Hebrew Voices #29 – From Slavery to Freedom

Nehemia Gordon and Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski talking about going from slavery to freedom on Hebrew Voices. In this episode of Hebrew Voices, From Slavery to Freedom, Nehemia Gordon speaks to Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski. Nehemia draws on Rabbi Twerski's vast experience as a world-renowned Rabbi and psychiatrist to explain why it is important to get out of our comfort zone in order to achieve true spirituality. The author of over 70 books and a canonical Jewish prayer sung in every synagogue, Rabbi Twerski's stature in the Jewish world parallels that of Billy Graham in the Christian world. Rabbi Twerski opens the episode singing a Psalm, shares how he once saved a man by getting a special dispensation from the Pope, and describes a practical plan to break the chains of spiritual slavery in order to attain true freedom and maximize our full potential and purpose in life.

I look forward to reading your comments!

Download From Slavery to Freedom


Shalom. This is Nehemia Gordon with Hebrew Voices. This week I'm truly humbled to bring you a living legend in the Jewish world, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, MD. Rabbi Twerski's stature in the Jewish world is roughly equivalent to that of Billy Graham in the Christian world. He started out as a Chasidic pulpit Rabbi, but then became a medical doctor, and eventually a world-class psychiatrist. Rabbi Twerski is a tsaddik. He's a truly righteous man with a profound connection to God, who I think we can all look to and learn from. That's certainly not something I say lightly about anyone, especially coming from my perspective. Rabbi Twerski has written over 70 books on a variety of topics. I read two of his books in preparation for this episode, one called "Self-Improvement? -I'm Jewish!" and the other called "The Spiritual Self".

Throughout this interview Rabbi Twerski speaks about the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but I want to make something very clear. This is not an episode about alcoholism. Rabbi Twerski emphasizes in his books that the 12-steps are an authentic Jewish path to cultivating true spirituality. He describes the 12-steps as a practical way of integrating certain aspects of the Torah into your life, and calls this the "antidote to Satan"!

Why are the twelve steps so closely associated with alcoholism? Rabbi Twerski explains, that in a way, alcoholics have an easier time developing a spiritual connection to God. If you're not an addict, you might be able to get away with living your whole life without having a relationship with God. In contrast, hard-core alcoholics and drug addicts don't have that luxury. They'll end up dead or in prison if they don't use the 12-steps to defeat Satan and cultivate that spirituality. And true spirituality is not about blissfully raking a rock garden. It's about getting out of your comfort zone through self-examination, in order to maximize your potential with God's help. I thought this would be a great topic for a Passover Special, providing a practical step by step plan for cleaning the spiritual leaven out of our lives and leading us from slavery to freedom.

As I was preparing for this program, I learned that Rabbi Twerski, in addition to all his other accomplishments, is the author of the standard Jewish tune for chanting Psalms 28:9. This tune is sung in Jewish prayer services throughout the world. I asked Rabbi Twerski about this and he started out our conversation by singing the verse for us. I just can't emphasize what a big deal this is for me, growing up in the synagogue, hearing this song every week, now hearing it from the author of the tune. So here is Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski singing the words of the Psalmist:

Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachalatecha, u-re-em ve-nas-em at ha-olam. (Psalms 28:9)

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם

"Save your people, and bless your inheritance, be their shepherd and bear them on your shoulders, forever." (Psalms 28:9)

Nehemia Gordon: I'm standing here with my arms going along with it and all excited. Rabbi, when I read you came up with that tune, I said that can't be. That's like saying you're the man who invented peanut butter and jelly. Like, that's always been around, no one invented peanut butter and jelly. How did you come up with that tune, Rabbi?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: You may be able to invent peanut butter and jelly, but you don't invent tunes.

Nehemia Gordon: So how does it come to you?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Just like any idea comes to you. I happen to believe that it's hashgachah (providence), that it's an inspiration. I remember exactly where I was, it was 1960. It was the week before my younger brother's wedding and I was davening (praying) and I came to the phrase "hoshea es amecha" and I started singing it. Obviously I never heard it before. A week later, at my brother's wedding, we sang the tune and it was very catchy, somebody then took the tune to Israel and when it came back from Israel to America, it was a Breslover nigun or a Chabad nigun or whatever.

Nehemia Gordon: Nigun is a tune, for those who don't know.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I didn't invent that. You don’t invent those things. It was a tune that was put into my mind by Hashem (God). I'm very glad I have the zchus (privilege) that people are besimcha (with joy) and can dance to my song.

