“Who will…” – Kol Nidre 5777/2016 Drash by Rabbi Lisa Edwards

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Last May Tracy and I visited Brighton, England.  A friend from Poland had lived in Brighton for four years, and wrote to tell us what to see.  On his list was “Beachy Head, the most beautiful place in the world.”  We’d never heard of it.  Tracy and I don’t do much research before we travel, we like to explore once we get there.  Same with our two friends from Berlin,  who met us in Brighton.  So one weekday afternoon, the four of us headed for Beachy Head, a harrowing drive on the wrong side of the road!

It is indeed beautiful there, so beautiful photos don’t do it justice — but i like this description:  “Beachy Head is a bit of quintessential England, a seaside promontory where green pastures roll to the edge of a breathtaking chalk cliff.”[1]

We soon learned two things about Beachy Head. The first is what we read on a large memorial stone, about the aircrew of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command during WWII.  Of the 110,000 aircrew, over half of them “gave their lives in the cause of freedom. . . For many, Beachy Head would have been their last sight of England. Remember them.”[2]

In a different location, in an open field nearby is another stone marker.  This one contains a verse from Psalm 93:

Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty! Psalm 93:4  And then it says: God is always greater than all of our troubles.

One of the friendly folks on the bench near the war memorial said to me, “Do you know this is the one of the most popular suicide spots in all the world?”

“No,” I said, “I didn’t know that.”

“It is.” she continued, “where are you from? Are you here alone?”

“Not alone,” I replied, “my friends are over there” and I pointed to the three of them walking toward the cliffside.

“Don’t go too near the edge,” she said.  “It’s beautiful here.”

Later, near the pub, and across from the parking lot, we saw the phone booth by the roadside. Most phone booths in England these days are just for decoration, but this one still has a working phone in it.  Between the bus stop and the phone booth, a large sign gives the phone numbers of the “Samaritans,” and the comforting words: “Always there Day and Night”.

After we left I realized that my chatty new friends near the memorial were part of the Samaritans group — they patrol the area, ready to talk to folks who might have come there alone (hence, her question to me). Available by phone 24/7, they’re also often there in person.

Since the Samaritans group began they’ve helped many people save their own lives.  So have the taxi drivers who bring people there, and the bartenders at the pub, and the ice cream vendors in the parking lot.  All of them are trained to ask questions, to be a listening ear, to  offer wise words.  I’ve read about them since we visited Beachy Head.  Extraordinary ordinary people.  Some of them have also been trained to do search and recovery when people do go over the edge.  Sometimes they save lives that way too.  They also risk their own lives doing recovery or reaching out to someone on the edge — those chalk cliffs are extremely dangerous to go over — no matter the equipment and training one has.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Beachy Head since we were there.  So haunting with its history of soldiers who caught a last gorgeous glimpse of their homeland as they flew off to defend it.  And more haunting still for the many others whose last glimpse of the world is also of these sheer, upright, white chalk cliffs and the crashing waves of the English Channel below.

But of course I didn’t have to travel to a far shore and stand looking over a cliff to the waters below to contemplate the sorrows of suicide or plumb the depths of human hearts and minds plagued by despair or depression or grief.  Plenty of us in this sanctuary tonight have been to those edges, some may be heading there even as I speak, and those of you who don’t know the kind of depths I refer to may likely know someone — may likely love someone — who does know.

According to the National Institutes of Health, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death (in the United States), yet it has the least amount of money dedicated to research and prevention. Worldwide, more people die from suicide than from wars, genocide and interpersonal violence combined, more than 800,000 every year, according to the World Health Organization.[3]

On this day — Yom Kippur — when the liturgy and theology asks us to look — each of us — at our own mortality.  On this night — when the candles of the holy day burn brightly beside the longer burning blue candle for health and the yahrzeit candle whose flame reminds us of the ones we’ve lost —  I thought it might be a good time to shed some light on some of the dark corners that threaten our lives, and to invite us as a community to keep those lights burning that we might all see our way out.

Today happens to also to be National Coming Out Day, the annual LGBTQ awareness day observed on October 11. Founded in 1988, in the belief that homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and that once people know that they have loved ones, neighbors, co-workers who are LGBTQ, they are far less likely to maintain homophobic or oppressive views.[4] Coming out works.

So perhaps on this Oct. 11, we can think about a new kind of coming out – about emotional and spiritual dis-ease.

Tomorrow, as on Rosh Hashanah, we’ll hear again one of the signature prayers of these Days of Awe — the Unetaneh Tokef.  That prayer that reflects in an awesome, fearsome way on an unknown future:  On Rosh Hashanah this is written, says our liturgy; and on the Fast of Yom Kippur this is sealed: How many will cross over and how many will be created?

