Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sending suicidal people form letters

[I wrote this four years ago, in a different forum, in the week before Tisha b'Av. My life is different now; I no longer serve as a shul rabbi. Nonetheless, it still resonates with me, and particularly because just the other day a shul rabbi mentioned to me exactly the point I identified below - that a shul rabbi runs a great risk of burnout if he identifies too closely with the people he counsels, but that we do it anyway.]

I’ve been unusually depressed lately - beyond the normal dips and bottoms in my normal state of harried/anxious/depressed/exuberant.
Some of it is the Nine Days.
Some of it is miserable anticipation of Haftarat Chazon coming up this Shabbos; I never get through that without bawling like a baby.
Some of it is from lack of music during the Three Weeks of mourning.
And some of it is the rising tide of illness and bereavement I’ve been dealing with, in one of those morbid swings of the pendulum that happen from time to time.

I’ve been reading segments of Alan Alda’s autobiographical “Never have your dog stuffed,” and I just found two paragraphs that sum up the problem perfectly. [Note: I cannot recommend the book, because parts of it are too vulgar to be halachically permissible. Frankly, the early part is wandering and poorly put together. On the other hand, some of the later parts are great. And, it is Alan Alda, after all.]

On page 168 he describes becoming famous as a result of MASH:
I began receiving letters from people on the verge of suicide, asking me for help - help they felt for some reason I was qualified to give them. I wanted to answer these lettes before the people carried out their acts of despair, but after I struggled with what I should say in answer to the first letter I received, I realized I had taken a week. That was too long. At a certain point, even the right words might be useless. I couldn’t take that long with every letter.

Finally, I wrote a draft of a note that could be tailored to anyone who wrote me in desperation, and I checked it with a friend who was a psychoanalyst. In each letter, I included the number of the local suicide prevention clinic. I tried to make the letter seem personal and genuine, hoping they wouldn’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but each time I sent out one of these letters, and there were a number of them, I felt strange. This is what getting famous does to you, I though. You wind up sending suicidal people form letters.

That’s a big problem in the rabbinate. Members, non-members, locals and people from far away, they come to you looking for answers, for comfort, for a listening ear, and you can’t afford to send them form letters. They need, they deserve, more than that. They deserve someone who will listen.

Which brings me to an earlier paragraph in Alda’s book, page 160-161, discussing his evolution as an actor in doing MASH:
When I started out as an actor, I thought, Here’s what I have to say; how shall I say it? On MASH, I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening it what lets it happen. It’s almost always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently, that the other person brings about a change in you that makes you say it and informs the way you say it…

Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in the theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.

To be a good listener means to be transformed: To sit and listen and absorb the other person’s experiences and point of view, and let them become your own, so that you can respond with a real sense of the other person. You can’t have an answer until you know what the other person is saying, until you’ve heard him out and absorbed her view.

I’m experienced enough to know the danger this poses during an intense period like the one I’m enduring. I know the warning signs and the pitfalls, and the need to step back and take a deep breath. But I’m a rabbi. I’m the rabbi. They come to me.

This is one of the reasons I don’t blog much about the “big issues” facing the Jewish community. All community is local; it’s the woman with cancer, the man with suicidal urges, the couple having marital difficulties. What Olmert will and won’t do, whether Lubavitch messianists are going Christian or not, asking if the Gedolim are given too much credence - I don’t have the patience, let alone the time, to play pundit on that these days. I’m trying too hard to avoid sending suicidal people form letters.


  1. It sounds like you have got a good grasp on the problem of being a rabbi.
    This could be considered as a good step in the right direction.
    You might know there is a terrible backlash against orthodox rabbis of people that actually believe in Torah and Talmud. Almost every frum Jewish I have known or met even randomly on some bus over many many years has some horror story about what some orthodox rabbi did to him and his family. Rarely have any of us Jews who have had our lives destroyed by some orthodox rabbi seen the type of humility you have shown here in your blog. Perhaps if there had been more people like you things would be different.

  2. Rabbi--

    It goes without saying that each Jew gets psak halacha from his own rabbi(s) and not from internet commentators, no matter how learned or talented. But conceptually, if a book is permissible for you to read, how can it not be permissible for the general public to read (I am talking about the Alan Alda book and not about special cases like studying Kabala or something)?

  3. Rosten -
    Thank you, I am honoured. It's something I have a goal, and I hope one day to achieve.

    Shmuel -
    I skipped those sections, and didn't know about them before acquiring the book.

  4. Wow. While I can not say that I am currently bitter about Rabbonim it is truthfully refreshing to read your post. The art of listening is something so lost in todays generation. It trully takes energy and focus (without a buzzing BlackBerry or iPad) to actually interact with others. In todays day and age it is not the norm to actually listen to others... who has the time? Who actually cares? I think all of us should read this article. Not just clergy or therapists but husbands and wives, parents and teachers etc... Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed it!

  5. Think I can turn this into something for yom kippur? Brad. Beautifuly done

  6. Maybe the form letter can start out openly admitting that it's a form letter.
    Ask for the reader's understanding that you're trying to help other people as well, in as timely a manner as possible.

  7. RuchniGashmi-
    Thank you.

    Why not?

    Definitely better than not acknowledging that...