of Pain:
How Greed
& Ego Lead
Us Astray

Picture of Sara Rigler

Sara Rigler

Sara Yoheved Rigler’s YouTube channel is "From Within the Walls of Jerusalem", where she relates stories, presents gems of Jewish wisdom, and teaches practical life tools. Her newest book, I’ve Been Here Before: When Souls of the Holocaust Return, is the product of 8 years of research into reincarnated souls from the Holocaust. She is also the author of six best-sellers: Holy Woman; Lights from Jerusalem; Battle Plans: How to Fight the Yetzer Hara (with Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller); G-d Winked: Tales and Lessons from My Spiritual Adventures; Heavenprints; and Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup. She gives a weekly Marriage Webinar for Jewish Workshops on a spiritual approach to marriage, with hundreds of members throughout the world. She lives in the Old City of Jerusalem. Her website is: sararigler.com.

""Painkiller" never mentions that they are Jewish. But, as a Jew watching the docudrama, I cringed. Because everyone knows that the Sacklers are Jewish. Just like everyone knows that Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein were Jewish. Just like everyone knows that Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the American population—produce such shining goodness and also such abysmal evil?"

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The Netflix series “Painkiller” is the horrific story of how the notorious Jewish Sackler family engineered the opioid epidemic. It begins in Richard Sackler’s lavish mansion when he is awakened by the annoying beep of a smoke alarm. He searches throughout the many rooms of his mansion until he locates the offending alarm, then tries hard to silence it. The beep that bothers him is not the loud wail set off by fire and smoke, but the quiet signal that the battery in the smoke alarm is running low.

In “Painkiller” the beep of the smoke alarm is drowned out by the loud voice of the deceased Arthur Sackler, Richard’s uncle who launched the family’s financial success and is now haunting him. Arthur’s obsession was “legacy.” He made huge donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, universities, and hospitals, where the Sackler name was brandished on buildings and wings galore. His message to his children before his death was: “Leave the world a better place than when you entered it.”  They don’t. 

Throughout the series, Richard is plagued by the recurrent beep of the smoke alarm. It is an apt metaphor for conscience; the “battery” that powers the conscience of a Jew is the moral standards of the Torah: social responsibility, compassion for the disempowered, justice that pays no heed to wealth, and the humility of knowing that God, not any man, runs the world. When that “battery” runs low, there is no effective alarm to alert the home’s residents that a fire is raging.

The movie, with dramatic license, portrays the devastation wrought to individuals and families by the prescription drug OxyContin, described as “heroin in a pill,” and produced by the Sackler owned Purdue Pharma. Almost a half million people have died of prescription drug overdoses. OxyContin is the chief culprit.

Rather than simply put OxyContin on the market as a painkiller for doctors to prescribe, Richard Sackler mobilized an army of charismatic young women to cajole doctors to prescribe the drug in ever-increasing doses. Both the women and the doctors were rewarded financially and with perks for pushing the drug. 

According to journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s investigative piece that appeared in The New Yorker, “The Family that Built an Empire of Pain,” Purdue Pharma paid 40 million dollars in bonuses in 2001 to its sales force. It is a lurid story of human greed and lust, exactly the propensities that the Torah attempts to rein in.

“Painkiller” co-created by Micah Fitzerman-Blue, a Jew and the son of a Conservative rabbi, manages to convey the tremendous evil of Richard Sackler, laced with a thin thread of impulse to change the world. In the pivotal scene where Richard Sackler is convincing his father and uncle to hold onto Purdue Pharmaceuticals, he tells them that human beings run away from pain and run toward pleasure. 

“If we place ourselves right there between pain and pleasure, if we become gate- keepers for everyone who wants to get away from pain, then we have changed the world… And you will never have to worry about money ever again.”

At that early stage of the story, Richard Sackler’s greed is intertwined with his drive to change the world. Sackler’s obsession is both greed and ego. Toward the end of the series, he says, “I care about making money and winning. That’s it.” This is Jewish drive gone awry. But when the Jewish drive to change the world is harnessed to Jewish wisdom and values, the result is a socially conscious and compassionate society.

As Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish, put it:

“Jews are driven. When they are connected to Judaism, they are driven to change the world. And if they are not connected to Judaism, they are just driven. And for this reason, you can’t keep the Jews down. They will always rise to the top. They will become famous doctors, top lawyers, Nobel Prize winners. And when they stop driving themselves, they will drive their children.”

“Painkiller” never mentions that they are Jewish. But, as a Jew watching the docudrama, I cringed. Because everyone knows that the Sacklers are Jewish. Just like everyone knows that Bernie Madoff and Jeffrey Epstein were Jewish. Just like everyone knows that Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were Jewish. How could one tiny people—just 2% of the American population—produce such shining goodness and also such abysmal evil?

Historian Ken Spiro provides an answer. In his book Destiny, he writes that the mission of the Jewish People is to fix the world, to be “a light unto the nations” as the Bible puts it. The drive to improve the world was programmed into the Jew’s spiritual DNA. This tremendous drive is supposed to be channeled by the rules and disciplines of the Torah, which commands honesty and integrity in business, justice and fairness in communal affairs, and kindness and compassion in personal conduct. But when Jews ignore the Torah, when they cease to inculcate its values and wisdom and live by it, their tremendous drive gets derailed.

Spiro lists Jews who have used their innate drive to corrupt and exploit: the gangsters Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Jacob “Greasy Thumb” Guzik; the insider trading champ Ivan Boesky, and the Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff. Spiro’s book was published in 2018, before Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and the Sacklers had become household names identified with monstrous vice. As any objective assessment makes clear, however, the number of Jewish villains is dwarfed by the number of Jews who have used their innate drive to improve the world.

As Irish American scholar Thomas Cahill pointed out:

“The Jews…gave us the Conscience of the West, the belief that this God who is One is not the God of outward show but the “still, small voice” of conscience, the God of compassion, … the God who cares about each of his creatures, especially the human beings created “in his image,” and that he insists we do the same.The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside—our outlook and our inner life. … We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact—new, adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, freedom progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice—are the gifts of the Jews.” [The Gifts of the Jews, pp. 239-241]

Jews have been at the forefront of every movement for social improvement in American society. At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement in 1963-64, one half of the Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi to register black voters were Jews. A milestone event of that era was the disappearance in June, 1964, of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. Seven weeks later their bodies were found, having been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Two of three — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were Jews from New York.

We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul that kickstarts the 40-day period that ends with Yom Kippur. The singular focus of this time period is to examine one’s deeds, to turn the drive to fix the world inward toward fixing oneself and to evaluate how one’s life falls short of the Jewish ideals of kindness, honesty, integrity, and service of God. In the Torah God commands: “I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life” (Deut. 30:19).

Jewish drive fuels you to cover extraordinary distances, to persist in seemingly hopeless journeys, and to travel through uncharted territories. Jews are driven, but the direction you go is up to you. And this pre-Yom Kippur season assures you that if you are going in the wrong direction, you have the fuel necessary to make a U-turn and arrive at a different destination.

“Painkiller” is a warning to all of us of the dangers of living a life fueled by greed and an inability to accept God’s will for us as a nation and as individuals.

(Courtesy of Aish.com)

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