Purim and Addiction

By: Zalman Nelson LMSW


Struggling with an addiction? Purim is a great time to deal with it.

Crazy, right? Who works on an addiction specifically during a day when intoxication is a mitzvah? Granted that it sounds like a contradiction, but this idea, as well as addictions and Purim itself, are all about looking past the exterior and getting in touch with the core.

Let’s first get clear on addiction. They are persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior (process addiction – i.e., alcohol, drugs, smoking) or substance (substance addiction – i.e., gambling, shopping, eating).While there is no test or single predictor for developing an addiction, there are some common risk factors: the physically addicting nature of the substance, our genetic sensitivities, and more.

But the most important single factor in addiction is social learning, which includes behavior patterns in one’s family or culture, and influences like peer pressure and the media. In other words, we are exposed to unhealthy means and methods of meeting one of our needs, and it develops into full-blown addiction. At the core of every addiction lies a legitimate need that must be met, and if it not for the addiction’s destructive nature and negative consequences, it would work to meet that need.

As such, effective treatment has to include awareness of that motivating need and the development of an alternative, healthy method of meeting that need. In fact, failure to discover and address that need nearly guarantees a return to addiction. It’s the reason why cold turkey, hard core diets fail so frequently – eating has an emotional, comforting component; without meeting that need in an alternative way, the person will return to what they’ve learned meets their needs.

Bottom line: the need driving an addiction is a good need that has to be met in a better way.

This idea and the inspiration to look beyond the surface of an addiction to find the legitimate need at its core is what Purim is all about. Moreover, this kind of work can draw energy and success from an understanding and celebration of Purim.

So where’s the addiction in the Purim story? The Megillah tells us that one of Haman’s first acts as Prime Minister is to persuade Achashveirosh to sign a decree of annihilation against the Jewish people. Not a pleasant thought, but who believes it will stand given that Esther is the queen and Mordechai a high-level minister. Sounds like more than enough political clout to knock off the decree.

Yet our heroes’ response to Hamas decree to “annihilate all the Jews, Mordechai’s people, throughout Achashverosh’s entire kingdom” shunned the political approach. Instead, Mordechai took to the streets in sack and ashes and Esther calls for fasting: “Go gather all the Jews…and fast in my merit. Don’t eat or drink for three days.” Only after implementing their spiritual approach did they then turn to political actions.

Why use a spiritual approach to a seemingly physical issue? Because the gezeira was a consequence, not a punishment; a sign from Above to do teshuva. The Jews had enjoyed and deeply valued their participation in Achashverosh’s seudah. According to Chassidus,this was the equivalent of putting their faith in mortals in denial of G-d and their supernatural status as His chosen people. After Mordechai and Esther were sure the true cause was being addressed they turned to more natural means to nullify the gezeira itself.

In essence, they saw the issue, went into its core, addressed what they found, and then, assured of success, they implemented standard, natural methods of repealing the decree. From Purim we learn to not get hung up in how things look on the surface, and to pursue their core motivation. We are inspired to see a child’s acting out behavior as a cry for help or a wordless communication of needs. We are encouraged to see our struggles as G-dly orchestrated guidance and direction.


Zalman Nelson is an experienced social worker and addiction counselor whose approach to therapy is an integration of psychology, Torah an Chassidic thought. He believes that psychology has advanced since the days of Freud and rather than recognizing the Id, he focuses on the Yid–the Jewish soul. He is extremely successful at his brand of therapy and can be reached at kabbalahtherapy.com.

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