Nine Days Minus One
A few days ago I bumped into an old friend whom I have
not seen for 34 years. He was my high school classmate,
and back then we were close friends.
I could not control my tears – not over meeting my
friend after all these years, but over the state he was
in. Unnaturally thin and jittery, (I shall call him) Michael
was clearly a junkie. He had an awkward smile on his face
and I saw that we would not be able to have an honest conversation.
He was such a promising student. Bright and creative, shy
and gentle, we always thought that Michael would do some
great things with his life. Here he stood before me on a
street corner nervously rolling a cigarette, shifting eyes,
a mere skeleton and specter of the Michael I once knew and
To my question “Where do you live?” he sadly answered,
“I don’t have my own place, I move around. Housing in New
York is expensive…” “Are you working, earning an income?”
“Yes, I’m eking out a living here and there.” I offered
help, but knew that Michael would not follow up.
I touched upon some of the deepest beliefs that we shared
together, back when we ere teenagers in Yeshiva on Ocean
Parkway. But Michael was detached. He spoke about the past
as if it was not about him.
He was far gone, in a different orbit. Had I tried to hug
him he would have recoiled.
I will never forget the Shabbos walk we took together when
Michael began sliding so many years ago. At the time he
was trying to convince me to join him in, what he called
an innocuous, game of gambling at cards. As we walked down
Eastern Parkway he asked if I minded that he lit up a cigarette.
Always the gentle soul, Michael was being sensitive to my
sentiments about Shabbos. I chose not to answer, and Michael
took that as an ok.
As time passed I noticed the visible differences in Michael
as he became consumed with the “weed” and his
daily routines began to orbit around his next “hit.”
Conversations, usually so stimulating, began to dull. His
usually clarity and sharp wit became an afterthought. He
would spend hours in his basement apartment all alone. He
was slipping and slipping fast, in a vicious ruinous cycle.
It was the first time I was ever exposed to the utter wasting
of a human being due to drug addiction. Nothing else matters.
You look forward to nothing as much as the drug and its
effects. “It” becomes your nurturer, your best
friend, the one you turn to in times of need, the final
recourse when all else fails. Every minute of your waking
hours – and even asleep – every decision, every
move, is determined by the next “high.”
And then, perhaps worst of all, is the loneliness. A loneliness
that I cannot begin to imagine – and one that demonstrates
how utterly destructive this “lifestyle” can
become – you are all alone with your obsession, with
your compulsion, only you and your dark desire. And every
time you succumb, the lonelier it gets. At some point the
human psyche must snap into a submission to this “new
reality” simply to be able to survive and not be overcome
by sheer shame and desperation.
Once caught in this mad whirlpool, there seemed no way
out for Michael. And then we graduated, each of us going
our own way.
Now, 32 years later, he is still controlled by the dark
demon within. He lives in world of shadows, seemingly always
on the run. Escaping what? Himself above all. Why they call
it “substance abuse” seems odd; it’s not
abuse of the substance, but of yourself.
What happened to this young man that I knew? And to so
many others like him?
-- As I am writing these words I realize that they may
come across as judgmental or condescending. That is the
farthest of my intentions. We all have our vices and ugly
corners. We are taught that seeing a fault in another is
like looking in a mirror: It is a reflection of our own
shortcomings. Michael for me is a mirror image of the dark
obsessions that we all are capable of falling into. --
What happened to Michael and what happens to each of us
when another force takes control of our lives?
Your inner dignity – what the Kabbalists call Malchus –
And that’s why I chose to write about this subject today.
We now stand in the Nine Days, the saddest period of the
Jewish calendar, due to the destruction of the Holy Temple
and other tragedies that took place during these days, culminating
with Tisha B’Av (this Sunday) – the saddest day of all,
when the Temple actually went up in flames.
Annually this period is honored as a time of mourning and
grief over our losses. Tisha b’Av is a 24-hour fast
day (beginning at night), the lights are dimmed, we sit
on low stools and recite lamentations.
As continuously discussed in this column, we are not simply
grieving over past events, but over all forms of destruction
in our lives – every form of grief and loss evolves
from the rupturing of the bond between spirit and matter
that occurred when the Divine presence in the Temple no
longer found a “home” in our material universe
and was compelled to go into “hiding.”
Each of us has an indispensable soul within, which is the
ultimate root of all confidence and sense of purpose. Our
convictions, hopes and greatest dreams flow form our inner
“malchus’ – a profound sense of dignity
and majesty that stems from the Divine image in which we
were all created. It is the feeling that “you matter”
and you have the power to achieve anything you set your
In contrast, what is the root of all destruction? The annihilation
of malchus – when this dignity is violated.
The Arizal explains why the Fifteenth of Av is the greatest
of holidays (“there were no greater holidays for Israel
than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur”), because
its full moon follows and repairs the “destruction” of the
“moon” (Malchus) on Tisha b’Av, when the Temple was destroyed.
The greatness of the ascent is in direct proportion to the
depths of the descent that precedes it.
Looking now at my old friend Michael, meeting him during
these Nine Days, I see with my own eyes how his malchus/dignity
was destroyed. Destroyed on a conscious level. Once that
part of you – your purest element, the one that feeds
your sense of self-value – is compromised, it’s
just a matter of time that your life begins to spiral downward
out of control, in one form or another.
For some it takes on the shape of raw dysfunctionality.
Others are creative enough to find ways to remain functional
(“functional addicts”) to some extent, and learn
how to “cover their tracks” as they maneuver
their way day to day. Variations are as numerous as people
themselves. Seeing someone use their creative juices –
not to mention the energy, time and money wasted –
for such machinations is, of course, one of the saddest
things to observe. Often arrogance is one of the mechanisms
used (usually unintentionally) to cover up low self-esteem
(a weak sense of malchus).