Mi yikh-yeh,  u’mi ya-moot? Who will live and who will die?

And there follows a list  — it’s what most of us remember from this prayer — of ways to die: who by fire, by water, by war, by beast, by famine, by drought, by earthquake, by plague, by strangling, by stoning?

Some have asked why that substantial list does not include the question: Who by self-inflicted harm?  And indeed a few decades ago when song writer Leonard Cohen wrote his adaptation, entitled, “Who by Fire?” his list included, “Who by his own hand?”

The traditional list includes not only ways to die — it also includes ways some of us live, and the list is not necessarily in the form of  questions:

mi ya-nu-akh u’mi-ya-nu-ah who will rest and who will wander

[Mi yash-keet u’mi yitoe-raf]  Who will be tranquil and who troubled

[Mi yi-sha-leiv u’mi yi-ya-seir]  Who will be at ease and who tormented

In the Jewish world some say that emotional and spiritual illness, diseases of the mind, heartache, despair, the feelings and fears that move people close to the edge, or over it, are not widespread problems.  Not unlike the ways Jews used to claim that alcoholism and substance abuse were not Jewish problems, until our eyes were opened by a stalwart few determined to wake the rest of us.

Today the Jewish world — including BCC — well knows that Jews are not immune to substance abuse and alcoholism. But in the Jewish world we do still often seem to whisper about such things.

And, like a lot of the rest of the world, our voices tend to be even quieter when we talk about suicide or a whole host of other agonizing ailments.

Journalist and author Stephen Fried has begun a campaign to encourage the Jewish community to take mental afflictions/ailments/illness out the shadows, questioning why we keep it secret when so much is at stake. [5]

Jewish community has come a long way since Jews who died of suicide were buried on the outskirts of Jewish cemeteries.  But a long way remains.

The Jewish Forward reported this summer a growing phenomenon.  In the last year or so, there have been 26 known suicides among young adults in Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City.

The Jewish Forward, as well as some Orthodox activists are advocating for “bringing the topic into the open …” Until recently, said one Orthodox insider, any death of a young person was blamed on an “aneurysm.”[6]

Slowly, members of Jewish communities of all denominations are coming out about their suffering from all sorts of conditions from depression (including postpartum depression) to anxiety to bipolar to schizophrenia to substance abuse to autism and other conditions — many of which are potentially life threatening.  All of them pose life challenges to the sufferers and the ones who care about them.

Newish Jewish organizations are forming:

Chazkeinu’s website declares it is “Providing Chizuk – Strength, to all Jewish Women Coping with Mental Illness.”[7]

Refa’enu (Heal us), offers the Jewish community education and support for … people who themselves have depression or a related disorder, as well as their loved ones.[8]

Elijah’s Journey, on Facebook, calls itself “a Jewish Response to the issues of suicide awareness and prevention.”[9]

In the LGBTQ community we’ve long known that suicide or attempts at it, or contemplation of it, run high, especially, but not at all exclusively, for young people not yet settled into their identities, bullied or mistreated by peers, relatives, religious communities, governments, health care systems, prisons.  The rash of suicides a few years ago spurred on by bullying sent our community into a wave of activism — the “IT GETS BETTER” campaign, the Trevor Project, JQ’s Helpline, among others, continue to help people move forward more hopefully, even with roadblocks still in their way.

Tomorrow we’ll read from our Holocaust survivor Torah scroll the passage that runs powerfully, deeply, centrally throughout these hours of Yom Kippur when we are called to truly contemplate our lives and our choices.  The words are spoken aloud and directly to all of us, and to each of us:

To be sure this mitzvah which I command you today is NOT too difficult for you, it is NOT beyond your reach. …No, this word is so very near to you – it is in your own mouth and in your own heart — you CAN do this:…

Today I call heaven and earth to be witness for you: life and death have I set before you, blessing and curse.  

U’va-khar-ta  ba-kha-yim

Choose life, that you and your loved ones may live…[10]

“Choose life, that you and your loved ones may live…” Those of us who may not know the feeling of wanting to end our own life,  surely know people who do or who live with ongoing depression or other challenges.  Diagnosed or not, the difficulties of living with mental, emotional, spiritual ailments touch almost everyone, whether the ailments are ours or someone else’s.  Can we as a community be there not only for the ill among us, but for those who live their lives connected to them, or who grieve the loss of the ones who left us?

