"Walking In The Dark" - Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5775
On this Rosh Hashanah, we join together to celebrate God’s creation of our world. And last night, we heard beautiful words from Cantor Alicia that changed our language. God no longer just created light, “God” became “Light.” And it WAS good.
But God also created darkness. And we all know that darkness is as much a part of our existence as light.
This morning I want to acknowledge the dark moments in which we live. I want to talk about an issue that is truly troubling, that will cause us discomfort, and force us to examine ourselves honestly.
Please be patient with me as we go on a difficult path through a dark tunnel; be assured, there is a light at the end. I hope that this journey makes us better people and a better community.
My Grandmother, if she only knew, would say – “MESUGANE, are you crazy?” People want a happy sermon on Rosh Hashanah. I agree, it’s great to feel light and happy. But what about the other times? Is it not our responsibility as a community to begin this New Year talking about those times as well?
Our rabbis in Pirkei Avot taught us: “Im lo achshav- eimatai?” If not now – when?
There is an old Jewish tradition to begin a New Year with a special blessing, so I would like to start by offering this blessing.
If you are a cancer survivor, please rise. (Many people stand)
May you always cherish the gift of life. The light and hope that emerged from the darkness. May you continue to use your courage to help those who are afraid, and always appreciate the sacredness of each moment. Amen,
And now I want to bless a different group of people with a different blessing:
If you suffer or suffered from depression, or any mental illness associated with depression, please rise. (Very few people stand)
May Adonai, in infinite mercy, bring peace and comfort to you and to your loved ones who face days that are sometimes filled with pain and depression. May the source of life help you realize that through Adonai there is joy and the promise of lasting peace. May you find the ability to focus on your blessings and to never be shamed for the struggle you face.
Would you be surprised if I tell you that according to recent data there are almost the same exact number of cancer survivors as people suffering from depression in the United States?
How could it be that so many here tonight felt comfortable or compelled to rise, be blessed and identified as cancer survivors while so many others remained glued to their seats when I offered a blessing that is related to depression?
Many of you probably remember a time where you couldn’t even say the word cancer. I think it is amazing that we as a society overcame the difficulty of talking about cancer. Will we ever be able to discuss depression with the same level of comfort and honesty?
Just a few weeks ago, this shameful reality hit us in very powerful way. One of the funniest people in the world, a man that made us all laugh, as Mork or Miss Doubtfire, took his own life because of depression, and we all woke up in disbelief and asked, “How is this possible?”
But this is not just a tragedy concerning Robin Williams. It is also the story of Ernest Hemmingway, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and close to 40,000 Americans this past year alone that died as a result of depression.
Robin Williams’ death gives us an opportunity to talk about depression, and we will.
It is time to break the taboo on this illness.
We have races for cancer, bike rides for AIDS, marches for autism, and ice bucket challenges for ALS -- but rarely do we talk about depression as an illness.
Depression carries a tag of shame that causes less than half of those who struggle to seek any treatment.
Depression comes in all kinds and forms, in many different shades of black, from the severe clinical depression, to the 20 million Americans that suffer from what is known as “mood disorders,” disorders that you might recognizes as postpartum depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or part of a bi-polar personality.
For 1 out of 10 people sitting here tonight, depression is chronic, it doesn’t mean they are depressed all the time, but they will occasionally be depressed - for the entirety of their lives.
9 out of 10 people here today might not be diagnosed with depression, but they sure do know what it feels like to be depressed. Because we have all walked in the dark.
Whether it was the numbness after a death of a loved one, the despair after losing a job, the misery resulting from a relationship gone bad, the helplessness confronting chronic pain or a battle with addiction. Feeling useless when we see our children in pain or vulnerable when diagnosed with a terminal illness.
We all have walked in the dark.
9 out of 10 people here today can recall a time they were depressed. We can all think of ourselves walking in the dark at a certain time in our lives, and we can all use our experiences to try and understand what it means to live with this illness our entire lives. What it means not to be able to move, to breathe, and to love.
In one way or another, at one time or another, for a shorter or longer time…
We all have walked in the dark.
Carl Yung taught, “Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
We as a Sacred Jewish Community have an obligation to talk about depression.
We as a Sacred Jewish Community have an obligation to teach ourselves what faith and religion can offer each and every one of us when we are walking in darkness.
We as a Sacred Jewish Community have an obligation this coming year to acknowledge that we have a role in supporting those who are struggling with darkness, every single day.
We must stop failing them, we must stop failing ourselves.
In order to do all that we first must acknowledge that although depression is a medical condition, a mental affliction, it is not JUST that.
