The term addiction has been historically defined as physical and emotional dependence on stimulant substances, such as caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. These stimulants temporarily alter the chemical balance of the brain by increasing levels of dopamine. This, in turn, triggers strong feelings of pleasure, which our brains seek to have repeated in the future.
However, addiction has also been the designation of choice for a continued and compulsive engagement in an activity despite the negative consequences associated with it. Some mental health professionals now use the term to include abnormal dependency on such things as internet, food, and even shopping. Specific to the internet, one recently released brain scan study suggests that not only is it addictive, but it may also cause the same brain changes that are seen in alcoholics and drug addicts.
For the study, researchers used MRI scanners to study the brains of adolescents who spent many hours on the internet, to the detriment of their social and personal lives. They compared the brain matter of seventeen Chinese men and women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one who were diagnosed with IAD, with those of sixteen healthy people who weren’t web addicted. The researchers found more patterns of “abnormal white matter” on brain scans of Internet addicts, compared with scans of non-addicts. (White matter areas in the brain contain nerve fibers that transmit signals to other parts of the brain; changes showed evidence of disrupting pathways related to emotions, decision-making, and self control.)
According to the researchers, earlier studies found similar white matter changes in the brain scans of people addicted to alcohol and illegal substances.
The British paper The Independent estimates that 5 to 10 per cent of internet users are thought to be addicted. The majority of them are “gamers”, people who become so absorbed in a gaming activity they go without food or drink for long periods and their education, work and relationships suffer.
Interestingly, it would appear that addiction, in this case an obsession for power and hegemony, was at the heart of Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to emancipate the Jewish people from their bondage.
We are well aware that Pharaoh had no desire to let the Jews walk free from Egypt, despite numerous pleas from their leadership. He even went so far as to challenge Hashem’s supreme power and His right to demand His nation’s release. “And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel out.” (Shemos 5:2)
Of course, Hashem quickly displayed His true might, and could easily have compelled the Egyptian monarch to let the Jews out. But that would not have achieved His true purpose of teaching Pharaoh and his people how to see the folly in their ways and seek atonement. In the words of Seforno (Ibid, 7:3):
Hashem desires the repentance of all men, not their destruction… (His goal was) to bring the Egyptians to teshuva through showing them His great power… If Hashem had not strengthened his heart, Pharaoh would have released the Jews, but not out of any desire to turn to Hashem… rather out of an inability to stand up to the pressure; and that would not have been teshuva at all… This was a lesson to klal Yisrael… to teach that Hashem does go a distance with a human being in order to bring him back to true repentance…
Only after the seventh plague, that of barad (hail), did Pharaoh finally acknowledge his error. “So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moshe and Aharon and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous One, and I and my people are the evil ones.’” (Ibid, 9:27) “Never before did Pharaoh say that Hashem is just. This was achieved only here at barad.” (Tanchuma, Vaeira 20)
What was so special about barad as to cause this seismic change in attitude? And why were we now dealing with a conversation of righteous versus evil, rather than a straightforward clash of wills?
A close look at the warning that preceded the plague actually indicates that something special was on the way, something that would force a paradigm shift in the way that Pharaoh approached the Jewish G-d and His people. “This time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth.” (Shemos 9:14)
In fact, Hashem was setting Pharaoh up for an expose, in which his true rebellious intentions would be revealed.
If you still tread upon My people, not letting them out, behold, I am going to rain down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its being founded until now. And now, send, gather in your livestock and all that you have in the field, any man or beast that is found in the field and not brought into the house the hail shall fall on them, and they will die. (Ibid, 17-19)
With a clearly articulated option to avoid damage, one would have thought that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people would have sheltered their animals. But they did not. “He who did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his servants and his livestock in the field.” (Ibid, 21) “This refers to Pharaoh and his people.” (Shemos Rabbah 12:2)
As the plague approached, Pharaoh found himself in a bind. He had committed, ideologically and addictively, to a path of rebellious resistance. “Are we now going to pay attention to Ben-Amram after all this?” (Midrash Shochar Tov, 78:14) He had no choice but to hold out further, knowing good and well that everything left outdoors was doomed. When Hashem’s promise came to pass, Pharaoh was exposed as a true rebel without a cause; he had no choice but to admit to the wickedness of his actions and reverse his position. So much so, that this same person would one day rise again as king of Ninveh (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 176), and would serve as a paradigm for proper teshuva (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42).
Like Pharaoh, we all have our hang-ups, the kinds of things that we stubbornly cling to despite any rational justification. This may take the form of compulsive behaviors, or simply the improper way that we consistently approach certain people or situations. It is never too late to revisit such trends, and determine if, in fact, we would not benefit from the same declaration and reversal that helped the beleaguered Egyptian finally find proper his proper footing and serve as a model and inspiration to others.