Nehemia Gordon: Roughly in English you just said, I'm happy I have the blessing that people are happy and can dance to the song, have the joy. I mentioned to my brother-in-law, here in Jerusalem, that I will be interviewing you and he went over to his bookshelf, this was at a Shabbat afternoon meal, and he pulled off three books from his bookshelf, that you wrote. One was about how to raise children. You've written over 70 books, it's incredible. This is going to be a Pessach (Passover) special. I heard this wonderful teaching you did on this idea of going From Slavery to Freedom, and I just found out you have a Passover Hagaddah that you put together on this very topic. I guess you're talking about going from slavery to freedom, am I right, through the 12-steps? And just to be clear, when you talk about the 12-steps, one of the things you say in your book is that they are not just for alcoholics. You mention in your book, that they're actually, basically, for everybody. Anybody who has a defect of character, which is everybody. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Yes, Nehemia, yes everybody. Because the only being that's perfect is Hashem (God). Every other creature has defects.

Nehemia Gordon: So, these 12-steps aren't just for alcoholics. I know there are some listening saying, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm turning this off". But really this is about dealing with character defects, and going from slavery to various things, to freedom. Could you talk a little bit about that, Rabbi?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Let me tell you how I got started on this. There was a young man who came to my institute in Pittsburgh, 31 years ago. His father was a scholar, a Rabbi, and this young man had gotten involved in drugs. He came to Pittsburgh and baruch hashem (thank God), the program succeeded and he is now 31 years sober. But I knew at that time that I couldn't let him return to New York. Because, if he gets in touch with his friends, he'll be right back on drugs. So I had him stay in Pittsburg for several months. Then one day he tells me he wants to go to his father's Seder. I said, Of course! So he went to his father's Seder. After Pessach (Passover), he came back to Pittsburgh and he said, "You know when my father started saying the Hagaddah for Passover, and he started saying avadim hayinu (we were slaves), I interrupted him. I said, Abba, can you ever say about yourself that you were personally a slave? You're talking about your ancestors thousands of years ago. But you don't know personally what it means to be a slave. I can tell you what it means to be a slave! Because all those years I was on drugs, I was not a free person! I did things I never thought I was capable of doing, but I had to do them to get drugs!'" When he told me that I suddenly realized I had an answer to a question. We talk about it in our prayers and our services, deliverance from Egypt (yitziat mitzrayim). Our deliverance from Egypt, our deliverance from slavery. We say that so many times, almost every mitzvah, commandment. Almost everything that has to do with our faith is somehow related to the yitziat mitzrayim, to the deliverance from Egypt. And I was wondering why. I mean it's important, but why is it that important? And when this young man told me what he did, about interrupting his father in the hagaddah, I realized deliverance from Egypt is not restricted to being a slave to Pharoah, or to being a slave to Stalin or to being a slave to any person. It is being a slave, in the sense that you're not free to be what you should be.

Nehemia Gordon: So this is slavery from anything where you're not fulfilling your potential or being what you should be?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Right. You can be a slave to alcohol. You can be a slave to heroin. You can be a slave to cocaine. You can be a slave to sex. You can be a slave to food. You can be a slave to anger. You can be a slave to money-making. Once you lose control of something. And so many things become addictive. Once you lose control of something, you're a slave.

Nehemia Gordon: I read in one of your books, where you talked about even people who suffer from procrastination, this is a way of dealing with it. This has a broad application. Can I read a quote? You gave a lecture I was listening to, and I wrote this down. You said, "Even though I never drank, I use the 12-step program every day. I go to meetings, because the 12-steps have taught me something about character formation. That my job is to be the best human being I can be, and the only way to do that is to get rid of the defects that human beings have, and I've got them. And so I found AA to be a program that can help people overcome their character defects." Then you say, "I really think that Bill Wilson plagiarized the works of Jewish ethics, of musar." For those that don't know, Bill Wilson was the founder of the 12-steps of alcoholics anonymous. I read the Big Book of AA and as I'm reading it, he's using terminology I guess his people are familiar with. He talks about how "God did for me what I couldn't do for myself." I read that and I said, "This Rabbi is saying this [12-Steps Program] is Jewish?" What do you mean, God did for me [what I couldn't do for myself]! Judaism is about stand up and be a man. Deuteronomy 30:15 "I place before you today, life and good, and death and evil, chose life". And Bill Wilson is writing in the Big Book of AA, in the 12-steps, God did for me what I couldn't do. So explain that Rabbi. How do you say this is a Jewish thing?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: How do we reconcile it, right? Well, the Talmud says a person's yetzer hara (a person's evil instinct), the evil instinct means the person's biological instinct. We are all born biologically. Tigers are born with a biological instinct. Elephants are born with a biological instinct. The difference is that a tiger cannot chose what to do. He does what his instincts tell him to do. When the tiger kills a gazelle for food, it is not a crime. What the tiger is doing, is what nature decides for him to do. How to get his nourishment. If a human murders, that's a terrible crime. Because human beings are not supposed to give into their instincts. A human being is supposed to be in control of oneself and not to be a pawn, a helpless automaton. What makes a difference between them? That the human being was given by God, was given a potential to make himself different than animals. And that potential is what we refer to as the spirit. I don’t know what the soul is. I don't know that anybody knows what the soul is, but I can tell you what the spirit is. The spirit consists of all of the traits that are unique to a human being, that an animal does not have. So, the human being can learn from past history, which an animal cannot do. The human being can choose between right and wrong. The human being can delay gratification. The human being can have a concept of what is my life for and work towards an ultimate purpose. There are many things, about twelve or thirteen traits, that I listed in one of my books about the unique things that are characteristic of a human being, that separates us from animals. Now, science made a mistake saying human beings are homo sapiens. Homo sapiens is a Latin term, but what it really means, in plain English, is a baboon with intellect. Homo is the hominoids, the gorillas, the apes, the baboons. And sapiens is knowledge. I refuse to consider myself a knowledgeable baboon.

