It should make sense now when we say that one way of describing the problem of addiction is to say that the addict is simply way too in tune with his or her own existence. Addicts are often described as being touchy or hypersensitive. It’s true. Hence, the insatiable urge to numb themselves into unconsciousness. Long gone are the days when they were actually enjoying their use. They are actually looking for the self-obliteration their use brings on.

I once heard an addict relate how when he first got sober, people told him that if he just didn’t drink or use, he would feel better. “Yeah, when you get sober, you feel better, alright. You feel anger better; you feel resentment better; you feel fear better.”

What the process of recovery does, in essence, is to allow the addict to find self-transcendence instead of self-destruction. The immediate effects of self-transcendence and self-destruction can feel quite similar. The difference is that with self-destruction, besides the fact that one drives oneself to a miserable death, it doesn’t really address the root problem. A person who is focused on blotting out his or her own self is still focused on self. The only solution is to start to rise above the self, to transcend it. This is the essence of spirituality and having a conscious relationship with God.

Those who are still uncomfortable with the whole idea of God might jump to theorize that the addict could gain the same relief by focusing on anything outside of the self. The problem is that this just doesn’t work. Human beings just aren’t wired that way, especially addicts.

I’ll tell you the story of how we got that way. It’s actually the story of addiction and recovery in macrocosm, as related by the Zohar, the canonical text of Kabbalah.

In the Garden

Before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve had no self concept. It simply wasn’t built into the human psyche to be self-aware. Human consciousness was nothing like we know it today. Adam and Eve saw themselves, and all of creation, as one great unity at one with God, and they had no other concept of existence. Indeed, that’s why the voice of temptation came to them through the serpent, and not from their own minds, as it comes to us. They were simply incapable of even conceiving the very notion that one might have any other function or goal than being in total harmony with God.

That is why Adam and Eve in the garden were able to be naked and not be ashamed. They understood that they had no clothes on. But it didn’t mean anything to them. What reason is there to be ashamed of having the parts that God gave you? Indeed, the whole concept of shame was unknown to them.

When they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, however, “their eyes were opened” (Genesis 3:7). The knowledge that they gained was self-knowledge, the awareness of their own existence as something separate from God. In very practical terms, this means that they realized that their bodies and senses could be used purposely to obtain pleasure, rather than just experiencing whatever was happening in the moment. To be sure, even before the sin Adam and Eve felt pleasure, but it was a sensation of “this is pleasure,” rather than “I feel good.” With “I feel good” comes “I feel bad.” And with that comes “You know what would make me feel good?” and “I am afraid that this will make me feel bad.” All at once, they suddenly experienced the capacity to feel what they were feeling. This is not to be confused with the capacity to feel. They had that before. What they experienced for the first time were all of the feelings of feeling, which are not really feelings at all but a subjective interpretation of objective experience. No longer could they just “be.” They were forced to be aware of their own reaction to stimulus.

Noah’s Vineyard

As descendants of that first man and woman, we have inherited their hard-wiring. It is inextricable from the human condition that we feel awareness of self. This self-consciousness is impossible to overcome on our own. It comes from feeling separate from God, and can be relieved only by feeling at one with Him again. The oneness with God that Adam and Eve felt before the sin was automatic. The oneness of God that we experience must be the result of a conscious decision.

Early in human history, there was a great man who tried to reverse the effects of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. His name was Noah. After the flood, he observed a new world and thought it the perfect time to introduce a new paradigm of human existence. If humanity’s fatal flaw was self-consciousness, it could be remedied, he thought, by destroying consciousness. Immediately after disembarking from the Ark, “Noah . . . planted a vineyard. He drank its wine and got drunk” (Genesis 9:20–21).

The shameful results of Noah’s foray into wiping out his own consciousness were immediate. When Noah came to, he found that not only had he not been elevated, but also that he was degraded and abused.

Our Mother Sarah

Says the Zohar: After the failures of Eve and Noah, the matriarch Sarah discovered the real solution to humanity’s problem. The Kabbalah explains that Sarah was the personification of humility and selflessness. Many stories illustrate Sarah’s selfless nature, for this was not only a motif in her life, but also an expression of her very essence.