Often during these Yamim Noraim – these days of Awe (and fear) –  we acknowledge what is beyond our control, and we focus on what is within our control: We may not have a say in a cancer that has overwhelmed our body, or a sadness that overwhelms our soul.  But we do often – not always – have a say in what to do next — be it a small choice or a staggeringly huge one.

And once we “come out” about spiritual and emotional challenges in our lives, and in our families and communities, how can our Jewish tradition help?

We can look to our ancestors who have experienced such feelings — in the Bible, Jonah, whose story we read on Yom Kippur afternoon; Elijah, whose presence we long for at the end of every shabbat, at every baby naming, at our seder tables; even Moses, our teacher — all of them at one point or another in their lives told God they would rather be dead (watch for this when we read Jonah’s story tomorrow afternoon).  Yet none took his own life.  Each got through their moment of crisis — they didn’t necessarily feel better;  they got through, and decided to go on.  And in going on they gave gifts of immeasurable value to the generations after them.

Of course each of them had the benefit of God whispering in their ear (for Elijah it was a kol d’mamah dakkah — the famously “still small voice”), a voice, by the way, we too are offered in these Days of Awe — listen for that phrase  tomorrow morning when Cantor Juval sings it in the Unetaneh Tokef.[11] “And so a great shofar will cry – tkiah,” says our translation, “And a still small voice will be heard  –  kol d’mamah dakkah” [p.210].

When the still small voice – or the booming one – tells us to choose life, how will we respond?

Our friend Yiscah Smith, Israeli transgender activist and teacher of Torah, who visited BCC last spring, reminds us that the commandment known as pikuach nefesh — saving a life (soul) — supersedes all the others, and has come to mean that a person does not have to follow the commandments if doing so will lead to their own death.  According to a study done by UCLA’s Williams Institute in 2014, more than 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.[12] Pikuach nefesh is why Yiscah Smith believes God approves of her transition.

Exploring what our tradition has to say about suicide and depression and illnesses of the soul is one way to let our Jewish tradition help.  Another is to make use of other Jewish traditions, such as: questioning; learning together; prayer; strengthening community and each other by telling our stories, singing songs, making music; coming together often; saying what we are experiencing; saying what we need or want OR that we don’t know what we need or want; unconditional positive regard of one another; asking about one another; staying present in each other’s lives; noticing change; encouraging change — as Rabbi Heather will remind us tomorrow – encouraging each other to make healthy choices; and being compassionate, as Rabbi Heather encouraged us to do during Rosh Hashanah.

We can encourage each other to seek medical help and the help of other experts; explore medical remedies — medications and professional therapies (remember psychoanalysis was invented by a Jew); advocate for one another.  We can come together, as we will tomorrow afternoon, to remember our loved ones lost and invite true grieving of our losses.

We can work on not being too afraid to ask for help;

we can offer help or give help when asked;

we can be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a caring presence and witness to someone else’s life, a non-judgmental friend.

And that of course is only a partial list of how our tradition might help us help one another.

There’s one more biblical figure I want to mention tonight.  There’s a midrash about King Solomon — a story told that’s similar to stories told in many different cultures.  A modern edit to the story suggests that perhaps King Solomon was bipolar/manic depressive.  We think of Solomon as the wisest of men, but we also learn that he had too many wives and too many horses – that he over indulged — that he had “confusion of the heart.”[13]  As the presumed writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, he is also known for dimmer views:  “Therefore I hated life, because the deeds that are done under the sun were depressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.”[14]

In the Jewish version of this story, King Solomon sends his loyal adviser Benaiah on a journey:  Find me, he tells him, one piece of wisdom I can carry with me to look at any moment —

something that will make me glad when I am sad, and more sober when I am too elated.

Benaiah went on a long search, compiling many words of wisdom from many people, but none quite right.  Until, almost giving up, he chanced upon a wizened old person (in one telling so old that Benaiah couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman).  And does anyone know the phrase he was given?

thistooI know you do know the phrase…

“This too will pass.”

In Hebrew, גם זה יעבור gam zeh ya-ahvor “this too will pass.”

Solomon had it engraved upon a ring, some say he had only the first  Hebrew letter of each of the three words engraved on the ring — gimel, zayin, yud גזי

“This too will pass”  “This too shall pass.” It’s such a common phrase — you find it everywhere — on t-shirts, tattoos, printed on stones and key rings, and amulets.  People use it for all sorts of purposes — when suffering a kidney stone, or waiting for a hangover to dry up, or an election year to be over.

Perhaps “This too will Pass” is too prevalent to be useful anymore, too much of a cliche or a joke line.

