The Real Gift You Can Give This Chanukah

By Yakov Danishefsky


Working in the field of addictions, I am often asked if there are predictable factors that lead to addiction. One answer to this question is yes: being human. Addiction is a natural human tendency. That said, it’s important to differentiate what we mean by addiction. For some people, addictive tendencies are part of their adaptive skills and do not introduce any harm. For others, addictive tendencies are maladaptive but remain manageable. When people ask about predictable factors leading to addiction though, they, of course, mean addictions of more significant and harmful proportions. And the answer to that specific question is also, yes. There are consistent factors that make one prone to seriously harmful addiction.

Research has shown that people with addictions are very often from homes that were both rigid and disengaged. What does this mean? The Olson Circumplex Model of family systems focuses on different variables that make up family dynamics. The first has to do with the flexibility versus rigidity or chaos of the family unit. A family without any rules, roles, or structure functions (or dysfunctions) in chaos. A family that has specifically defined rules and roles without any potential for change or adaptation lives with rigidity. Healthy family functioning emerges from rules and roles that are structured and consistent but also flexible and adaptive.

The second variable Olson focuses on in the family system is engagement versus enmeshment or disengagement. Enmeshment means closeness to the point where individuals are not allowed their own identities. Enmeshed families do not allow outside relationships, activities, or interests. Disengagement, on the other hand, means too much separateness. Parents and family members are barely present for one another and there is limited commitment or care expressed between them.

Considering these two factors, there are four types of family systems: engaged and flexible, engaged and rigid, disengaged and flexible, and disengaged and rigid. This last combination is our chief problem child. When a family is rigid and disengaged, the potential for developing addiction is significantly increased. This may have something to do with the child internalizing the sense that they are alone (disengaged) because they are not meeting the expectation set for them (in the rigid family system).

This research is so important for all families, across demographics, but I think it is particularly poignant for our community. Living a Halachik lifestyle and raising our children accordingly, introduces a certain potential (not necessity!) for rigidity. Halacha, in its purest and healthiest form is structured, but not rigid. That said, it is easy, even for the most well-intentioned and sincere person, to create a rigid home in the name of halachik observance. This is something we all need to be mindful of and consult with our Rabbanim for proper guidance on the flexibility of halacha.

But furthermore, what we need to know, as people living a lifestyle with more rigidity than the average American family, is how important it is to engage and be present. This is far more easily said than done. So many of us are overworked, overextended, and deeply overtired. Often this is not because of petty pursuits, but because of jobs, minyanim, Shabbos guests, family obligations, housekeeping, chevrusas, and all sorts of other important and valuable responsibilities. And in this craze, our very own, those nearest and dearest to us, become secondary.

Chanukah offers us an opportunity. Chanukah is a family holiday. Our heroes in the Chanukah story were a family of brothers along with their father. The mitzvah of lighting candles, at its core, is ner ish u’beito, one candle per home. Even in its enhanced form, according to the Rambam and others, the father of the home lights for all the family members. Nowadays, outside of Israel, we light our candles in the home. Perhaps so that we can truly see and engage each other.

This Chanukah, when we light candles and give presents, instead of snapping picturesque photos to look like the best parent and family, actually be the best parent and family. The only way to do that is to simply be with one another. Maybe even sit and play with the gift together with you child. May Hashem bless us that the lights of our candles awaken and illuminate our eyes and hearts to truly give our children the gift they need: our attention and love.