For instance, when Sarah and her husband, Abraham, briefly visited Egypt looking for food, Sarah had to be smuggled into the country while hiding in a box. This was for her own safety, as we see later; for when she was eventually discovered, she was abducted and taken to the palace of the king. However, the very fact that she was willing to go along with the plan is remarkable.

Furthermore, during that same journey, she agreed with Abraham to tell people that she was his sister rather than his wife—she was indeed his kinswoman, his niece to be precise—so that no one would kill Abraham in order to be able to lawfully marry his wife. (In those days, people would commit murder sooner than they would go after a married woman.) Again, this was for practical considerations, but her willingness to refrain from revealing her identity is extraordinary.

Many years later, when Sarah and Abraham were older and still had not had children, Sarah told Abraham to take a concubine and have a child with her. (Although this was a common and accepted practice in those days, it was still unusual that a wife would actually encourage her husband to do so.)

Modern sensibilities recoil from these stories. “She was an oppressed woman!” people today will cry. “How awful for her!” they will say. If modern sensibilities had garnered us one iota of the happiness that Sarah had in life, these objections might be worth listening to.

Sarah was not a weak woman. She was a strong woman. She was not timid. She was brave. And most of all, she was happy. She was happy because she had discovered the secret of living selflessly. Our mother Sarah is our role model for the power, the joy and the freedom of the selfless life.

At the age of ninety, Sarah finally had a son and she named him Isaac, which means “laughter.” Yes, Sarah named the child, not Abraham, for she was infused with a greater prophetic spirit than her husband. Prophecy is the condition of being a completely open and unobstructed conduit of the divine. This was Sarah’s essence.

Now, Abraham’s concubine had given birth to a son years earlier. His name was Ishmael. When Ishmael came of age, and Sarah saw that he had become a physical and spiritual danger to her son, Isaac, she ordered her husband to banish Ishmael from their home. (Sarah was definitely not a codependent, but we shall speak at length on that subject in later chapters.)

Again, modern sensibilities see this last episode as incongruous with Sarah’s mild, easygoing nature. What modern sensibilities fail to grasp is that for Sarah, ordering her husband to send away his other son was not a sudden departure from her selfless nature. It was the ultimate expression of it. Sarah had no problem setting boundaries. She had no hesitation to speak the truth. Because there was not one bit of self-consciousness involved in her assessment of the situation.

And do you know what God told Abraham when he was unenthusiastic about following her advice? “All that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice” (Genesis 21:12). And as the Midrash elucidates, “For she is greater in prophecy than you.”

Sarah was happy, and her example teaches all of us how to be happy. Sarah perfected the skill of self-detachment, of rising above the conscious ego. Sarah never had to second-guess herself when making a difficult decision, because her self was never part of the decision to begin with.

If only we could all be like Sarah—God-conscious, rather than self-conscious; self-transcendent, rather than self-indulgent or self-destructive.

But how?

Let’s discuss the problem a bit more, so that we may clearly understand how to truly break free of it.

Another Name for Self

A teacher of mine once told us a parable about the Angel of Death complaining to God that his name was bad for business.

The Angel of Death stands before the heavenly throne and says:

“Master, You have appointed me to the task of making it necessary for the humans to actually exercise their free choice if they wish to be close to You. I am trying to do my job and make them feel that there are options other than having a relationship with You. But they do not listen, and I think it is the name You have given me. Whenever I introduce myself to humans, they hear the word ‘death’ in my name, and run away in terror. If I am to continue doing my job, I must be called something else.”

“Very well,” said God. “You may call yourself Satan, the Adversary. Go to the humans and do as you have been ordered.”

The Angel of Death/Adversary did so, but was back a little while later. “This name is no good either,” he said. “Once people know that I am the Adversary, they know that I don’t have their best interests at heart. They don’t trust me.”

“So call yourself the Evil Inclination,” God said. “That sounds a little more innocuous.”

So the Angel of Death/​Adversary/Evil Inclination went to try out his new name, but it wasn’t long before he was back protesting that this name, too, was no good.

“It has the word ‘evil’ right there in the name. That’s showing all of my cards! I need a name that won’t scare people off.”

“Try Animal Soul,” suggested God.

And so he did. But he found that it didn’t completely work either.

“People don’t listen to animals. I get no respect with this name.”

