Selfism - By Rabbi Twerski
In 1961, to prepare myself for treating alcoholics, I began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was impressed that people who followed the 12-step program were able to make radical changes in themselves. Some had been involved in psychotherapy to no avail. Some had suffered loss of their marriage and family. Some had lost jobs. Some had been arrested and even imprisoned for drunk driving and other antisocial behavior. Some had sustained serious physical deterioration, and some had experienced all of the above, but none of these drastic consequences had been able to curtail their use of alcohol. Yet, when they participated in the 12-step program, they were able to stop the destructive drinking. I met alcoholics who had been sober for fifty years.
One speaker at an AA meeting, who was celebrating his thirty-fifth anniversary of sobriety, said, “The man I once was, drank; and the man I once was, will drink again.” In this single sentence he summed up the reason for the success of the 12-step program: It brings about a change in character.
It is of interest that Rambam makes the identical statement about teshuvah. “I am no longer the same person who committed the sin.” Remorse for committing the sin is not yet teshuvah. Promising never to repeat the sin, even a sincere promise, is not yet teshuvah. Teshuvah is becoming a different person than the one who committed the sin (Teshuvah 2:4).
I found myself being very comfortable at AA meetings and with the discussions of the twelve steps, and I realized that the latter were essentially identical with the mussar that I had been learning for years. I wrote a book, Self-Improvement? I’m Jewish! in which I said that if I had to develop a program for recovery from alcoholism based on mussar, it would be word for word the twelve steps. The mystery was, how did Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, have access to the works of mussar?
But then a strange thing happened. I began to get clients for treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction, who were very frum, some even Torah scholars who could quote Mesilas Yesharim verbatim. Yet, their knowledge of mussar did not preclude their becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs, but when they joined AA and worked the 12-step program, they recovered. Inasmuch as the 12-step; program is virtually identical to mussar, why did the program work whereas mussar was ineffective?
I came to the conclusion that an alcoholic or drug addict does not come into recovery until they reach a crisis. They are at a point of ein bereira; i.e., they have no choice. They are at a point where continuing to drink or use drugs will kill them. Following the twelve steps is a matter of life and death. They have witnessed people die who did not follow the program.
I realized then that although we say of Torah, ki heim chayeinu, that Torah is our very life, it is often unfortunately lip service. The addict knows for real that failure to follow the program is a death sentence. The student of mussar values it highly and respects its principles and teachings, but generally does not feel that deviating from mussar is a death sentence. If he did, he would never again lie, speak or listen to lashon hara, or do anything else that mussar forbids.
I began to learn mussar with a different attitude. I understood what Rebbe Yisrael Salanter meant when he said that one must learn mussar with hispaalus, with an emotional upheaval.