This week on Yud-Tes Shevat marks the first yartzeit of one of the true luminaries of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski zt"l.
Rabbi Twerski was a descendent of holy hassidic masters and brought the teachings of his ancestors—The Meor Aynayim and The Bobover Rebbe to name a few—to the masses. Through his positivity and loving approach to Torah, The Rav inspired thousands of individuals and their families to grow closer to Hashem. This was something he did gracefully across both the Jewish and the non-Jewish world.
Throughout his academic career as founder of a top-notch Rehabilitation facility and author of over 80 books, the Rav built an “international reputation as an authority on addiction.” But these accolades from The New York Times were nothing compared to the simcha Rabbi Twerski felt through his work as a Kiddush Hashem.
I still remember sitting with Rav Twerski towards the end of his life. The smile on his face shone brightly as we discussed various public health initiatives and their positive impact. He told me about the feedback he’d received from an from an Arab living in Berlin after an online talk he’d given on the power of resilience: “If we can make a German Muslim excited about the teachings of a Jew, we are on the right track!”
But for all of the good RabbiTweski did in this world, his greatest impact may have been the work he did on behalf of Jewish addicts.
I was once zoche to meet a man who was now a recovering alcoholic but had once been found guilty of some pretty aggressive vandalism while he was drinking. This man was ostracized from his shul and finally hit rock-bottom following an arrest. He had found sobriety and eventually became one of these truly amazing people who lives an honest, yosher life, infinitely greater than anything they could have possible achieved had they never picked up a drink in the first place.
The man eventually came home and had the courage to return to his previous minyan. Sadly, at the urging of many of his fellow congregants, the Rabbi of the community refused to let him back in. This man called up Rabbi Twerski ZT”L who told him that he belonged and that if the shul wouldn’t have him back, it was their loss. This was all well and good, but he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, calling up the shul’s rabbi and telling him personally take the man back in with open arms. Beautiful.
I remember sharing this story with a fellow psychiatrist who was impressed with Rabbi Tweski's fierce defense of the recovery movement. “This is fantastic,” he told me, “But what about his personal life? Did this hassidic Rebbe Psychiatrist really stand side-by-side with addicts?”
The truth was that he did. I remember him once telling me, “I only trust addicts. My dentist is an addict, my accountant is an addict, my lawyer is an addict, my surgeon is an addict. These are the only people that have done real self-work and that is truly worth something.” He was as pure on the inside as he was on the outside: tocho keboro. That is greatness,Gadlus.
Like Avraham Avenu, he opened up his tent to bring in those who needed a place to find themselves. The Gemara in Sotah teaches that Avraham and Sarah had a hotel of sorts in the middle of the desert to provide travelers with a place to stay and a warm meal. When they’d finished their food and were ready to leave, the guests would ask Avraham Avenu, “how much should we pay?” He would smile at them and tell them, “I just served it to you, Thank The One who created it in the first place.”
Rav Twerski was a true Avraham Avenu, providing a place for Jews in need of sobriety to successfully find their place in yiddishkeit. So many Jewish addicts l had been turned off by a system that had scared them away from Judaism. They were therefore wary of Alcoholics Anonymous and a 12-Step Program that stressed a personal relationship with “G-d.”
Rabbi Twerski showed them that they could spend all their time and money on treatments that had more than a 90% relapse rate in a year. Or that they could commit to a sober, honest relationship with their Creator through The 12-Stes. With his books, his lectures, his listening ear, and ultimately his passionate genius and profound humility, The Rav brought countless non-religious Jews back to Judaism through his teachings. Perhaps even more striking was the home he built for thousands of Frum Jews within a yiddishkeit that would have otherwise thrown them out. In this, he was a true talmid of Avraham Avenu.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ZT”L famously taught: אחריות היא יסוד האדם—personal responsibility is the foundation of a human being. Rabbi Twerski lived a life according to this fundamental principal. I once asked him if he had any regrets in his lifetime and he smiled as he shook his head, “Not at all. I only wish I had more strength to do what needed to be done.”
With this in mind, I often think of Rav Twerski as I remember a famous quote from the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, “You cannot add more minutes to the day, but you can utilize each one to the fullest."
We cannot do much about the length of our lives, but perhaps we can strive to determine its other dimensions. How deep will we dive to find our true mission in this world? How wide will our impact be on our fellow human beings? How big will the shoes we leave behind be to fill?
As a psychiatrist, a Jew, a student of Rabbi Twerski, and ultimately a human being…I cannot begin to tell you how big his shoes really were.
May his memory be for a blessing and may his merit protect us all.
Jacob L. Freedman, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and forensic medicine expert practicing in Boston MA and in Jerusalem Israel. He is a graduate of The College of William and Mary, The University of Massachusetts Medical School, and The Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Training Program where he was Chief Resident of Inpatient Psychiatry and the recipient of The Henry G. Altman award for Excellence in Medical Education. Dr. Freedman serves as both a healthcare and a risk-management consultant and is proud to serve in leadership and advisory roles with a variety of businesses. His non-academic interests include suburban-mountain biking and Middle Eastern cuisine. He can be most easily reached at: [email protected].