Depression cannot and should not be turned into a purely cold, clinical matter we call “chemical imbalances.”
No, we are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies.
Back in the 12th century The Rambam – Maimonides - was one of the first Rabbis to be aware of the connection between body and mind or soul. He wrote in the 12th century: “The physician should not think that medical knowledge (alone) can set aside emotional instabilities. Psychology and ethical philosophy – what he called religion - are necessary…”
And for Hebrew speakers – this has always been clear…
In Hebrew, all the conditions we categorize as mental illness are called MACHALOT NEFESH, the disease of the spirit, disease of the soul, not just a mental disease.
Earlier today, we sang together a blessing for body and for soul. Debbi Friedman took one melody and tied two prayers together, teaching us and showing us about this deep connection between body and soul. That one is not complete without the other.
When we sing at temple on Fridays the prayer for healing that she wrote, we pray for “the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit” – Debbie knew – because she suffered all her life from both mental and physical afflictions – that there can be no true healing unless it is both our souls and our bodies that are healed.
There is no healthy body without a healthy soul, no healthy soul in an aching body.
We have a soul and when our souls hurt when we are walking in the dark, we need to seek help - not just in the form of medical experts but also in the form of faith, ritual, and a stronger sense of community. We can’t count only on modern medicine, and we definitely can’t count on modern medicine to address in a comprehensive way the affliction of our souls. For that we can and must strengthen ourselves spiritually in our spiritual homes.
Every research out there shows a direct connection between increased faith and participation in religious life and ritual and the decline in mental illness.
But faith alone, as well as participation in spiritual and community life, might not be enough my friends, even not for a Rabbi.
Let me assure you that I have struggled with this myself. And here, I will never be afraid to say this - It runs in my family.
Last year, after I was injured, I found myself in bed for a long time. From the active rabbi running around training for a marathon, I found myself in excruciating pain, confined to bed for weeks, dependent on others to do the most basic actions. It was a long, challenging time that affected all my relationships. I realized who I could truly count on and who were those who were called friends but no longer had a central place in my life.
Last year I too suffered from depression, and I too struggled before I realized that as much as my faith and ritual and community helped me – I needed another form of help.
I received help that came in the form of professionals who can diagnose and treat, with or without medication. And, believe me, I know it is not easy to ask for help. It requires courage, and it requires having a supportive community that allows the secure, shame-free environment to seek that help.
Less than half of those who suffer from depression seek help, and it is partly because we as a society make it hard for them to say, “Yes, I feel anxious, sad, depressed, numb, frustrated or angry."
Less than half of those who suffer from depression seek help, and it is partly because we as a society pass judgment on those who are sad for no apparent reason. We judge rather than embrace.
Less than half of those who suffer from depression seek help, and it is partly because we as a society failed to create an environment where they are able to say, "I am not bad or crazy. It is normal to feel this way." And not to be rejected or cast aside.
I was one of the lucky ones that felt secure to seek help, and I pledged that I will do all I can to turn my community, our temple into that place. Because depression is a real disease, it is common, it is serious, but it is treatable, and we have to keep talking about it.
I often struggle with the question, and I’ve shared this question with you before –Why in an age of gated communities, and clubs, and JCC’s and so many charity organizations do we even need temples?
Today more than ever I KNOW that we as a temple community and family have a crucial role, not just in being the place where we come to celebrate our simchas, to worship in joy.
We have a role in being a beacon of light to those that are walking in the dark.
We might be the only light they have.
In the wake of Robin Williams’s death, we must ask ourselves, how do we, as a community who offers so much help and support to those struggling with cancer and other diseases, do ALMOST NOTHING to help those that walk in the dark. And not only do we not do much, we, by our actions and lack of actions, created a society in which mental illness is seen as a shameful thing most people will not admit having. Let’s be honest with ourselves…would you still send your child to a school knowing the teacher is bi polar, would you still go see a doctor suffering from depression?
In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, a discussion about how we help people with mental illnesses began and many fingers were pointed in different directions. But remember that every time you are pointing a finger at someone else – you are also pointing 3 towards yourself.
The fingers are pointing at us. We are to be blamed, because we have not yet broken the walls of silence around depression, because we refuse to acknowledge it for the epidemic it is, because we grew up in a society that says things like “get over it” or “suck it up” or “cheer up, others have it much worse.”
There used to be an ad at the JetBlue terminal in NYC that caught my eye. In it, a sad-looking woman stares out of a window, and the writing says: “if it was cancer you wouldn’t tell me to get over it.”
