The Jewish Community & Drug Addiction: Al Cheit for Not Listening, Not Learning and Not Acting
This week, our community joined too many others who have confronted the impossible task of saying goodbye to a young person stolen from this world, robbed from us by the dreaded illness of addiction. In her 23 years on earth, Miriam made an indelible impression on so many who already miss her terribly. While we were coronating God, Miriam’s soul ascended to join Him on Rosh Hashana.
The faces of the countless people who attended her funeral carried immense grief, profound loss, but also great fear. For many of her peers, this was not the first time saying goodbye to a friend who had succumbed to addiction—a challenge which can be managed, but never fully conquered. Some looked frozen by the realization that this could be them, that it may just be a matter of time until their family gets that dreaded call or makes that horrific discovery. There were parents who have given every form of love and support to their children who were or are struggling and yet looked so helpless and even hopeless. One described to me the stress and anxiety of waiting every moment of every day to get a phone call that will turn their lives upside down forever.
In just a few days, when we confess al cheit on Yom Kippur, I will be adding a few more this year. Al cheit for our ignorance. Al cheit for our indifference, even if unintentional. Al cheit for not showering enough love, care and support to those gripped by the terror of a life of addiction. Al cheit for not looking out for those falling between the cracks, those that may struggle to excel in the ways that our society has defined as successful, but who have so much to offer in other ways. Al cheit for not being there for our young people or their family members who are suffering from their loved one’s disease more than we could ever know. Al cheit for not listening, for not learning, for not acting.
The Jewish community must do more, we must do better. I don’t know what the solutions are yet, but I do know it begins by acknowledging the problem and vowing to solve it. The first step is to increase awareness and it is in that spirit that Miriam’s parents asked me if I would share the eulogy I delivered for their special daughter. May Hashem give them strength.
May 5778 be the year that we all do our part in our schools, shuls, communities and in our homes to help our young people be safe, healthy and prosperous.
Hesped for Miriam Orlan a”h
Miriam Esther bas Avraham Yitzchak
Darcho shel olam, the way of the world is for children to gather to say goodbye to parents; parents are not supposed to be standing graveside to say goodbye to their children. Zachreinu l’chaim, melech chafetz ba’chaim…for these ten days, three times a day we beseech God to remember us for life. We refer to Him as the King who cherishes life. And yet, our zachreinu l’chaim has so abruptly turned into a yizkor Elokim, a hope for a rich life transformed into a prayer for the memory of someone no longer. It is beyond painful, tragic and almost incomprehensible that we find ourselves standing here today to give kavod acharon, to say goodbye to a precious young woman, a special neshama, Miriam Esther bas Avraham Yitzchak, who has left the world way too soon and before her time.
Devora and Avi – Miriam knew how much you loved her and how deeply you cared about her. She cherished your love in all forms, affectionate love and tough love, because she knew you were concerned only for her. There are simply no words we can offer that can ease your pain or comfort your aching soul. All we can do is pray that Hashem gives you the strength to know that you did all that you could and the courage to endure this horrific moment.
Sara and Yitzchak, Doniel, Penina and Tal – Miriam felt your love and commitment to her and she loved you. We pray that the fun times, laughter, happiness and joy you had with her will shape your memory of her and that you somehow find comfort during this time.
Mrs. Orlan, Mrs. Phillips, Perel, Shmuly and all of Miriam’s family – you were each part of what gave Miriam strength and courage over these last years. Miriam had wonderful qualities and virtues, undoubtedly due to your influence and the model you each set. We pray this will be a source of comfort and consolation.
There is great soul-searching, reflection and even cheshbon ha’nefesh that our community must undertake in the wake of this tragedy. We must do more and do better for the vulnerable among us, to soothe the pain of the spiritually wounded, to love and comfort the souls that are aching so that they don’t need to find solace elsewhere. I pledge that we will take an accounting, we will listen, learn and act. But not now, not today. Today is about our special and sensitive soul, Miriam Esther bas Avraham Yitzchak.
We are in the period of aseres y’mei teshuva, and these days of awe culminate with Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur forces us to confront our mortality, to reflect on how fragile life is, with the hope it will motivate a more meaningful and fulfilled life. We perform kapparos and say may the death of this chicken be a source of atonement for us. Men wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, the garment we are buried in. On Yom Kippur, we read from Acharei Mos, the portion that tells of the premature death of Aharon’s two sons. We read the story of the asarah harugei malchus, the ten martyrs. We recite vidduy on Yom Kippur, just as a person does at the end of his life. We deny ourselves physical comfort and pleasure as if we no longer have a body. Lastly, the Talmud tells us Yom Hakippurim atzmo m’caper, u’misah m’chaperes, Yom Kippur atones, and death atones. There is an undeniable connection between Yom Kippur and death that is meant to inspire life.
But there is another way of interpreting these customs and observances. On Yom Kippur we are focused not on death, but rather, we are focused on life, our real lives, the true us, not the illusion of this world. For 364 days a year, we live in this physical world, but for 25 hours, we transcend it, we are a soul free of the pleasures of this world, unburdened by the urges and temptations of the body. For one day, we taste what it will mean to be an unencumbered soul: pure, good, and noble.
Some souls can’t wait to get back to the physical world, to indulge and to be carefree. Other souls, like Miriam, feel the pain of the world, of the people around them, and carry all that pain, making reentry difficult, if not impossible. Miriam was born with an insatiable appetite. From a young age, she loved to take it in. She enjoyed good food, deep conversation, close relationships. She loved to indulge in what life had to offer.
There is no doubt she was passionate. But what made Miriam special is not her passion, but her compassion. Miriam was caring, sensitive, loving, and had a seemingly endless capacity for empathy. She genuinely felt the pain of people around her and carried it like it was her own. She was pained for people around her who were hurting. She even felt the pain of little chickens and of bees, and that is why for a long time she was a vegan who refused to eat animals or even the honey they produced.
Miriam was politically astute and instinctively always rooted for underdog. She didn’t judge, she didn’t criticize, she just loved. She had a gutta neshama, a neshama not from this world, a neshama that couldn’t handle the pain of this world.
The Rambam uses a very unusual word in the beginning of the 7th chapter of hilchos teshuva. “Yishtadeil adom la’asos teshuva, a person should try to repent.” He doesn’t say “accomplish teshuva,” he says yishtadeil, try, do your best, battle and don’t ever give up. Miriam battled since she was 14 years old. She never ever thought she would become a statistic, a victim of this dreaded disease. It took enormous physical and emotional energy to fight and to battle, daily.
Miriam Esther bas Avraham Yitzchak must not be remembered for a battle she lost, but for the countless battles she won. She went to cosmetician school, she moved to New York, and built a life for herself. She had a good job as a beloved nanny for a wonderful family. She was a loyal friend and a dedicated daughter, devoted granddaughter, sibling and aunt. She was beloved to so many on whom she had a great impact.
While the pain for you, her beloved family, is beyond words or even consolation, I hope and pray that you find strength in knowing that Miriam’s soul is no longer encumbered by this world, she is no longer burdened by pain, that of hers or that of others. While this Saturday night at Havdalah, we will return from Yom Kippur into this world, Miriam Esther bas Avraham Yitzchak will now remain a pure, pain free soul forever.