Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dealing with Depression - in others (Rosh HaShanah 5769 Day 2)

And Gd told Avraham to bring up his son, his only son, whom he loved, Yitzchak, as an offering on Har haMoriyah. And Avraham obeyed the Divine instruction. And Yitzchak, too, obeyed, and allowed himself to be bound hand and foot and placed atop the altar, atop the wood. And Avraham stretched out his hand and took the hatchet - and then an angel called out, “Avraham, Avraham! Don’t send your hand toward your child, don’t do him any harm!”

This is a story full of pain - father sacrificing son, Gd putting faithful followers to an excruciating test, a son offering up his own life for the sake of his father’s beliefs - but perhaps the greatest pain waits for the end of the story, the way in which the Akeidah is closely followed in the Torah by the death of Avraham’s wife, Yitzchak’s mother, Sarah. A medrash explains the association:

וישב אברהם לבאר שבע, Avraham returned home, without his son, Yitzchak; Yitzchak went off elsewhere. And Sarah -
the righteous woman who had abandoned home and family to travel where Gd would lead her;
the woman who was taken captive by kings and rescued by Divine decree;
the righteous woman who received a child at the age of ninety because, as we read yesterday, Gd had heard her prayers;
the prophetess regarding whom Gd told Avraham, “Do everything she tells you” -
this woman Sarah saw Avraham returning alone and believed that her husband had killed their precious son.
ותבך ותחנק ותמת מן הצרה, she wept, she strangled, she died in agony.

She died, in pain, not knowing that, in fact, her son was alive.
She died, in agony, not knowing that it had all been a Divine challenge.
She died - and the medrash allows us to believe it might even have been by her own hand - in the deepest depression imaginable, a mother who thought she had lost her child, her only child, whom she had loved, Yitzchak.

I read this medrash and cannot help but be distraught. So tragic - and so wasteful, so unnecessary! In vain! How could Gd allow her to wallow in this depression until she passed away?
And yet, we allowed it to happen just yesterday. And today. And, if we don’t do anything about it, tomorrow as well. It happens every day, every minute of the day.
On a daily basis, people around us suffer from psychological pain, from the angst that comes with unemployment, with bankruptcy, with family trouble, with inability to cope, with stress and fear, with biochemical imbalance. Some of them find ways to manage, through counseling and friends and medicine. Far more never find ways to manage.
If we are torn by Sarah’s death, then we must do more than shed tears over this lost queen of Israel.
We had a breakfast program about this issue in February of 2006. I spoke about it on Yom Kippur last year, too. Nonetheless, I want to re-visit it: Our Judaism and our humanity obligates us to do more to prevent such deaths.

Our Torah obligates us to help.
In a series of paragraphs at the end of Sefer Vayyikra, the Torah speaks of our responsibility to help each other economically:
כי ימוך אחיך ומכר מאחוזתו - If your brother becomes impoverished and sells his ancestral fields…
כי ימוך אחיך ומטה ידו עמך - If your brother becomes impoverished and seeks a loan from you…
כי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך - If your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you …
In each of these cases, we know what to do. If he sells his ancestral fields, redeem them for him. If he seeks a loan from you, lend him the money and be prepared to turn that loan into a gift. If he sells himself into servitude, treat him with respect and set him free. Yes, we know that we are obligated to help our economically destitute brethren, and we know how to do it.

But poverty comes in many forms, and economic poverty is nothing compared to emotional poverty, to a need which is often born of circumstances entirely beyond your brother or sister’s control. It can come from biochemistry. It can come from stress. In the end, the result is the same: A poverty that demands our help. There is no greater כי ימוך אחיך than when your neighbor is suffering emotional pain, is in the shoes of Sarah Imenu.
The Torah says that we are obligated to restore lost objects to their owners; how much more so, to restore lost control, lost stability, lost hope.

The mitzvah of tzedakah itself is contoured to provide not only financial help, but also emotional support. We are taught that it is better to give a penny, with a smile, than to give a dollar with a grimace. As the gemara explains, giving with a grimace is worse than giving nothing - it actually takes something away from the recipient.

Many other mitzvot instruct us to gladden others:
Every Jew is obligated to tithe Israeli produce, and part of that tithe is supposed to be shared with the needy. At the end of each tithing cycle, the Jew declares for all to hear, שמחתי ושימחתי אחרים, I rejoiced, and I helped others rejoice as well, with these tithes.
When a man gets married, he is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of ושמח את אשתו, making his wife happy. And during the wedding and the immediately ensuing week, everyone is obligated in the mitzvah of שמחת חתן וכלה, gladdening the bride and groom.
On our national holidays, we are obligated in ושמחת בחגך, to gladden not only our families but also the strangers around us, and the widow and the orphan and anyone in need.
The Torah is filled with mitzvot related to bringing joy to others - because we dare not allow Sarah’s agony to recur. This is our obligation.