“All right,” said God, “I didn’t want to have to do this, but I have a name for you that will allow you to do all of your business without any problem at all. You’ll be able to confuse and mislead them as much as you need to, and they will insist to themselves that what you are saying makes sense. They will not want to make a decision without first consulting you. They will believe that you are helping them, and they will actually feel silly and embarrassed when they doubt your advice. It’s really such a perfect name for what you do. Go and tell them that your name is Self.”

And so he did. And since then, there’s been so much business that Self has had to hire a different assistant to deal with each one of us.


The recovery culture is full of hundreds of pithy and original sayings, many of which you will find sprinkled throughout this book. Especially popular are “backronyms,” made-up acronyms that are retrofitted for real words. Addicts say they can be thickheaded, so they like aphorisms that are easy to remember. One such reverse acronym is E.G.O., which stands for “Edging God Out.”

One cannot be at once God-conscious as well as self-conscious. It’s not that the ego is inherently evil; it’s just the source of evil. The ego says, “I exist. God is bigger, stronger and older than I am, but I also exist.”

Of course, that doesn’t sound so terribly sinister, but that’s precisely what makes it such an insidious trap. God is True and Independent Existence. He is the Real Everything. Indeed, that is the very best definition for God that human words can express. Now, if God is Everything, how can there be anything else? If I have my own existence, then God is not Everything. There’s God and there’s me. Says the ego, “Oh, God is great, and I am a tiny speck. But I exist too.” In other words, God is not really Everything. But the definition of God is complete Oneness. Therefore, if He is everything but me, then He’s not really God.

“Okay, so I’m a heretic,” says the ego. “Excommunicate me.” That is not the point. This isn’t a theological debate. Theology does not even begin to come into it. We are talking about our lives and our existence. We cannot be true to ourselves, and we cannot be in tune with Reality, if we are obsessed with an illusory image of self.

If you can live that way, more power to you. But addicts cannot live that way. Addicts are obsessed with finding a solution, even when they don’t really understand what the problem is.

Addicts are desperately trying to destroy the E.G.O. that is making their life miserable, and they are willing to lose everything and even die in the process.

All or Nothing

The Torah says, “There is nothing else besides Him . . . The Lord is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is nothing else” (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39). These verses are often taken as a rejection of polytheism.

However, the Torah doesn’t say, “There are no other gods beside Him”—that’s already covered in the second of the Ten Commandments, prohibiting idol worship. Here it says, “There is nothing else beside Him” and “There is nothing else.”

It cannot be that He is one thing, and the world and we are something else. There are not multiple existences. There is but One Existence. As the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, used to say, “All is God, and God is all.” God is not only the Master and Creator of the world. He is the world, for He is Everything.

The central prayer of Judaism is the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It doesn’t say, “The Lord is the one God.” It says, “The Lord is One”—that is, complete Unity and Oneness. Nothing exists apart from Him. It is E.G.O. that implicitly denies this fact, and thus E.G.O. that separates us from our true and essential relationship with God.

When we realize that God is truly Everything, we are released from E.G.O.; and likewise, when we let go of E.G.O., we feel how God is truly Everything. Most people would call this “enlightenment” or some other fancy word. The recovering addict calls it sobriety.

The Twelve-Step programs do not espouse any religious views of God. They do not require that members embrace any particular conception of a Higher Power. (In later chapters, we will, however, discuss implicitly theological statements made within the program.) But the program does clearly make at least one statement about the nature of God—that the One who has the power to help us recover from addiction is Everything.

To quote:

When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be? (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 53)

According to all that we have explained about the problem of addiction, it only makes sense that this must be our concept of God.

The recovering addict can choose to call God whatever he or she wishes (which may be particularly important for one who was soured by negative religious experiences in the past), but ultimately, at least in my humble opinion, the whole idea of choosing one’s own concept of God is little more than semantics. God is Everything, or else He is nothing. As long as one clings to E.G.O.—read: the belief in oneself as a separate existence independent from God—one cannot let God be God. And if God isn’t God, then who will be? Who will take care of me? “I will,” says E.G.O., “I always take care of myself.” And that is when all hell breaks loose.

Fortunately, the addict does not have to be able to clearly understand any of this in order to recover. All that is necessary is to begin to let go of E.G.O., and as that obstacle is gradually diminished, the necessary God-consciousness will begin to take shape on its own.

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.