The fingers are pointing at us. We are to be blamed, because when on Yom Kippur, when we read the story of Jonah, the prophet who is told to deliver bad news to the people of Ninveh, and tries to run away from God, and ends up throwing himself to the ocean just to be saved miraculously by a whale who carries him 3 days in his belly - we focus on the magical story of him spending 3 days in the stomach of a whale, and we deliberate on the question of Jonah trying to run away from God and from his mission, and by doing so we fail to see that this is truly a story about a troubled Jonah, who prefers to kill himself rather than face reality. We never talk about how desperate and depressed Jonah is that the finds no other way out of his situation other than the most extreme of all solutions.
The fingers are pointing at us. Because we are part of a culture that worships Happiness.
I sometimes get so upset when I ask people what they believe is their goal in life, and no matter if it is a 12- year- old boy preparing for a Bar Mitzvah, young lawyer out of school, or a person celebrating their 70th birthday, the answer is almost always the same – their goal is to be happy.
Really – IS THAT ALL WE WANT TO ACHIEVE IN LIFE, BEING HAPPY?
WHAT MESSAGE ARE WE SENDING TO THOSE WHO CAN’T BE HAPPY? That their life is worthless?
We created a society that worships happiness and leaves very little place for sadness. Think of all the times you wished you could share the hard time you were experiencing but couldn’t because you felt it wasn’t right. How often do you see on Facebook. “I’m depressed.” You don’t…it’s all full of photos of great, happy children, meals, vacations, and joyous occasions. Can we become a REAL community that feels free to talk and support each other in dark times as well as in simchas?
Robin Williams had it all, career, fame, money, love – but he had no place he could admit that he was depressed. Only after his death did we all realize the extent of his disease.
Yes, two years ago I stood here and told you all that it is a mitzvah to be at Simcha, to rejoice. But I want to remind you what Judaism says about joy – it is not the happiness we understand as pleasure, the happiness we feel in our senses. Happiness according to our tradition is the result, the product of a soul that is achieving its goal, its calling. Happiness thus is not a goal but the outcome of achieving the goal of living a sacred life. So later today when you hear – from me – in our annual video, about joyful Jewish experiences, those joyful experiences can also be sacred moments when we are able to share the pain, to comfort and support our friends in this sacred community.
Barbara Taylor wrote a beautiful book called Walking in the Dark. In it she wonders why most religion tries to paint God and belief in bright light, in what she calls “solar spirituality.” Judaism does that as well - you heard last night from Alicia about God being a light and the various images of God as a light. And yet Taylor claims that most of us find God in the darkness, not in the light, when we are broken and in despair, when we are in dire straits, when hope seems far. She asks that we ease our way into appreciating “lunar spirituality” since, like the moon, our experience of the light waxes and wanes. Through darkness, we find courage, we understand the world in new ways, and we feel God’s presence around us, guiding us through things seen and unseen. Often, it is while we are in the dark that we grow the most.
Let us learn to feel more comfortable sharing the darkness. Let us read together the well-known words of Psalm 23; “Even if I walk in the valley of shadow I fear no evil because thou are with me.” There is no light of joy in the valley, there is no happiness in the depths of sorrow over the death of a loved one, and yet in the dark there is comfort just from knowing, just from having faith.
Let us read together another Psalm “Mimaamakim keraticha Yah,” FROM THE DEPTHS I CALL UNTO YOU ADONAI. Not from the peak of the mountain but from the bottom of the pit.
From the dark. We have all been in that place, we all know that the call, even when not heard, breaks the silence and the darkness and allows light and hope to enter.
I wish that in the future, if I asked again, those suffering from depression, one in six people, as the statistic states, will stand. But now I ask something different. I ask that we as a community pledge never to be ignorant, never to cause shame but to be a loving and supporting community to all those who suffer.
Last night there was no moon in the sky; tonight there is a sliver of moon, and a sliver of hope, I wish, for all those who suffer from mental illness, from illness of the soul.
In our tradition, there is a blessing that we say on such a night, on the darkest night of the month, when a new moon is born and a new Jewish month begins. It’s a blessing said in the dark, knowing that there will be a growing light, and then again darkness and light again,
It was Helen Keller who said, “Once I knew only darkness and stillness...my life was without past or future...but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”
I want us now to embrace those beautiful words – let us clutch our hands together, let us join fingers and to let all those who suffer know that we better understand, that we all know now that we are part of their sacred community, a community that has much to offer to those who walk in the dark.
Alicia sings: “From the depths a call upon you, mimamakim kraatich Adonai.”
(sound file attached)