Nehemia Gordon: In other words, you're more than that. I got to say Rabbi, a few months ago, I was in the US, and I was in a Walmart, and I'm looking around as I'm waiting in line, and the people are going through the self-checkout. I stopped for a minute and I thought, they want us to believe these are a bunch of really smart apes that created Walmart and then self-checkout. I just can't believe that. And this was before I read your books and I thought that exact thing. Here these human beings are, we're so much more than that, and it's degrading to us to say we are a bunch of smart monkeys, smart apes.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I have the good fortune of having been born in 1930.

Nehemia Gordon: Wait stop Rabbi. How old are you right now?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Eighty-five.

Nehemia Gordon: You’re eighty-five. I'm humbled.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: The years in the 1930s, life was full of difficulties, life was full of hardships. The average life expectancy in the United States was under 50. Tuberculosis killed people. Pneumonia killed people. There were no antibiotics. There was no relief from the sweltering heat, because there was no air conditioning. Travel was difficult and dangerous. I went from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, sixty hours by train. Two days and three nights. There were no microwaves. Now when I sit in my comfortable car and turn on the air conditioning and all the other gadgets, I remember my first car was a 1936 Plymouth. Our house had signs on it for quarantine six different times, because each time I had one of the childhood diseases, whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles, mumps. There was no immunization. There was no electronics. Work was physically hard. In the 1930s there was so much misery to life that no one in their right mind could have thought the purpose of life is to have pleasure, the purpose of life is to have all the fun you can, the world is a great big amusement park. No one could believe that. So what happens now all the wonderful things science and technology has given us, including the ability for me to sit here and talk with you in Israel. In the 1940s to get from America to Israel would have been six weeks by boat. Now, it's ten hours. What has happened is science and technology and medicine have taken away so much of the suffering we had then, that now, many people believe the goal in life is to have as much fun as you can, get all the pleasure that you can. And the downside of that is that when people, especially youngsters feel "Hey, I'm not getting my share of fun. I'm not getting my share of pleasure." They go for something that is guaranteed to give them a high, they go for drugs. We've spent billions and billions of dollars to try and prevent drug addiction and I said one time we will never be able to solve the drug problem until we can have a good answer to a question raised by a young woman. When Nancy Reagan launched the program Just Say No To Drugs, they asked some young people, "What do you think of this program Just Say No To Drugs?" and a fourteen-year-old girl says "Why, what else is there?"

Nehemia Gordon: That's a sad commentary. So basically you're saying, we've been taught in the modern Western world that the purpose of life is pleasure. I was talking to this Christian woman and she was telling me, and she's coming from a very different perspective than me, but she was telling me that anything that doesn't bring joy is not from God. Here I am, a Jew, I hear this and I'm thinking what are you talking about? In Judaism, the first thing that comes to mind is Yom Kippur. I don't enjoy fasting on Yom Kippur. That really struck me, her very different approach than what I'm used to coming from my culture. You had this whole discussion in one of your books, where you talk about how there's this contrast between comfort and spirituality, and boy is that something different than what we've heard. What we've heard is that spirituality is where you sit very calm, with water flowing sounds and you're meditating and there's nothing wrong with that, but you say no, spirituality is the opposite of comfort. Can you talk about that a little?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I think a very good example of that is, I tell people, walk down the aisle of the supermarket, where they have the evaporated and condensed milk and look at the can of Carnation milk and it says "milk from contented cows". Now, why should I care whether a cow is contented or not? Clearly the producer wants me to buy his product because he has superior milk, because his cows are the most excellent. What makes his cows more excellent? They are contented! So, the excellence of a cow is to be contented. If all I strive for in life is contentment, then I share a goal of life with a cow and I'm just too proud to have that.