The question, however, begs: What could bring someone to
compromise their own sense of self-worth? Who in their right
mind would allow their inner dignity to be violated? Human
nature is such that we would anything to not allow ourselves
to be humiliated, let alone to allow our entire dignity
to be undermined.
The answer is obvious from the question: At the outset
no one ever damages their own malchus/dignity. Any such
damage is always initiated by someone outside ourselves:
A parent, an educator, an adult – anyone that we may
have trusted can hurt us, especially in our most vulnerable
and impressionable childhood years.
Not along ago, I conversed with a psychologist who specializes
in youth at risk, focusing primarily on kids in the religious
Jewish community. I asked him for his experienced opinion
on why some young adults break away from the lifestyle and
traditions of their own families and communities. None of
us are immune to temptations and challenges. In most cases
people learn to cope with their vices – some carry
them undercover, other carry on dual lives or worse –
without a need to break away ostensibly from the larger
community. Why then do others make an actual public and
pronounced break – they cease to be openly observant
or some other manifest expression of changing their lifestyles?
Are they simply more honest? Do they have greater temptations
than the norm? Is it due to their upbringing? Is it genetic?
Do they lack certain coping skills, and if so, why? Or is
it perhaps the other way around: They are smarter and actually
deny faith due to their philosophical skepticism?
His answer startled me. “First I considered all the factors
you mention – honesty, intelligence, family – but I came
to realize that they cannot account for most cases and don’t
reflect any patterns that point to one cause or another.
There are children from excellent families as well as broken
ones that remain within the community. The same is with
both skeptics and conformists, and the other identifiable
“People are natural social creatures. They gravitate to
groups and communities, and in most instances loath total
isolation. They crave peer approval. Even non-conformists
(which is a minority in any group) need social interaction.
Most people, even radical individualists, will usually maintain
their social identity, identifying with the communities
of their upbringing. In most cases, only a radical jolt
to the psyche will cause someone to explicitly break away
from their peer group.
“In my experience I am slowly coming to the conclusion
that in many of these cases the radical jolt began with
some form of sexual molestation, in which the child’s inner
dignity was violated. When someone is hurt on that level
it defiles the innermost, intimate dimensions of the psyche;
it drives the child into silence (out of shame and fear
he will not speak about the abuse with parents or teachers),
a silence and loneliness that eats away, like a cancer,
at the child’s inner dignity.
“In many such instances a child has enough resilience to
absorb the blow and come out intact. But in sustained abuse,
or if it is a particularly sensitive child, or other unique
factors, the violation – and the related shame, silence
and loneliness – will jolt the child into another orbit,
making him susceptible to further radical changes.
Then, when you add pot or other drugs into the equation
– which a young adult may take recreationally; or
due to escapism; to relieve the inner anxiety and shame;
out of mediocrity and boredom and the search for a high
– these drugs diminish natural inhibitions and thus
can actually alter human personality, including the need
to remain within ones family and community structure.
“So, combine all the above, coupled with hormones and other
natural factors – the volatile combination, ignited by the
jolting catalyst, can actually cause someone to make the
radical jump and abandon their past.
“I know that this is a radical theory, which may be impossible
to substantiate, due to the fact that most victims do not
acknowledge or may bee unaware of the effects of their own
“So, what do you suggest?” I asked the psychologist. “Zero
tolerance of any form of abuse in our schools, homes and
camps. Absolute and unequivocal action must be taken to
not allow any such behavior, and to immediately take action
if any such report is made, and not push it under the rug
due to ‘inconvenience’ and scandal.”
Whether you agree or disagree with this psychologist’s
ideas, it definitely provides food for thought. Obviously,
great care has to be taken not to stereotype anyone and
try to over generalize and develop formulas without regarding
the complexities of life. Not everything can and needs to
be explained. Yet, due to the serious crisis – and
so many beautiful souls adrift – we are behooved to
look into these issues and see what preventive medicine
can be employed in our homes and schools, and what interventions
need to be immediately deployed once there is a violation.
I know that this is a heavy – and terribly sad –
topic. But when else to speak about it then in the Nine
The lesson of these days teaches us the terrible consequences
of malchus/dignity violated. But awareness of the problem
is half its cure: It also instructs us how to repair the
rupture: Just as dignity (malchus) on earth was destroyed
on Tisha B’Av, we have the power of the full moon
on the Fifteenth of Menachem Av to restore dignity, and
with even greater intensity then the original.
For the sake of our children and their future we need to
address these issues head-on, and come up with both preemptive
actions as well as appropriate methods to rebuild dignity
once it was compromised.
Parents and educators must know that we carry great responsibility
and power – with life and death consequences –
in cultivating and nurturing the dignity and souls of our
children. And this begins not when the child is twenty,
ten, or even two years old. It begins at the moment of birth,
and even at the moment of conception.
We live in a profoundly insecure world; malchus/dignity
is the most lacking dimension. Even if we may have plenty
of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, love, discipline, compassion,
endurance, humility and bonding (the first nine sefirot)
– they are only nine, as in the Ninth of Av; without
the tenth – and most important – dimension,
we are missing the foundation of all life: inner security,
self-worth and dignity that makes all the other nine worth
their weight and imbues us with the confidence to use our
nine faculties with conviction and sense of urgency and
Now the challenge is: How do I convey this to my friend
Michael and to so many others?
I am open to any ideas.