man walking between two seas 12 steps to recovery, 12 steps, recovering addicts, high holidays, rosh hashanah, yom kippur, sukkot
man walking between two seas

High Holidays provide inspiration for recovering addicts.

The High Holiday season has a special meaning for most Jews, regardless of their level of observance. For those who are recovering from addiction, these holidays, especially Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, have a distinct significance. The 12 Steps, which serve as the guiding tenets of recovery programs for alcohol, drugs, food, gambling and other compulsive behaviors, bear a close resemblance to some of the basic principles of the High Holidays.

Rabbi Benny Greenwald
Rabbi Benny Greenwald

According to Rabbi Benny Greenwald of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, Rosh Hashanah is the holiday where we acknowledge our Higher Power and give up our need to be in charge, which corresponds to Steps 1, 2 and 3.

“We’re letting go; we’re saying I can’t run this ship by myself,” says Greenwald, whose work with recovering addicts has enriched his own High Holiday experience. “People in recovery know ‘If I don’t do this (follow a recommended program of recovery), I die.’ When you see addicts working on their character defects and their recovery, it’s inspiring. It’s inspired me in my own spiritual path.”

The 4th Step involves embarking on a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of the harms done to others as a result of the addiction. Steps 5, 6 and 7 focus on examining the character defects that caused the harmful behavior and preparing to become a better person.

Greenwald equates this process with the 10 days of repentance, or teshuvah, that fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He explains that teshuvah actually means “return,” when Jews return to a more righteous path after being led astray by addiction and its resultant destructive behavior.

“People who are living in recovery are not ‘cured,’” said Cary Heller, a regular attendee at the Jewish recovery meetings at Friendship House. “What we are given is a daily reprieve from using (drugs and alcohol) as long as our ‘spiritual house’ is in order.

“Holidays like Rosh Hashanah are especially helpful for people in recovery like me. Knowing that my life is literally on the line and that all of this is teetering on my spiritual condition today … can be a bit of a tall order. But God helps us with holidays like Rosh Hashanah.”

Leading up to Yom Kippur, it is customary to apologize to those we have harmed during the past year, a direct corollary to Steps 8 and 9, which involve making direct amends wherever possible.

“In Jewish law, we make direct amends to people; we ask forgiveness,” Greenwald says. “God forgives our sins to Him, but we have to ask for forgiveness from the people we have harmed. We express regret about the past and make good resolutions for the future.”

In an article called “Atonement or Forgiveness?” on the website, Rabbi Ben A., a rabbi who writes frequently (and anonymously) about recovery, discusses the concept of amends from a recovery viewpoint:

“Contrary to popular misconception, Yom Kippur is not only about being forgiven by God. Forgiveness you can get all year-round; Yom Kippur is primarily about atonement. Big difference. Forgiveness means that after I make my apology, I’m off the hook. Atonement means that I am engaged in hard work to restore the relationship to its original state … When we behave differently all year-round as a result of our Yom Kippur amends, then we are proving that we really atoned.”

Greenwald believes the closing prayers of Yom Kippur are a strong expression of Step 11, which focuses on prayer and meditation.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, founder and director of Chabad in the D and former director of Friendship House, believes each holiday has its own energy and spiritual theme. While the energy of Passover is freedom, Pinson believes the energy of Rosh Hashanah is connected to the blowing of the shofar.

“The message of the shofar is a wake-up call. It’s time to repent, to do teshuvah,” said Pinson in a recorded recovery class available on “When we sound the shofar, we are doing God’s will; we are practicing recovery and repentance and we are renewing our relationship with God.”

The holiday of Sukkot, according to Greenwald, helps recovering addicts practice Step 12; working with others to help them recover.

“We eat in the sukkah and shake a lulav and etrog, which are both concepts of unity. The sukkah unites everyone inside of it, and if we have something good, we want to share it with others, just as we do in recovery,” Greenwald says.


The Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, a Jewish recovery program of Friendship Circle of Michigan, provides support, guidance, friendship and a welcoming community for recovering Jewish addicts. A Jewish recovery meeting for addicts as well as those with friends and family members who struggle with addiction is held every Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at Friendship House, 6892 W. Maple Road in West Bloomfield.

For more information, contact Rabbi Benny Greenwald at (248) 788-8888 or email him at


Previous articleSweet Success
Next articleOne Earth Writing Launches College Essay Workshop