Nehemia Gordon: So you're saying spirituality is the opposite in some sense of contentment, because you're challenging yourself by challenging yourself to have purpose. I want to read a quote from your book "The Spiritual Self: Reflections on Recovery and God", which I got on my Kindle. You wrote here, "I am willing to pay the price of turbulence, rather than have bovine tranquility." That's profound, Rabbi. Then you wrote a few pages later, "Our physical desire is for comfort and tranquility and satisfying this desire is certain to be frustrated when one searches for purpose in life." What you're saying there is one of the core aspects of being spiritual is that you find a purpose in life. You don’t define for everybody what that is, but searching for that purpose is going to bring you out of your comfort zone and if you're looking for contentment and tranquility, well that's the opposite of spirituality. That's so contrary to the message that has been preached to us. I want to remind people, Rabbi you are a trained psychiatrist, a medical doctor and I forgot to mention at the beginning, you are the Founder and Medical Director Emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, which is a world renowned rehab center. So when you say these things, I think we have to listen to what you're saying and take it seriously. This is some profound deep stuff.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I talk about a golden life, and it's what spirituality is all about. Spirituality is working towards becoming the best person you can become. Analysts don't do that. I don’t believe any tiger or alligator has said, What do I have to do be a better alligator than I am? The human being has the capacity to think about that and to make the efforts to do that and to rid oneself of those things that stand in the way. I came across a quote from Professor Albert Einstein, who says, "Having a golden life of comfort and pleasure is appropriate for a heard of swine", not for a human being.

Nehemia Gordon: It's just so contrary to everything we've been told by Western society, that the purpose is to be peaceful and tranquil, and you're saying that's great for a cow, it's not great for a human being. And you're saying this both as a Rabbi… and I didn't mention this, but you are a Rabbi from a long line, not just of Rabbis, but of Chassidic Rebbes. So, why did you decide to go into psychiatry? You share in some of your books about this. You were a pulpit Rabbi and your father was, why psychiatry?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: First of all, I never wanted to be a Rabbi, because I saw that I could not become the kind of Rabbi my father was. My father never cracked open a psychology book, but he was an intuitive psychologist, an intuitive therapist and his office was buzzing day and night with people who came to him for help and guidance. When I became a Rabbi in 1951, this was after World War II, and at that point, psychology and psychiatry had a meteoric rise and it became evident to me that this is a different world than my father had, because people are not going to go to the Rabbi for guidance. People are going to go to the psychiatrist. Well, then what am I going to do? What I'm going to do as a Rabbi? I'm going to officiate at weddings and funerals and at monument unveilings and at Bar Mitzvahs and at all kinds of ceremonials?

Nehemia Gordon: Which are important things, but it's not what you felt called to do.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: That could not be my goal in life. So I decided then to become a psychiatrist and then a lot of things happened. You know, things happen that are destined to happened by providence. I was asked to take over the position in 1965 as the Director of Psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh. It had a large 300-bed unit of neurology and psychiatry, and so I did.

Nehemia Gordon: I just want to set the scene for people. You tell this great story about how you grew up as what I think in Israel, we'd call a Charedi, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew. I don't know if you'd agree with that term, but you tell the story of how you once played chess on Rosh Hashannah, and basically your father rebuked you for that. So you're going from that to running a 300 bed psychiatric unit in Pittsburgh. That's not the script that people would expect for you.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Right. I guess I was guided to be there. Part of the 300 bed unit was a 30 bed unit for detoxing alcoholics, and what happened is these people would come in drunk and they would stay for three or four days. We would tell them to go to an AA meeting, which most of them never did and then two months later, they'd be back and we had a revolving door. So I said to the nun, Sister Adel, who was our administrator and by the way, there's a book called, "The Rabbi and the Nuns".

Nehemia Gordon: I can't wait to read that book, Rabbi. So here you are this Chassidic Rabbi, who is a psychiatrist and you're dealing with the nuns.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: It's an interesting book, because there were interesting things. There's a story going around about my contact tangentially with the Pope, but that's an interesting story.

Nehemia Gordon: Could you tell the story very briefly with the Pope?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: What happened was a 34-year-old, young priest, was admitted, who was alcoholic. Unfortunately, he went into the delirium tremens withdrawal reaction, which is a very serious condition. 15% of people with delirium tremens do not survive. He was in intensive care for three days. His heartrate did not go below 200 beats a minute for three days. He was anointed, given Last Rites. The day he was discharged from the intensive care unit, I went in to see him and the nurse says, "Doctor, do you know the Father has asked for Cepacol mouthwash three times today?" I said "You're kidding! Cepacol mouthwash has alcohol".

