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Devorim: The Destruction and Restoration of Dignity

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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 admired.

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 – is damaged.

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 mind to.

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 categories.

“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 experiences.”

“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 Days…

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 destiny.

Now the challenge is: How do I convey this to my friend Michael and to so many others?

I am open to any ideas.

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sue

(please insert after the first sentence of yesterdays comment if possible.) Verbal abuse some believe is worse than physical abuse because like sexual abuse it is a direct attack on malchut. Verbal abuse is a form of groundless hatred and if perpetuated by a parent or a Nanny caring for a child or a teacher and continued over time it may destroy a child or even an adult. If sexual, verbal or physical abuse perpetuated continuously can destroy a person how can we heal such a person? To heal such a person requires a great deal of kind words accompanied… Read more »

sue

Abuse comes in many forms. Sexual and physically violent abuse would be the most completely destructive but simply not understanding or listening to a person can lead to them rebelling. When parents are in conflict about core values a child can become hopelessly confused. When a teacher suposedly a role model does not understand, dislikes or undervalues a student, the child may rebel. When a childs background differs from the majority in his/her class a child may feel alienated and different, later deciding to follow a different life style. The key is loving and understanding the essence of each child… Read more »

CLB

Right before I got to your paragraph about what you thought the radical jolt was, I had the same thought. A serious fracture occurred in my life around age 3-4 involving a molestation incident; I only have pieces of a memory. I have often wondered why I had so much promise as a young girl, so many creative gifts, and I stay in survival mode. The inner malchus has a hard time rising to the surface if youve spent years living in fear, etc. I thank you for bringing attention to this serious issue. Even in our community, we are… Read more »

Kathryn

Never under estimate the power of listening.

Stephen Moskovitz

The spiritual realms, are found in altered states. The pain of suffering in the here and now is real and felt by everyone. The Yom Kippur clearly indicates that we are all sinners. When one is in the mind that doesnt mean one is connected to the body. We are all Michael and finding solace in the mundane world of Today is impossible. The only way is to get out of the Rat Race and find a third rail of survival.

Sitting in the Dust

Speaking from experience, malchus is destroyed for a child reared in some ignorant strain of christianity. We are told we are evil sinners, guilty and not fit to live or be loved. A child grows up inwardly dejected and becomes suggestible when trying to qualify for love and worth.

Stuart Feldman

Not minimizing the importance of professional help, the dynamic of one person identifying with another is an extremely powerful tool. I am blessed to have survived and now thrive as a result of my addiction. I speak to Yeshiva students in L.A., share my story, and quite often I hear them tell me that they have felt the same way that I did. I welcome the opportunity to share my experience with you in the hopes of helping others.

Pesel

Knowing is half the battle as you say—-instead of denial. Once accepted, internal and external boundaries can develop by mirroring with empathic and perceptive person or group. Hope and elusive faith is needed as well. AND a willingness of the person. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to be willing to change. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Shalom.

Simply Jewish

Today is 2012, the article was written 2008. Firstly, lets hope that Micheal is ok. Secondly, words are good, but actions are better. Offering help is great. Giving help is better. Shortly, take Michael to your home. He has none. Help him to take a shower. Give him a cup of soap. Dress him in clean garmets. Make a clean bed for him inyour home. Then sit with him and listen. Then take him by the hand and enroll him in the rehab programm. Talking is wonderfully. Hands on care is more effective. Yes, it takes more time and greater… Read more »

alex

It is imperative that we not outsource responsibility for how we turn out. Granted that there is much input in ones life from external sources, but in reality the impact that these have on us is determined by ourselves.If we remove our own causality in our lives, not to be confused with what happens to us, but what we choose to do with those events then that is the firststep to compromising our integrity and by extension our dignity. We learn to be victims by dint of the long process of maturation during childhood throughout which we are helpless and… Read more »

ofra

All forms of abuse and degredation destroys our psyche, not just sexual
abuse. Unfortunately some of our children, the smart nonconformists of them, are dealt with extreme shaming, degradation, mental and physical abuse on a daily basis from a young age at our talmudei tora. That needs to be halted immediately.

Barry Schechter

Dear Rabbi: There is no dignity like the dignity we receive from Kaddusha, especially the kaddusha of Shabbat. Even the most distant, the most apathetic the most antagonistic Jew is always impacted by this kaddusha. It fills a person with identity. I know your friend is distant and has been there before, but if you can arrange for him (when you can) to be at a shabbat table he may be able to grow out of himself (at least for a moment, an hour, a day) and get back into the community that deep inside of himself is what he… Read more »

Weed: a natural plant,
Human: naturally needs social approval
Abuse: natural human instinct (by weakness, no-less)
First swig: natural move by attempting to fit in
Substance abuse: naturally follows
Deterioration: naturally follows
Destruction: the natural end to this natural path.

As a religious person myself, Im torn about Michael, but Im caught between the un-natural, (against the tide of nature and society stay safe, and follow) Torah vs. the path Michael chose – which this un-godly world is made of. There are not a lot of people like you who can put it in a seemingly unconventional well-communicated way that you do.)

