How to Do Teshuva: Giving up and Layne Staley

I think my husband thinks I’ve lost my mind. This Orthodox Jewish housewife (okay, writer…but only extremely part-time writer) has lately been listening to–of all things–huge quantities of Alice in Chains. To those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Alice in Chains is a band the originated in the ’90s as part of the grunge movement that came out of Seattle. Think heavy metal with superior harmonized vocals and thought-provoking, spiritual lyrics that only rarely involve profanity.

Here’s an example of a slower song (I promise, no bad words) with relatively tame video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8hT3oDDf6c

Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley were the heart of the band at its inception. Staley’s lyrics largely reflect his regret that he largely wasted his life on drug addiction. At the end of his 34 years on this earth, he admitted in interviews that he didn’t get any pleasure from doing drugs. First he did drugs to escape reality, then he did them to avoid withdrawl. He pretty much died of every horrible complication you can have of drug addiction possible. Then his corpse sat in his apartment undiscovered for two weeks. (Talk about a cautionary tale.) Layne Staley’s ninth “yahrzeit” so to speak, will be in a few days.
So why am I listening to so much Alice in Chains?
Our Sages teach that one of the ways the yetzer hara (inclination to do evil) speaks to us is through telling us it’s too late…we’re too lowly to do teshuva (the process of regret, confession, then a return to correct behavior), too steeped in sin. It tries to convince us we’ve got no hope at digging ourselves out, that our true identity is our yetzer hara, instead of our soul. This is exactly the fear conveyed by many of Alice in Chains’ poetic songs.
Down in a hole
feeling so small
down in a hole
losing my soul
I’d like to fly
But my wings are bent
so can I?
The songs written by Layne Staley are a modern-day (l’havdil) selichos.
The tragedy of Layne Staley isn’t simply that he did drugs. It’s that he never seized the opportunity to do teshuva in time. As much as he was a victim of drug abuse, he was a victim of his own yetzer hara. This is a stark reminder that the yetzer hara is considered identical to the Angel of Death.
At this time of year, with Passover approaching, we can recall that the Jewish people were at a deep level of impurity during the period of their slavery. Finally, the children of Israel cried out to HaShem (G-d) and He brought us out of bondage. There are numerous accounts in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) and Jewish history of those who turned away from lives steeped in sin, including Rachav (left behind life in a brothel to rescue Jews and marry a prophet) and Shimon ben Lakish (aka Reish Lakish – left behind life as a bandit and gladiator to study and teach Torah). Let their stories remind us that it is never too late to get back on the correct path.

We are told by in Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs), “...sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam.” (“Seven times shall
the righteous fall and then rise.”) The difference between those of us who are righteous and those of us who aren’t isn’t whether we’ve sinned or not, but whether we’ve picked up ourselves to try better next time.

I wish Layne Staley had picked himself up and flown.

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