Nehemia Gordon: He's trying to get alcohol by any means, is what you're telling us?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: So I went to him and said, "Father, are you crazy? Do you realize that you were anointed? We thought you were going to die and after three days of being close to death due to alcohol, you're drinking alcohol mouthwash?" And he said, "I would never do that." I said, "Don’t tell me that. We're going to get a technician up here and do a blood level on you." So he admitted that he was drinking alcohol mouthwash. So I said, "Look, if after three days of being close to death, you can go back to drinking alcohol, you have no control whatsoever. You have to take Antabuse." He said, "What's that?" "It's a medication that prevents you from drinking, because if you take Antabuse every day and you take as much as a single drop of alcohol, you'll become deathly sick, so you won't drink." He says, "Well, how can I say the Mass?" I said "Why?" He said, "I have to take a sip of wine?" "So don’t use wine, use grape juice!"

Nehemia Gordon: A great Chassidic answer!

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: So he says "We can't do that, it has to be wine." Now, during my stay in Pittsburgh, I became a close friend of Cardinal John Wright, who has then moved to the Vatican and became the number three man in the hierarchy of the Church. So I went down to my office and I called Rome and I called Cardinal Wright. I said, "Cardinal Wright, I've got a young priest, if he's not allowed to use grape juice for the Mass, he's going to die from alcoholism. Please go to the Pope and get me a dispensation".

Nehemia Gordon: The Chassidic Rabbi is getting a heter, a special dispensation, from the Pope for this priest!

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: He said "Rabbi, I will personally carry to the Holy Father". At that time, it was Pope Paul VI. The next day Cardinal Wright called me and says "Rabbi, we now have a dispensation. Any alcoholic priest can use grape juice". I said, "Thank you. Go tell the Pope, he had a mitzvah (good deed)."

Nehemia Gordon: The Pope had a Mitzvah! I love that story. Rabbi, I want to go back briefly to this issue of choice. You talk in your book about Deuteronomy 30:15, God places before us the choice between good and evil. We're supposed to choose good that we live and the 12-step concept is, how does that go, "my life is unmanageable and I can't control this". How do you reconcile that specific point of choice? People who are listening to this might say, well my issue isn't alcohol, my issue is rage, or my issue, like you mentioned, is procrastination. So am I powerless over procrastination?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: The Talmud says it very simply. God said, "Look, I gave you the Torah and I also created a Satan, that's an evil force, to try and deviate from becoming what you are supposed to be. There's an antidote to Satan. And that is observing the Torah and understanding it properly and serving God with one's full heart, and it essentially means getting out of your own skin and being helpful to other people. So do people have a choice? Yes, but the only way they can implement that choice is by asking for divine assistance.

Nehemia Gordon: I want to make this really clear Rabbi, you are saying that according to the Jewish approach, a person cannot really keep all the commandments of the Torah perfectly, without God's help?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Exactly.

Nehemia Gordon: What comes to mind is, I think it's Jeremiah who says "hashvenu, hashem alecha, venashuva" (return us to you and we will return). There is a certain amount, where we need God's help. I think the way you describe it in your book is we have to do our utmost and then trust God to help us with the rest. Is that how you look at it?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Do whatever is within your power to do. When you've reached the point where there's nothing more you can do, you ask for divine inspiration, for divine help, and you'll get it.

Nehemia Gordon: And that's kind of what the Serenity Prayer, which is in the AA and the 12-step tradition is, where they ask God, there's things I can change, things I can't change, and God help me know what I can do and what I can't. That's profound. You quote this one verse, and my listeners like to hear Bible verse, so I'm going to quote this. It's Ecclesiastes 7:29. It says "See this alone, I have found that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes". You have an explanation of this in your books. Could you talk about that? How basically, God made us simple and we've messed it up by our thoughts.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: That's where I think AA got the idea from, keep it simple. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, if you kept things simple, you could live a very good productive life. But the problem is that you have manipulations and you have rationalizations and you give yourself all kinds of excuses to fulfil your desires. One alcoholic who was sober a number of years said, "You know, Doctor, in all of my years of drinking, I never took a single drink unless I thought it was the right thing to do at the time."

Nehemia Gordon: So, he convinced himself this is a good idea.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Right. What happens is, we have this power to delude ourselves. If you fool somebody else, well maybe you've cheated and that's a misdeed, but if you deceive yourself, you're helpless. That's stupid to deceive yourself. It may be criminal to deceive others, but it's simply stupidity to deceive yourself. What we have to do, is realize there are things that are right, and things that are wrong. Many things that are wrong are some of our animalistic desires, which we have to subdue and learn to control.

Nehemia Gordon: You talk about in your books, and you mentioned the nuns, that you had this interaction with the nuns, that they have this concept of original sin, and coming from a Jewish perspective that you had a really different take on that.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Look I agree to the concept of original sin, but I think original sin is deceiving yourself and not realizing the potential good within yourself and what you can accomplish for yourself and for humanity. That's the worst sin of all.

Nehemia Gordon: And the Catholic concept is, and I'm not an expert on Catholicism, but basically that you're born bad.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I don't think anybody's born bad. I think a person is born with the potential of being bad, but he makes the choice.