Marc Lerner

Rabbi Jacobson, I want to share with you an article I wrote geared toward a person facing death. I re-wrote it geared toward a person facing a challenge they cannot control. Because I was directing myself to an English-speaking audience, I used the Latin roots of words. I do feel this answers the question “what can I tell Michael?” I also feel a logical answer is not as appropriate as directing him to an experiential solution. Thank you. I appreciate your articles,Marc Lerner Consciously Embracing Life Experientially in the Midst of Challenges When a person faces a challenge they cannot… Read more »

Norman Siller

Excellent article/commentary. I too was in the throes af addiction for many years. Even after the help and love of many chabadniks in S. Florida and Orlando, I still every so often (Actually was almost 3 years clean)go off. Why is something else I need to address. But for now understand this. If it wasnt for the love these people had for Hashem and their belief in the universal good of a jew, (of man in general)they probably would have rejected me the first time I had a negative influence on their lives. But they continued to believe in me… Read more »

Batsheva Dor

I would talk softly to his soul with great respect and love and call her back to life…nurture and heal the split from his core…Michaels soul left because of too much suffering and isolation. His soul needs to be retrieved. Each one of us has a story, for humanity has for thousands of years been travelling far away from the heart and the connection with the Source and living in fear, not recognizing the divine force within. With humanitys jouney into separation and darkness we had to adopt to in our quest for survival by separating from heart connection, from… Read more »

Chatzkel

Rav Jacobson,
Thank you for sensitively addressing this topic. Having lost someone very close to me to the ravages of alcoholism, I can say that the ultimate cause of his drinking was depression, and a driving factor of his depression was psychological abuse by his parents.

Everyone must be on guard for himself that he should speak softly and gently to his children, to his students, and to his friends. Every parent, including me, needs to learn shmiras lashon.

Leah Golding

(Surname not for publication).I was an addict 32 years ago. 31 years ago I went cold turkey, and have not been addicted to any substance since.You talk about sexual abuse, but physical abuse in my situation went to the core of my being, bringing me to a stage where I wanted the abuser to die, then I tried to suicide. Getting over it all? Never. Being strong and able to withstand problems? Yes. But how?My life was normal, or so it seemed until age I brought my fourth baby home from hospital to find my husband had taken up with… Read more »

Maureen

I would ask Michael what he needs to restore his dignity.

I would hope that he feels a sense of love for himself that is stronger than what happened to him AND that he trusts in God to help him.

Michoel

I have found that giving and sacrificing for a noble cause, sacrificing for something greater than yourself, is an effective way to malchus. It is not about you; it is about reflecting a higher malchus. It is about what you contribute to a higher purpose and the significant effects that you see result from your efforts. Viktor Frankel expounded on this concept (Mans Search For Meaning). I experience this everyday. I have come to summariz it in the following way: Quality of life is all about Purpose – what you contribute to a worthwhile, uplifting cause – not what you… Read more »

Paul

I have lost friends to drug abuse……… They are physically in this world but mentally and spiritually more like black holes always taking instead of giving and so lost. They are great potential squandered by drugs. Some of my friends have come out of this lifestyle. My simple suggestion is to stay in touch and ensure Michael knows your relationship is strong enough that you will always be there for him. Dont ever be off limits or too busy, dont ever be too important to be called on the phone.Be proactive now and again and check in on him (your… Read more »

andrea

Love him (from afar) and let him know that he isnt judged and that your door is always open to him if he needs you.

Teferet

Simon,We all have that awkward smile in one extreme or another dont we. I learned a meditation that helps melt away the grim gulf of thought that keeps us from love in even what seems unlovable.Start by loving yourself and having a compassionate heart towards yourself in all your own strength and weakness. Then have a loving and compassionate heart towards the ones that you have an attraction to those people and things that you are drawn to. Then have a loving and compassionate heart to those people you are neutral to for they too are here under the desire… Read more »

Connie

Simon,
I know say LChaim to Michael and all of Life!
LChaim.
Teferet.

anonymous

Michael needs to get into a Torah-centered rehab place; in Los Angeles there is Beit Tshuvah and Chabad runs a treatment center. The problem is that parents are no longer authority figures, but want to be their childrens friends, so no discpline and boundaries are imposed. The children do not feel they matter to their parents. K.

Chaya

Shalom from the Holy City of Jerusalem, Just a quick thought with regards to restoring dignity. It really begins with ourselves. Everyone, even the most together person has experienced trauma in their lives, and this is really where the sense of insecurityor loss of centeredness begins. I dont think all the kids off the derech were abused per se, but rather are a product of the patterns of the previous generations, that were suppressed. I am shockingly aware of the widespread abuse and it never ceases to devastate me anew, but it is certainly not the case with even the… Read more »

Marvin

I just read the Rabbis narrative about his friend Michael and here are some thoughts.reactions. First of all, when Michael was a teenager, where were his parents? I know from my own experience, that if parents are available, are fully present to their children, the opportunity to slide into some dark hole are minimized. I know that I cannot save anyone, especially, someone like Michael. We all have to make choices both constructive and bad. And I believe Michael did not have someone who was able to address this dynamic with him. Where were his parents, his teachers? But ultimately,… Read more »

Dr. Twerski

Dear Rabbi Jacobson:I read your letter about drug abuse with great interest. Perhaps you are in a position to do something about a problem.The most frequently abused drug–at all ages– is alcohol. Efforts to subdue this problem have not been very successful. No doubt you saw the recent article in Newsweek about the frum youngster who drove drunk and crashed a car on SHABBOS.In Pittsburgh, I was president of the Chabad shul. I had to walk out from hakafos because of the heavy drinking, even among under-age boysWhen I lecture about drugs and alcohol, invariably someone asks, Why do the… Read more »

Daniel

Although I only met few people who have in similar situations as your article describe, for some reason, I understood or had great empathy, enough to be quite aware of having the inner dignity violated. For the drug addicts, it appears that they are trying to filled that empty spot with something that can provide immediate gratification. I used to think this is foolish but then I tried to investigate deeper into why people will reach out for something that can only provide temporary sustainment. Im still at the learning stage, but so far, I am starting to realize how… Read more »