 12-Step Program that stressed a personal relationship with “G-d.”
Rabbi Twerski showed them that they could spend all their time and money on treatments that had more than a 90% relapse rate in a year, or that they could commit to a sober, honest relationship with their Creator through The 12-Steps. With his books, his lectures, his listening and caring ear, and, ultimately, his passionate genius and profound humility, The Rav brought countless non-religious Jews back to Judaism through his teachings. Perhaps even more striking was the home he built for thousands of Frum Jews within a yiddishkeit that would have otherwise thrown them out. In this, he was a true talmid of Avraham Avenu.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ZT”L famously taught: אחריות היא יסוד האדם—personal responsibility is the foundation of a human being. Rabbi Twerski lived a life according to this fundamental principal. I once asked him if he had any regrets in his lifetime and he smiled as he shook his head, “Not at all. I only wish I had more strength to do what needed to be done.”
With this in mind, I often think of the Rav as I remember a famous quote from the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, “You cannot add more minutes to the day, but you can utilize each one to the fullest.”
We cannot do much about the length of our lives, but perhaps we can strive to determine its other dimensions: How deep will we dive to find our true mission in this world? How wide will our impact be on our fellow human beings? How big will the shoes we leave behind be to fill?
As a psychiatrist, a Jew, a student of the Rav, and ultimately a human being…I cannot begin to tell you how big his shoes really were.
May his memory be for a blessing and may his merit protect us all.