Nehemia Gordon: In your books, you talk about, and I love this, you talk about what the Torah approach has in common with the 12-steps. And you contrast that to psychoanalysis, and you're a psychiatrist. Can you talk about how you find the 12-steps line up more with Torah than psychoanalysis does?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Freud, was a very brilliant psychologist. He had tremendous insights, and one of the insights he had later in life, his disciples disagreed with. They felt he was depressed, which he was, and it's because of his depression that he felt this. Freud came up with the idea that there are two forces in a person. One is called the Eros, which is love, constructive, and productive. And the other is Thanatos, which is death and destruction. Freud said in every person, without exception, in every human being, there is a death-wish, a self-destructive drive. His disciples said, that's just not true. Freud said, "I can't understand why this is so". Because Freud was an Atheist and did not believe there's a God, that God did anything, he couldn't make heads or tails of it. He says, I can't understand why it's there, but I can't deny that it's there.

Nehemia Gordon: And it's contrary to Freud's evolutionary approach, that we shouldn't have a death-wish. Our wish should be to reproduce ourselves, and then I think you tie that to the yetzer hatov (the good inclination) and the yetzer harah (the evil inclination). You tell this great story how people would come to psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, whatever it's called, and they try to figure out why they are drinking alcohol, but they keep drinking and the 12-steps says, first put down the bottle, and you tie that to naaseh ve-nishma (Exodus 24:7).

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: I think the mistaken concept is a person drinks because… because of stress, because of depression, because of his job, because of his family, because… None of that is true. A person is a diabetic, because he's a diabetic. That's the disease. Now you can conduct yourself properly to minimize the effects of the diabetes, but it's a disease that you're born with. I think the same thing is true of alcoholism and the many other addictions. They are diseases. You're not an alcoholic because of your wife or you're an alcoholic because of your children, or an alcoholic because of your boss. You're an alcoholic, because you're an alcoholic. The thing I found that works most often, and works best, is accepting that and realizing, let me find what people who are sober, what they have done to avoid the self-destruction and that's when the AA meetings come in. When you walk into a room with forty people, who are in recovery, you got forty people who are experts on how to stay sober. Again, it's not only a question of alcohol. There's a guy by the name of Clancy, I don’t know if he's still alive, out in California. I heard Clancy, when he was celebrating his 50th anniversary of sobriety and he says this so beautifully, he says, "Look, if your problem is alcohol, you don't need AA, just stop drinking". He says, "My problem wasn't alcohol, my problem was alcoholism. After I stopped drinking, I was left with the "ism"." He says, "Before I stopped drinking, I was arrested and put in jail three times. After I stopped drinking, I was put in jail seven times, because I still have the "ism"." We have to realize all of us have "isms". What the "ism" is really all about, is total self-satisfaction, total egocentricity, the world was created for me to enjoy and nothing should stand in my way. I just have to see that I shouldn't get caught and put in prison for it, but otherwise, that's the "ism".

Nehemia Gordon: And that's far beyond just issues of alcohol. You say in your books, the 12-steps are for all self-defeating life styles, and for all self-destructive behaviors. This is what the Torah talks about. What I love about what you said in your book "Self-Improvement? -I'm Jewish!". You talk about how people would go into the meeting and the first thing they say is stop drinking and then you'll do the steps and find out maybe why you drink, or maybe you won't, but first stop drinking. And we have in the Torah, where God presents the covenant to the People of Israel, in Exodus 24:7 and they said naaseh ve-nishma, we're going to do and then we'll hear what it is. First there's action and then you can figure out some of those details.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Because if you go to a psychologist to help you stop drinking and you don't have the 12-step program, he can analyze you for 12 years.

Nehemia Gordon: And you're still drinking in the meantime.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: And you're still drinking.

Nehemia Gordon: Whereas in the 12-steps, you walk in, and I guess the way it works is you just got to stop.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Don't pick up the first drink, and come to meetings.

Nehemia Gordon: That's some really powerful stuff. Rabbi, I wanted to spend a whole bunch of time, which I don't think we are going to have, talking about issues of… You have this great teaching, where you talk about three different things, which are anger, rage and resentment, and I was hoping we would have time to do a whole discussion about getting the resentment out of our lives and the metaphor I have for resentment is chametz (leaven). It's in your life and it festers and it grows and if you don’t get rid of it, then it's going to change you in a bad way. I don’t think we are going to have time to talk about that, but maybe you will come back and do another program with us, Rabbi.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Just good to know, the best definition of resentment is swallowing poison and thinking it's going to kill the other person. Resentments are poison, they're toxic and we have to find ways of getting rid of them.

