No One Needs to Suffer Alone
This is the holiest night of the year. During this most sacred day, we stand alone before God in the midst of millions of other Jews, opening our souls to God and standing before Him in judgment. For the last ten days we have engaged in Cheshbon HaNefesh, an examination of our souls, asking ourselves how we can become better human beings. How can we become more empathic, more caring and more giving people? How can we diminish our selfishness and become less self centered? How can we better appreciate our family and friends? How can we show our gratitude for the blessings, large and small, that God has given us?
The vast majority of us greatly benefit from this day of personal and communal introspection. There are some of us, however, who live in a cloud of darkness, who are not able to see the light that wants to envelop them, who are so ill that life itself is a burden rather than a blessing. Among us tonight are some who have a disease of the brain that is as real as if they had cancer or heart disease. We call the disease from which they are suffering “mental illness” which still, unfortunately, has a terrible stigma attached to it, as if we lived in the 19th century and confined our mentally ill to an asylum called Bedlam. “It is time we stopped thinking about mental illness in pejorative way. It is time we acknowledged that a disease in the brain is just as physical as a disease in the heart, the lungs, or the liver. The fact that it is more complicated, less understood and not well studied, does not mean we can ignore this fact. In truth, it means the exact opposite: that mental health needs to be treated with urgency. Our society needs to start treating its illnesses as every bit as deadly and malicious as other ailments”
We were shocked less than two months ago when we learned that Robin Williams had died. We were even more horrified by the news that he had killed himself. In truth, Robin Williams did not kill himself. His disease, his mental illness, killed him, just as if he had been felled by cancer. Robin Williams suffered from depression, a darkness so thick that it distorted his reality, causing him to think that death was preferable to life. Robin Williams, despite his comedic genius and lovable personality, was so ill that he wanted to die. It may be hard for us to imagine, considering that he was brilliant, beloved, and wealthy, but that did matter to him. His illness made him want to die.
It comes as a surprise to some that Robin Williams was not Jewish.
Growing up in a Protestant home in suburban Detroit, attending bar and bat mitzvahs weekly, Williams felt completely at home with our people. He sprinkled his speech with Yiddishisms and was Billy Crystal’s best friend. He solidified his Jewish “creds” when a German reporter interviewed him asking, “Why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?” Without skipping a beat, Williams replied, “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”
Jews practically invented psychiatry and defined the study of illnesses of the mind. That is not a coincidence, considering that we have more than our share of mental illness. “Early 20th century studies observed more diagnoses of depression and bipolar disorder in Jews than non-Jews, but the effect might have been due to a greater tendency of Jews to seek psychiatric help. To avoid that bias, a larger study conducted twenty years ago by the National Institute of Mental Health determined that Jewish men had higher rates of depression than non-Jewish men while Jewish women suffered from depression similarly to non-Jewish women. I am not going to touch that one. Whatever I say can only get me in trouble.
Researchers are looking for a genetic determinant to mental illness but evidence is still elusive. Whether or not we experience more mental illness than others, we are certainly more sensitive to it, considering the large number of Jewish mental health practitioners and the number of us who are in therapy.
The Jewish experience throughout history has been molded by oppression. Constant oppression has caused overwhelming stress which is a component in the formation of mental illness. After thousands of years of wandering, pogroms, and persecution, it is a wonder that so many of us still are in the spectrum of normality. God commands us to remember our pain so that we can be sensitive to the widow, orphan, and stranger, the disenfranchised and different among us. Generations of suffering has enabled us to be empathic to the most vulnerable in our society.
There is, however, a dark side to remembering pain. Neuroscience has joined with the therapeutic professions to teach us that we participate in creating our reality. Our experiences and the ways we think about them-our insights and reflections-change the neural connections that make up our brains. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel writes, “This revelation is based on one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the last twenty years: How we focus our attention shapes the structure of the brain.” According to the writer, Diane Ackerman, “In the end, what we pay the most attention to defines us. How you choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of your life literally transforms you.”
Our memories, emotional responses, and primal narratives become encoded deep within us, forming our sense of who we are. When we are not aware of the ways we frame the world, these primal responses can wreak havoc in our lives. A most painful example is that those who were abused as children are at risk of becoming abusers themselves. We are what we remember. But we can choose how we remember. We need to transform our pain into empathy, our fear into courage, and our mourning into joy. Suffering does not have to lead to darkness and death. We can use our pain to become kinder, more caring human beings.”
Just a few days ago, I visited one of our congregants in the hospital. She had overdosed on pills and if her husband had not called 911, I would have officiated at her funeral. She realizes that she has everything to live for but, after struggling with depression for many years and dealing with stressful family circumstances, life, for a short time, seemed overwhelmingly bleak. When I entered the room the first thing she said was, “I wanted to call you. I guess I should have picked up the phone.” I said, “So do I…so do I.” Perhaps I could have talked her through her blackness or at least gotten her the immediate help she needed.
My message to you tonight is that we do not have to suffer alone. Our congregation is particularly sensitive to mental illness as we have, through the generosity of private donors, a congregational nurse, Beth Philipson, and social worker, Robin Lumpkin, on staff. I would like them to stand so that you know who they are. Their help is available to you at no cost, just because you are members of Oheb Shalom. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only congregation in North America to be able to offer this help to our congregants. All you have to do is call them or email them and they, along with all of us, are here to help. We call this our Shleimut program, from the Hebrew word shalom. In addition to its simple meaning of “hello and goodbye,” shalom at its essence means “wholeness.” The name of the program was chosen because we care about you as a whole person. We are concerned not just about your Jewish identity or your attendance at services or religious school. We care about your physical and mental health. We will do all we can to avail you of the help you need to get well.
We do not believe that suffering is ennobling. We certainly do not believe that God wants us to suffer. What we do believe is that suffering does make us more empathetic and makes us grateful for the times when we are not in pain. It causes us to understand that we are not, ultimately, in control of our lives. Suffering reminds us of our limitations. We should always remember that we should not suffer alone. We reach out to family, friends, and clergy for support. We seek medical help. We call or email Robin or Beth. Someone is there to help.
Ultimately, we believe that God is with us at all times, that God is particularly sensitive to our hurt. One of God’s one hundred names is “HaRachaman,” the Compassionate One. While God cannot cure us or alleviate our pain, God embraces us and has compassion on all those who call upon Him. When we are hurting, when the darkness blots out the light, we call upon God and those who care for us to help.
The Midrash is replete with references to God’s redemptive power. The rabbis tell us we should never lose hope or faith. They tell us, “If you have hoped and have not been saved, hope and hope again. God has pleasure not in burnt offerings, peace offerings or sacrifices but in hope of the human heart.” God, the rabbis write, hearkens to all people simultaneously. While a human ruler can only listen to two or three people at a time, God’s ears are never satiated with hearing. God never gets tired of listening to our prayers. The ancient sage, Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani said, “If you have directed your heart in prayer, be assured that you will be heard by God.” While God may not be able to directly intervene in our lives, God does hear our prayers. God does love us and will also be present in our lives if we let Him in. When God is with us we are never alone. We need not suffer alone…We need not suffer alone.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah
Ten Minutes of Torah, September 2, 2014
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 40:1
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 65:2
Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 108:1