Of course, it’s easy to want to help - but often we don’t know how. Fortunately, though, the Torah also tells us how to help people in their emotional need, giving us the example of Yosef - a man who had a technicolor dream coat, and who was also an excellent empath:
One day, when Yosef was in jail, וירא אותם והנם זועפים, he noticed that two of his fellow prisoners, the former royal butler and former royal baker, were dejected.
Yosef’s reaction was immediate: He approached them and asked, מדוע פניכם רעים היום, “Why are you so down today?” They told him they had experienced frightening dreams, and Yosef offered to listen, and they took him up on the offer, and the rest is history and a Broadway show.
Yosef gave us two hints here, for preventing future Sarah’s from perishing in grief:

First, we take Notice. Yosef was almost killed by his brothers, then sold as a slave, then thrown into prison on false charges; he was certainly deep in his own troubles. He could be excused for missing the cues when his cellmates were down - but he didn’t. He saw their pain.

Second, We don’t tell people to snap out of it; we listen to them. Yosef didn’t tell the butler and baker to get over their problems, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to trust in Gd the way that he did. Rather, Yosef asked them to tell him what was wrong, and - when they were willing to talk - he listened carefully.

To these two pieces of advice I would add a third lesson of the Torah: Recognize that people who are depressed are not “crazy,” they are not out of touch with reality. They are, if anything, more realistic than the rest of us: This world is broken.

It’s certainly broken if you read the newspapers - Washington is broken, or so I’ve been told a few hundred times in this campaign season. The trans-Atlantic Alliance is broken, or so I’ve been told a few thousand times over the past eight years. The economy is broken, say the Democrats. Public morality is broken, reply the Republicans. And so on. And, in many ways, they are right. It’s no wonder that the rates of suicide and emotional dysfunction among highly intelligent people are reportedly higher than for the rest of the population; they are just reacting to what they are seeing.

Judaism, too, declares that we live in a broken world. The gemara calls it עולם הפוך, an upside-down world. Justice is rare and suffering is rampant and Gd is visible only if you look very, very hard.

Rav Kook noted evidence of this brokenness in the actual structure of the Talmud, the core of Jewish tradition. The Talmud is composed of six sections, each covering a different area of law. One section is called Nashim, and it deals, primarily, with marriage and divorce.
One might have expected the Marriage section to start with laws of betrothal and weddings - but it doesn’t. Instead, it begins with the laws of Yibbum, of levirate marriage, the case in which a man dies without children, and his wife marries his brother in an attempt to restore life after this devastation.
Rav Kook taught that the Marriage section begins with the laws of Yibbum in order to show that it is normal, we must expect it, to live in a ruptured, broken, world. The real world doesn’t have many neat marriages and well-adjusted children. The real world has death and childlessness and Yibbum - and this is the reality which many depressed people see.

This is why the concept of tikkun olam b’malchut Shakkai, repairing the world under Gd’s reign, is so important in Judaism. Judaism’s central mandate of repairing the world forces us to recognize that the world bequeathed to us by Gd is not a Panglossian best of all worlds; it is broken, and it’s waiting for us to fix it.

So when we see people who are dealing with Depression, we don’t dismiss them as crazy. Instead, we follow Yosef’s lead: Take Notice, and offer to Listen.

I readily admit that I am very flawed in this. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people sitting here thinking, “I’ve been depressed for years, and the rabbi hasn’t taken any notice,” or, “I’ve tried to talk to him about it, and he hasn’t listened well.” I’m not the best at it - but I’m working on it.

CNN ran a story a few months ago about Yukio Shige, a retired Japanese police officer. Shige patrols Japan’s Tojinbo cliffs twice each day, to keep people from leaping off to kill themselves.

The story described a 34-year old man named Hiro who came to the cliffs one day, intending to jump off at sunset. His mother had died. He had no friends, and a great deal of debt. But as Hiro waited for sunset, Officer Shige came by and asked Hiro if he needed to talk. Shige listened, and then helped set him up with financial counselors. The key wasn’t in the financial counseling, though; Hiro, today, credits Shige with saving his life by showing him that someone would be upset if he died. It made all the difference - listening, showing that he mattered. That saved a life.
In four years, Shige has saved 129 lives this way.

