Elchanan Poupko

These High Holidays, Talk About The Sacklers 

Fake pill bottles with messages about OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are displayed during a protest outside the courthouse where the bankruptcy of the company is taking place in White Plains, NY, on Aug. 9, 2021. (AP/Seth Wenig)

After the catastrophic damage Bernie Madoff had inflicted on so many had become clear, rabbis and Jewish community members rushed to disown, admonish, and contend with the moral horror of Bernie Madoff. We wondered how it was possible that such a villain would emerge from our community, which places a great emphasis on ethics and morality. Yet what Madoff did was minuscule, if not negligible, in comparison to what the Sackler family had inflicted on America, and it is high time we deal with that—for the sake of our past and the sake of our future. This Jewish High Holiday season, we must all be talking about the Sacklers and the opioid epidemic. 

Netflix’s recent Painkiller series and SCOTUS’s recent verdict on the Sackler’s case have brought the horrors of what Purdue Pharma has done back to the front and center of public discourse. The hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, the ravaged communities, the orphans, the living addicts, and the broken trust between Americans and physicians, all resulting from the Oxycontin and the manmade opioid epidemic, are heartbreaking. 


The reason rabbis and Jewish communities should focus more on the Sacklers and what they have done—especially over the coming High Holidays—is very Biblical. One of the most central narratives the Hebrew Bible leads is refuting the idea that God can be brought. The books of the prophets are filled with warnings against those bringing offering to God’s home, the Temple in Jerusalem, as an alternative for personal integrity.”Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. (Isaiah 1:11) “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination of the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His will.” (proverbs 8)

The Bible would not make this point so many times if it were not such a powerful human belief. The idea that we can somehow bribe God has crossed the minds of humans for thousands of years. “For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe.” (Deuteronomy 10)

While this is made very clear in principle, it obviously was not too clear in practice. Too many prestigious institutions kept the Sackler name until very recently. The idea that a family that has taken part in inflicting death on the scale of hundreds of thousands should not be sitting in prison and even have its name in places of honor should give us all pause. We need to ask ourselves not only about the Sacklers but rather a general question about what it is that we consider a communal red line for all of us. 

Another reason we must all talk about the Sacklers and why I encourage everyone who can to watch Painkiller is the lingering horrors of overprescribed pain medication. I remember visiting someone recovering from surgery in one of New York’s most prestigious medical facilities. As they were being discharged, they were given prescriptions for a large amount of very powerful pain medications with little direction and few instructions. The opioid epidemic is still here. 1500 Americans are dying every week (!) from opioids and fentanyl. Israel is now a new epicenter for painkiller consumption, and many of us might have family members who are on their way to encountering the horrors of inappropriate opioid consumption. 

Are there more inspiring topics to think about during the High Holidays? Of course. But the rabbis purposefully chose for the readings of Yom Kippur and fasts segments condemning sugarcoating, virtue signaling, and the idea that one kind of giving can atone for another kind of damage. During this time of introspection, rabbis should focus on strengthening the integrity of our community so that we prevent the Sacklers of tomorrow from committing the same moral crimes. 

Acknowledging the devil that was in our midst, which has greatly influenced cultural institutions, hospitals, academia, and physicians, is key to the lifesaving process of cleansing our communities of the deadly poison the Sacklers have inflicted on us–morally, physically, socially, and spiritually. The more we speak of the moral shortcomings, crimes, and horrors that brought the death and destruction of Oxycontin on America, the safer, healthier, and more moral our communities will be. 

L’Shana Tova.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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