D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results
It’s easy to quibble with the above definition of insanity. As a legal term, insanity has to do with a defendant’s ability to determine right from wrong when a crime is committed. In the context of addiction however, insanity usually refers to the pattern of repeating behaviors that never end well. Put another way, insanity implies losing the ability to think and act in a rational manner.
One of the more well-known rituals we perform during the Seder is the recitation of the ten plagues. With the mention of each plague, we spill a drop of wine as a way to acknowledge the Egyptians who suffered because of our liberation. Yes, the Egyptians were cruel to the Israelites and deserved punishment. But despite their cruelty, it’s hard to be happy when others are punished on our account. As we read in Proverbs,
בִּנְפֹ֣ל א֭וֹיִבְךָ אַל־תִּשְׂמָ֑ח וּ֝בִכָּשְׁל֗וֹ אַל־יָגֵ֥ל לִבֶּֽךָ
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls (Proverbs 24:17)
In the story of the Exodus, Moses pleads over and over again with Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery and warns him of the consequences that will transpire if he refuses to let them go. Pharaoh as well after witnessing the destructive impact the plagues have on the Egyptians, pleads over and over again with Moses to have God bring each plague to an end. The difference between how Moses and Pharaoh behave is that Pharaoh then promises to let the Israelites go only to later renege on that promise.
As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (‘z”l) writes: The life history of the addictive person is virtually identical to the saga of the ten plagues. The person’s habit results in some type of disastrous consequence, and he swears that he will never resume this behavior. Before too long however, he does resume his destructive behavior, totally oblivious to the experiences of the past, or cleverly deluding himself as to why this time, things will be different.
While 10 repetitions of this behavior might seem like a lot, it could as Rabbi Twerski writes, occur more than 100 times-- only stopping in the face of a catastrophe. The 10th plague, the killing of the Egyptian first-born, is the catastrophe that stops Pharaoh in his tracks. When he realizes אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30), he releases the Israelites. But then, in the ultimate example of bad behavior not ending well, Pharaoh again changes his mind and he and his army pursue the Israelites right into the Sea of Reeds where they drown.
It is not only those suffering from the disease of addiction who can succumb to this kind of irrational behavior. All of us are capable of being stubborn in the face of logic or blind to the truth of our behavior. During this zman cheiruteinu, this season of our freedom, let us make an effort to rise above the behaviors that keep us in prisons of our own making. Let us declare our freedom from the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Chag Kasher Sameach – Happy Passover!!