On Yom Kippur and Year-Round, Help Others to Choose Life

September 30, 2014Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor

“…I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”

 On Yom Kippur morning, we will read those words in our Torah reading as found in our Reform machzorim (holiday prayer books). The passage comes from the Book of Deuteronomy.

“Choose life.” It seems simple enough, logical enough – but for some, it seems impossible.

When I was growing up, family members spoke only in hushed tones about Great Aunt Sukie. Relatives whispered about her problems and eventual suspected suicide, but the subject was generally taboo – especially in Jewish families because of religious biases. Depression and suicide run in families: Aunt Sukie’s daughters suffered deeply, too.

Watching members of my extended family and close circle of friends deal with depression, I always wondered why it was discussed as though we were trying to keep a secret – why we had to pretend that it didn’t exist. We run marathons and wear ribbons for cancer; AIDS, once the scourge of modernity, is now discussed openly. But not depression.

And yet, mental illness so often is the cause of suicide. Celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, Robin Williams, Spalding Gray, L’Wren Scott – each of them was enormously talented but could not overcome the crushing depression that drove them to take their own lives. And yet, there remains a societal disinclination toward thinking of depression as an illness.

As my youngest son’s high school graduation approached, I asked him how he wanted to mark the occasion. He responded that he wanted permission to get a tattoo: the chemical symbol for serotonin on his left forearm. You see, throughout the early years of his high school experience, Zach experienced bouts of depression. Filled with self-doubt and anxiety, he lived in a fog until he finally asked for help. He met with a therapist and was eventually prescribed an SSRI, a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, which made all the difference. My funny, happy, brilliant son returned, leaving behind the kid who didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Zach wanted that tattoo to remind him that his depression is a chemical problem in his body – it isn’t him.

But treating depression is more than just taking a pill, more than just dealing with how one’s body processes serotonin. That is only part of the puzzle. Once the biological aspects have been stabilized – if they, indeed, need stabilization – it’s still critical to deal with residual sadness in other ways.                           

The Hebrew word for “to pray” is lehitpalel. It is in the reflexive case, based upon the root of the word “to plead” or “to judge.” “To pray,” then, is literally “to judge oneself.” Indeed, the only way to judge something is to have a sense of the ideal and to compare that ideal to the reality of the moment. Prayer, then, is the dual act of looking outside and inside oneself and finding a way to reconcile the two.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe, a colleague who triumphed over both leukemia and depression, writes,

"In Jewish tradition, prayer doesn’t mean somehow finding God’s unlisted phone number or rubbing a magic lamp to bring forth a genie. It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value, and discovering what you believe. Prayer is the “self-judgment” that empowers us to reach higher, search deeper and be true to ourselves."

The Yamim Noraim, these days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, are a time to look inside ourselves to find value and meaning in life, while also trying to jettison the things that weigh us down. That is the act of teshuvah (repentance) – turning from what ails us to what enlivens us.

But aside from medication and prayer, how else can one break free of the abyss? It is, almost always, through another person. That other person needs to be able to withstand grief, darkness, sadness, pain – and then be able to help. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin once said,

"If you want to raise a person from the mire and darkness, it is not enough to reach your hand down and pull that person up. You must go down into that darkness and with great strength pull yourself and your friend up."

When you read the words of Deuteronomy this Yom Kippur, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,” know that choosing life is not merely a default position. Rather, it is an active choice that we must make each day –not just for ourselves, but also for those around us. When someone we love struggles, it is incumbent upon us to step forward, to reach out, and to help our loved one to choose life, not just for him or herself, but for the future, as well.

On Rosh HaShanah, we read the opening lines of Genesis, which tell the story of the creation of the world and of humanity, which begins with the creation of a single human being. The Talmud (TB Sanhedrin 37a) asks why the human race began with just one person. The answer found in the text teaches us that “…whoever preserves a single soul, scripture ascribes merit to that person as though the entire world was saved.”

Choose life.

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