The 12 Steps of the Days of Awe

The 12 Steps of the Days of Awe
By Rabbi Joe Ozarowski, Rabbinic Counselor and Chaplain at JCFS Chicago, D. Min., BCC

People actively working a Recovery Program already know the worth and power of the well-known 12 Steps.  But I have always believed that everyone should work a program – there is so much wisdom within these sensible steps that can help all people struggling with challenges.

At the addiction and misuse services, we try to connect the spirituality and practices of Judaism to the Steps and addiction-recovery year round.  The Jewish Days of Awe, often known as the “High Holidays,” offer us the chance to reflect and integrate the Steps with the larger spiritual messages embedded in these special days. 

Here are some distinct thematic connections between the Steps and this sacred season: 

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 
    How many of us find times that our lives seem unmanageable?  Probably most of us -- the renewing themes of Rosh Hashana and the cleansing themes of Yom Kippur give us the chance to step back and see our lives in perspective before we begin to think of change. 
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 
    One of the major themes of Rosh Hashana is malchuyut, noting God’s sovereignty above creation.  It is a core topic of the liturgy as well as the music.  In this world, we think things are about us, that we are in control.  They are not and we are not.  This lesson is not only true about addiction but about all of life.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. 
    Tshuva, the Hebrew term for repentance, actually means return. In this season we turn and return ourselves over to our Higher Power as we face the challenges and joys of a new year.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 
    Cheshbon hanefesh, spiritual accounting, is a practice anyone can do and is often done at this time of year.  One can do a “soul version” of an Excel spreadsheet, look at one’s spiritual profits and losses and use this to move forward to a healthier life.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. 
    Vidui, a confession of misdeeds, is an essential part of the Yom Kippur service.  It is not enough to reflect on what has gone awry.  We need to say it, to articulate it, in order to move forward to a richer, better life.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 
    In Judaism, preparation is key. A good Rosh Hashana dinner or a good davening/service cannot happen without preparation. This step reminds us that we need to invoke our Higher Power as well as our own efforts as we move forward to greet the New Year and the next parts of our lives.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.  
    The last line of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu, notes that God is like a parent as well as a ruler/guide, and asks God to be gracious and answer us, even though we ourselves may not always bring much to the table.   Once we have noted (Steps 1 and 2) that we cannot do this alone, we ask for help from our Higher Power in spite of our shortcomings… or maybe even because of them!
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.  
    Saying we are sorry can be a tough process.  Being willing to apologize can be even tougher.  Determining where to direct our regrets could be the hardest task of all.  But before we can make things right with God and our fellow human beings, we need to figure whom we have wronged and be willing to do what is right.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 
    Mitzvot bein adam l’chavero, the commandments governing our relationships with others, are as much a part of the Days of Awe as Mitzvot between us and God. Rabbinic literature teaches how Yom Kippur, while obtaining God’s forgiveness for us, does not help if we have wronged someone else.  We need to go to them and ask forgiveness, up to three times.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
    Tshuva, turning and returning, is not only a one shot action focused on the Fall Jewish Holidays, but a constant process in which we can be engaged all year. These sacred days may give us the jump start, but Cheshbon hanefesh and amends continue throughout the year.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    Prayer is a major theme of the Days of Awe, our encounter with God.   We should not only be asking this year, “What do we want from God” but, “What does God want from us?”
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.  
    When the last shofar blast is blown, we sing and dance “Next Year in Jerusalem.” We do not only refer to earthly Jerusalem but also deep down to the Jerusalem within our souls and hearts. When we can do that, it’s an awakening!

May your Fall Jewish holiday season be filled with sobriety, serenity, joy and love!