What can possibly be the connection between Passover and marijuana? Well on Passover we ask questions, and when you are high on Marijuana, well let’s just the say the questions don’t seem to matter anymore… This may sound facetious but bear with me. I am being serious.
Canada recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana and this piqued my curiosity about the Jewish perspective on marijuana. I learned that researchers at the University of Michigan discovered something fascinating about the effect of marijuana on the human brain.
Marijuana users sat down in an MRI and played a game. Before each round they were told whether winners would win money and how much. You would think that the anticipation of free money would excite them, but it turns out that the more marijuana the participants had used, the less their reward pathways were activated.
Marijuana releases dopamine in the reward pathways of the brain. When we engage in a pleasurable activity, the brain releases dopamine which makes us feel good and motivates us to do it again. By contrast, marijuana triggers a dopamine release that makes the user feel good without any effort. Here is the problem. When the brain is awash in dopamine for long periods of time, it becomes inured to the reward. Marijuana users continue to produce dopamine, but the dopamine fails to excite them.
Bread of Shame
In life, we learn that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Anything that seems too good to be true probably is. If we use shortcuts to dump dopamine into our system without investing effort, we will eventually pay a price when our capacity for pleasure is wrung out. King David intoned, “Don’t place your trust in those who are generous.” The mystics taught that he was talking about the shortcuts we seek in life that reward us more generously than we deserve. Don’t trust them because one day, the false promises will wring out your spirit, and you will be left an unwitting fool.
Life isn’t about free gifts. It’s about investing and earning, working and receiving. We invest time and effort and earn our reward. If we simply sit back and collect, our spirit will eventually dissipate.
Embedded in our very nature, is the desire to achieve; to accomplish on our own strength. No one likes to go through life hanging on to their parents’ coattails. No one wants to ride their parents’ reputation or their family money. We all want to earn through our own work. We want to look in the mirror and know that we deserve what we have.
Jewish mystics have a phrase for the feeling of inadequacy that results from accepting rewards we know we don’t deserve. It’s called bread of shame. G-d does not want us to partake of the bread of shame. He created us with a desire to work hard and achieve. Rewarding our efforts with a feeling of accomplishment–a dose of dopamine is the natural normal way that G-d intended. But flooding our brains with free dopamine wears away our spirit and dulls our ability to enjoy it.
Angels and Humans
G-d could have created us pure and holy like the angels. But He didn’t. He created fragmented humans who are constantly beset by inner wrestling matches between our noble side and our inner demons. Ego, lust, greed, anger, jealousy, and obsessions drive us to behave one way. Our holy, G-dly soul, drives us to behave a different way. We are not angels. We are broken vessels. Why did G-d make us this way?
He made us broken so we can repair ourselves and enjoy the pleasure, the sense of achievement, that comes from putting ourselves back together. When we struggle to do the right thing and succeed, when we wrestle with ourselves and make the right choice, we feel incredibly good. This spiritual high is our reward for rising to the challenge and fulfilling our mission.
Angels have it easy. They are created holy. They don’t have free choice. Sin doesn’t tempt them; it’s not even an option. G-d did not intend so facile a life for the human. For us, G-d intended the toil. By the sweat of your brow, shall you eat bread. Marijuana, by contrast, is the bread of shame.
And here we return to the subject of Passover. The Passover Seder revolves around questions. Asking questions is a general Jewish credo, but it is especially strong on Passover. This is because Passover represents the ultimate gift from G-d that we did nothing to deserve. Our ancestors were idol-worshippers, they were immersed in Egyptian culture, they had sunk, according to our sages, nearly to the lowest level of depravity. And yet, G-d redeemed them.
G-d did not send an angel or emissary to redeem them. He came by Himself. He descended to the pit of moral depravity called Egypt, just to save them. A people that did not deserve to be saved. He did it because the Jewish people are His children. He did it because He loves us. But He loves too much to allow us to eat the bread of shame. Jewish tradition, therefore, taught us to ask questions on this night.
These are not really questions, they are requests. We don’t deserve the free gift that we receive on this night, but we can at least do something for it, we can ask for it. We can make the request. Passover represents a gift from above. The questions represent the investment of at least a modicum of effort to earn it from below. At least with a request. Marijuana is thus Passover without the question. The gift without the earning. And it is a terrible shame.
The Baal Shem Tov once said that he can answer any question and can question any answer. He wasn’t being contrarian, he was teaching a deep mystical lesson. Questions are requests for a deeper understanding. No matter how much we understand, we are never complacent. We ask more questions and seek more understanding. But it isn’t enough to ask the question, it is critical to invest effort in finding the answer. Once the answer is found, a new question must be asked.
No matter how much Torah we learn and how many Mitzvot we perform, we must always seek to grow to ever higher levels. Not just by praying for inspiration–making requests, but by climbing our personal ladder, step by step, making progress every day. For us, the ladder never ends. Every day, it grows another rung.
We lift our legs by our own strength, and then G-d raises us up.