Addiction and Free Will

August 15, 2021

2 min read


Ki Tetzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19 )

If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother . . . a glutton and a drunkard (Deut. 21:18-20).

The Talmud says that the capital punishment of the wayward son was never carried out and is a technical impossibility. Why then does the Torah mention it? So that we will be rewarded for studying it (Sanhedrin 71a).

Is it logical to have a Jewish law that is a technical impossibility and is there only to be studied in theory? And what is the specific reward for this?

Rabbi Elyah Lopian addresses this issue. He prefaces with a question. The Talmud says that the wayward son is a youth who steals to satisfy his gluttony and his craving for alcohol. The harsh punishment decreed by the Torah is not for the crime of theft, but because his behavior is certain to progress to the point where he will kill to satisfy his cravings.

Rabbi Lopian says that the Torah relates that when God provided water for Ishmael to prevent him from dying of thirst in the arid desert, the angels protested, “Why save him? His descendants will kill Jews!” (as we so tragically know). God responded, “I do not judge people by what may transpire in the future.”

Why, then, is the wayward son punished for what he will do in the future?

Rabbi Lopian answers that every person has freedom of choice in his moral and ethical behavior. Even a profligate sinner may do teshuvah, repentance. However, a youth who steals for food and drink has lost his freedom of choice. His cravings have overwhelmed his freedom of choice, and he is capable of eliminating anything that stands in the way of his gratifying his desires.

Anyone familiar with addiction recognizes the phenomenon Rabbi Lopian describes. An addict essentially loses his freedom of choice and becomes enslaved by his addiction. I have repeatedly heard recovered addicts say, “When I needed drugs, I did things that I never thought myself capable of doing.”

Any addiction can enslave a person, whether it be to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or food. It is, therefore, extremely important that we take great precaution not to develop habits that can be destructive.

This is especially important for parents to know. It is not uncommon for parents to think that their son's frequent recourse to alcohol is a phase which he will outgrow. It is far more likely that the condition will progress to most serious proportions.

When parents become aware of use of drugs or excessive use of alcohol in a child, it is a mistake to think that asking or ordering him to stop will be effective. He may have lost his freedom of choice. Parents should consult someone with established competence in addiction, and follow the advice they are given.

Understanding the unrelenting course of addiction is a reward we receive from studying this portion of the Torah.

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