Helping people is not an endless pursuit; we need not be afraid of being sucked into some vast, bottomless pit of emotional need. With friends and with medical help, people survive depression; I know numerous people who were on medication and are now off, who spent years dreading getting out of bed and are now healthy. It can and does happen - not in all cases, but in some.

Today we all wish each other a happy and healthy year. We pray to Gd for a happy and healthy new year, too. But if, by Rosh haShanah next year, we notice just one Sarah and offer her an on-going ear, then we will have done much more than wish and pray: Aided by the merit of our matriarch Sarah, we will have created a happy, and healthy, new year.

1. I first started emphasizing this theme in response to the writings of Rivka at Ha'azina Tefilati.

2. The midrash about Sarah's death is cited, among other places, in Targum (pseudo)Yonatan. (Note that Ibn Ezra says Avraham and Yitzchak did, indeed, return together.)

3. On gladdening others with maaser, see Mishnah Maaser Sheni 5:12; Sifri Devarim 303.

4. On highly intelligent people experiencing Depression, Google it; it's all over.

5. The idea from Rav Kook was cited by Prof. Shlomo Carmy in a recent edition of Tradition.

6. The idea regarding Yosef's treatment of the butler and baker was sparked by a Yossy Goldman article I happened across here.

7. Yukio Shige's story is found here. Note that Tojinbo is also rendered, in some places, Tojimbo.


  1. I invariably get a lot out of your derashot, but this one really hit home. I've been suffering from severe clinical depression for more than five years now, and I'm glad to see depression being taken so seriously, particularly when there are so many other themes you could talk about on Rosh HaShanah.

    I was particularly struck by what you said about depressed people being realistic in their despair about the broken state of the world. I feel like that a lot of the time and sometimes I struggle to explain to people why I've largely stopped following the news when I used to be very interested in current affairs.

    Thank you for writing this. Shana tova.

  2. Hi, Daniel. I always wonder whether people skip the derashot for the shorter, spicier material, or not.

    I believe that one of the major lines of attack used by depression is the way it undermines coping mechanisms. The world is, indeed, broken; those who manage to handle it or ignore it get by, but those who see the brokenness clearly, who cannot turn away, are much more powerfully affected by it.

    Thank you for reading, and for writing.

  3. Thank you for this post. I've never heard of the connection between Sarah and depression. I liked the analogy with Yosef and being a good listener.

    I used to have a terrible time when I was younger with "vesamahta behageha." It was typically a time of depression for me. It's gotten a lot better, now that I have my own family and much more control over my life, but I'm still pensive about this.

  4. So much to ponder on and think more about in both the d'rashot for Rosh Hashanah, and yes, some excellent advice as well. Hope you don't mind but I made hard copies of both d'rashot to share with family and company over yom tov. There is certainly something for everyone. Shanah tovah u'mesucah.

  5. Leora,
    You're welcome, and thanks for commenting about your own experience. I hope it will continue to improve for you.

    Thanks, and do feel free to share it with others. I am flattered.

  6. Thank you so much for writing this post. A great topic at this time of great anxiety in the world.

  7. Really beautiful, that midrash about Sara, and what a moving story about the "cliff policeman." That's real hesed, not to give up on humanity, and to be so proactive about saving lives, one life at a time, day after day.

    I have at least three friends (that I know of) at the moment who are just one payment away from losing their homes... the stress is overwhelming, which only brings them down further, as you pointed out regarding coping mechanisms. It's so tough.

    Thanks for sharing all your drashot.

  8. B"H

    As one who sometimes suffers from Holiday depression, and seasonal depression, I would like to thank you for posting this.

    I also usually leyn the Aqedah every year, and sometimes get choked up while leyning. I find the special [Ashkinazy] ta'amei hamiqra for yamim HaNoraim to be purposeful and compelling.

  9. ALN-
    Thanks, and good luck to your friends.

    Ben Yehudah-
    Thanks for your comment.
    I, too, get choked up on the akeidah. The toughest spot for me is אלקים יראה לו השה לעולה בני, where I always remember Rashi's note, and I imagine the mission dawning on Yitzchak...

  10. Thank you........It is really an useful post for me. GOD is the answer for any problem. He had solution for every thing. All we need to do is keep trust in GOD and continue our effort to solve problems. Whatever be the reason of depression, overcoming depression is very easy. All we need is good support and a little effort. I've found out plenty of techniques which can be used to beat depression.

  11. Hi Mike,
    Not sure I'd agree with everything you have there, but I'm glad the post worked for you.