Nehemia Gordon: That is one of the things I think the 12-steps, at least from what I read in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, kind of focuses on. I think there is some phrase in there about "resentment kills alcoholics" and there is a whole thing there about writing down your resentments and reading your resentments to another person and that's some pretty fascinating stuff. You know what it reminds me of a little bit? I'll just say really briefly. In Catholithism, they have this idea where they go to confession and confess all their issues to a priest, and in Judaism, and maybe in Chassidic Judaism it's different, but in the Judaism I grew up with, we don't have anything like that. You never go tell your problems to a Rabbi, at least again where I grew up, and here there's this system, which you're saying is for everybody, not just alcoholics, where people can work through those issues and flush out… It's almost like doing a Pesach cleaning, where you're getting rid of that resentment and you're left with a clean house and I just love that image. It's some powerful stuff.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: Exactly.

Nehemia Gordon: Rabbi, I am so thankful for you coming on our program. You sang for us before hoshia et amecha, which is a verse from Psalms. Would you be willing to end this program with the Serenity Prayer?

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change that which I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Nehemia Gordon: Amen. Thank you very much Rabbi. Shalom.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski: My pleasure. Shalom.

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Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski passed away in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021 at the age of 90. He was a world-renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse. He wrote over 60 books and lectured extensively on chemical dependency and other topics such as stress, self-esteem and spirituality, and even wrote a melody for Psalm 28:9 which became very popular.

Rabbi Twerski told how he remembered exactly where he was sitting in the synagogue, when the melody for “Hoshia es Amecha” came to him. He was praying the morning prayer, back in 1960, and when he came to Psalm 28:9, he just started singing this melody along with the verse. A week later, when his younger brother got married, Rabbi Twerski decided to sing his melody at the wedding, and it caught on! Some people who were at the wedding brought the melody with them to Israel, and a few weeks later the Breslov Chasidim were singing it, and the next thing he knew the Lubavitch Chassidim were also singing it, and today everyone knows Rabbi Twerski’s melody, even if they aren’t aware that it was Rabbi Twerski who wrote it.

One of the incredible parts of this story, is that Rabbi Twerski was such a special man, that he specified that he didn’t want there to be any eulogies at his funeral, but rather for his children to sing his melody of Psalms 28:9, as they accompanied his body to its final resting place, and that’s exactly what they did.

Here is Rabbi Shlomo Katz singing, Rabbi Twerski’s melody of “Hoshia es Amecha” in his memory. May Rabbi Twerski’s memory and legacy be a blessing to us all.

.הוֹשִׁיעָה, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ, וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-נַחֲלָתֶךָ; וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם, עַד-הָעוֹלָם
Save your people, and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever. (Psalm 28:9)

Nehemia Gordon and Rabbi Twerski
Twerski-Self-Improvement Twerski-Spiritual-Self Twerski-Haggadah Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski's Book, The Rabbi and the Nuns.

  • Sam Gray says:

    The emotive picture of a man in wrist restraints breaking free prompts me to ask the question: tephelim what are they? I know the mediaeval pictures of these findings with boxes on containing scripture do not seem to be in keeping with the commandment given in the observation of the leaping lantern festival and the unleavened bread festival. It seems to be some kind of visible restraint and blindfold which dramatically makes clear that kind of slavery and servitude that the Israelites were under in Egypt. But apart from Joseph I have not yet found any biblical reference to being bound hand, feet and blindfolded. The yoke it’s also a potent symbol of servitude, and one defeated King came before a house with a rope on his head and in sackcloth to beg for Mercy. I also found that a sacrificial Bull once inspected had a binding on his horn with a seal not only to show that it was approved but also that it was dedicated to the sacrificial service. Can anyone help me? ♥️

  • Jack Oren says:

    Rabbi!..We send out Blessings to you! Baruch HaShem Adoni!!..

  • Pono says:

    So very, very sad to hear of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski passing yesterday. While listening to your interview of him I thought to myself that here’s a man that could help me. I immediately went an bought one of his books. It did help. I went on to get several others. He was an amazing human being and the world is a lesser place without him.
    Thank you for introducing him to me and, I’m sure, many others.

  • Louis Korkames says:

    I have a daughter in prison from charges relating to addiction. I’m going to print this out to share with her. It has so many good points , good advice, and things one can do to help oneself

  • Linda Oster says:

    Blessings and shalom to both you, Nehemiah and Rabbi Twerski! I chuckled throughout this delightful interview, sang his song in Psalm 28:9, and took to heart all of the wise words spoken!

    I think of the shackles/slavery of sin, and that we have been liberated by the advocate of the Father through the Maschiach! A delightful, insightful interview!


    Nehemiyah, I had asked this before, I dont know if an answer is out there to be found somewhere, in one of your itune episodes, you read in the bible for us

    I asked if it was an evergreen/ christmas tree.

    I am NOT looking for denominational arguments.

    I am a FARMER…
    have planted a few on my land,
    and have been trying to sprout seedlings of them.



    Omer Faruk Cengiz

  • Chaim says:

    You can be a slave to your lousy career, I was. Don’t fall into this insidious trap. Take the time to get to know, educate and raise your children. Read, learn and follow the Torah to teach them self-control, respect for others, independence and a thirst for justice and charity. Live with Joy! Our future depends on it…

  • UKJ says:

    Rabbi Twerski, this world need more people like you, thank you for such great teaching.

  • Gillian Boyes says:

    Todah Rabah Dr. Twerski, this was really enlightening, and I am looking forward to more of your wisdom. Todah Nehemia for bringing us all these blessings!.

  • Carol Van Goethem says:

    This was beautiful and uplifting. Baruch HaShem!

  • Lorna says:

    Wow. Came looking for one thing on this page and left here with what I most needed at this time.

  • Michael Keller says:

    WOW! Todah Rabah for rebroadcasting this! Please do so once a year! As a recovered drug addict and current food addict, this was special! Chag Sameach to all!

  • Teresa Lloyd says:

    I loved From slavery to freedom. Very enlightning. Thank you. We enjoy listening to all of your programs. This one was especially good.

  • Janice says:

    Thank you for this interview. What a beautiful man. I appreciate the smile and happiness in his voice.

  • Marietta says:

    Thank you! this was awesome! happy new year!

  • Barbara Jayne says:

    Enjoyable interview, many pearls of wisdom. I love straight forward talk. Ecclesiastes 7:29 says so much. Thank you for reposting.

  • Riyyah says:

    Shalom Nehemia. Based on the moving solidarity of the spontaneous singing of Psalm 28:9 at the Western Wall, in your opinion why would the three Israeli teens get so tragically murdered two weeks later?

  • מאמין באלהים אחד בלבד says:


  • Leah Wilson says:

    Thank you, Nehemia. That was awesome and inspiring! Can’t wait to read more of Dr. Twerski’s work. I always learn so much from your teachings and discussions. You’re a huge blessing. Thank you again.

  • Motshoanedi Lesejane says:

    Shalom Nehemia

    Thank you for the lesson with Rabbi Twerski. I know about him and have read a lot about him, also I have three of his book. The “From Bondage to Freedom – The Passover Haggadah” and do like the discussion on the liberation of the spirit in the book, “Let us Make Man” and also “Twerski on Prayer – creating the bond between man and His Maker”. You have given me a completely different perspective to Rabbi Twerski’s writings and it was powerful to hear him explain these concepts. i am going to study these books more now.

    This was an excellent introduction to my Pesach and personally you have touched on very important issues in my life through this Hebrew voices session with the Rabbi. i have a lot of respect for him. I also get value from your sessions Nehemia

  • Tab Ormiston says:

    Thanku Nehemiah I loved this interview and it was very helpful for me, and I will be sharing this with others..Tab Ormiston from Congretion Beth El Port Orchard Washington

  • Syble James-Forsythe says:

    Thank you. Rabbi Doctor Twerski gives invaluable advice for walking the Torah in our daily life and relationships.

  • Debra Morgan says:

    Thank You Nehemia for the transcript! Now I can sit & quietly absorb the teaching. Thank you, thank you
    Shabbot Shalom
    Debra Morgan

  • Christopher Gordon says:

    I once sat in on an AA meeting, due to an odd combination of circumstances. I was very impressed with what I heard. I would recommend it to anyone to look into the 12 step program, as there is much true life wisdom in it.

  • LaVonne says:

    I LOVE Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski !!! Thank you, Nehemia, for this precious episode.

  • cecille12 says:

    Absolutely beautiful and full of light! I will be picking up this auther’s books to be a kinder and more human person, not a baboon! The Psalm 28:9 tune is heart-driven-beseeching of GOD our LORD!!! Tears of agreement to the Psalm overwhelm me! I again appreciate Nehemia’s ability to present to us unknowing Christians and others, the treasures of Israel, though Rabbi Twerski is well known among the Jews, a person like me now can come into the Rabbi’s rich teachings and sharing through this webpage and the Rabbi’s books. Each author Nehemia presents sends me to Amazon.com for the books to add to my heart to know GOD more and His people as well as produce fruit in love to GOD and His created human beings. It is changing me to want chametz (leaven, now my new Hebrew word for the day to the addition of my acquiring the Hebrew language daily) out of my heart and mind. Very practical tools to love others and release the toxic poisons! I do love the Hebrew lessons sprinkled throughout the podcasts. And the transcripts now add so much depth to receive the full impact of the podcast! I am so thrilled! I can listen and read at the same time!

    Baruch HaShem! Shalom and toda rabah!

  • chris carson says:

    Nehemia, Dr. Twerski is wonderful.He has put life in an interesting perspective. I would like to hear more from him. Also the transcript is a great help for me. As always thank you for all you do for us. chris