But I love it.  The phrase first came to me without the story in a time in my life when I needed it.  When I wasn’t certain how I would get through the next day.  Indeed when I tempted myself with not getting through the next day.

It came to me at a time when it spoke just the words I needed to give me the patience and willingness to wait it out. And to do something life affirming rather than death embracing.  It was many, many years ago for me, and I’ve not had to visit that dark place since; and I hope I never will again.  But though I don’t feel the feeling, I can recall the pain of it at will — I can stand on the cliff side of Beachy Head without any inclination to throw myself over, but with an immediate and true empathy for those who do.  And in this sanctuary tonight I know I am not alone in that empathy or in that knowledge.

I came to appreciate the phrase even more years later when I learned the story of King Solomon, and the way the phrase works both sides: a healing tonic for difficult moments and situations, a gentle reminder to “do the next right thing” even in times of joy; and also simply as a reminder to take note of the moment(s) — don’t miss that opportunity to celebrate something, or to take a walk, or to take note of an accomplishment in your life — I love Facebook’s Friend Anniversaries. And, don’t pass by the invitation to contemplate your life all day long on Yom Kippur, or write that letter of apology to a friend, or sit with someone in grief.

“This too will pass” is, remarkably, a phrase literally true at any given moment, even when it doesn’t feel true.

I came across a reprint of an ad that was apparently distributed in Jewish communities during WWII and the Korean War:

[pictured is a ring engraved with three Hebrew letters, and the ad text reads]:

$3.95 “GOOD LUCK RING FOR YOUR BOY IN THE SERVICE”

Through these difficult days the letters גזי, meaning “THIS TOO WILL PASS” will cheer and comfort everyone who reads it.

It is believed that this prophecy of our holy men will bring good luck and peace of mind to all who contemplate it. Your son, sweetheart, brother or friend will be proud to wear this beautiful Sterling Silver Ring and thus carry this inspirational message always with him.[15]

I wonder if any of those British airmen were wearing one of these rings when they took in Beachy Head as their last sight of England.

I did not get each of you a silver ring, but I did make each of you a chip you can carry in your pocket (not on your shoulder!).

On one side it says “This too will pass,” and its Hebrew equivalent: gam zeh ya’avor.

And on the flip side you can add whatever message or symbol you might choose.

I don’t of course think this is a sure cure for anything, but perhaps it will help you sometimes the way it’s helped others, including me.

If nothing else, think of it as a gesture, a gift from me to you to say I care about you.  We’ll hand them out a little later.

When I was on that cliff top at Beachy Head, watching some dogs and children playing in the tall grass in the meadow there, and thinking about the people who come there to end it all, I was reminded of a passage from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the passage in which our teenage narrator, Holden Caulfield, recovering, you might remember, from “a nervous breakdown,” is asked by his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life.

He tells Phoebe of a vision he’s had:

“‘Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.'” Chapter 22, pg. 173

I think we too – our community – all of us here tonight – could become catchers.

Like Holden Caulfield, like the Samaritans at Beachy Head, we could be on the lookout for those in stress and distress.  Some of them are some of us — here now in this sanctuary.

If you are someone in distress, what might it take for you to let someone know?

And what might it take for some of us to learn how to help?

Will you join me in making that commitment?

Tomorrow morning and beyond, when we read those words:

Who will wander? Who will be troubled? Who will be tormented? Can we add:

Who will reach out?

Who will bring comfort?

Who will seek to understand?

Who will grasp a hand?

Tonight, tomorrow, from now on, may each of us, and all of us together, choose life, that we and our loved ones might live.

G’mar chatimah tovah

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace…

tombstone

worldwar2

 

______________________

[1] From the book jacket of Cliffs of Despair: A Journey to the Edge by Tom Hunt

[2] The actual Memorial stone reads:  “World War II 1939-1945, In tribute to the 110,000 aircrew of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. 55,573 gave their lives in the cause of freedom. 11,000 became prisoners of war. They volunteered and came in their thousands from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and the occupied countries of Europe to fight and defeat a great tyranny. For many, Beachy Head would have been their last sight of England. Remember them.”

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-suicide/2016/05/06/5a537cbe-1236-11e6-81b4-581a5c4c42df_story.html?utm_term=.51910c87ca96 May 6 2016 Matthew Nock is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for his research on suicide.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Coming_Out_Day#cite_note-HRC_NCOD-1

[5] “why in practice do we so rarely talk about the day-to-day medical challenges of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia and all the substance use disorders? Why do we still whisper about mental illness the way we used to whisper about cancer? …Nearly 25% of Americans are personally affected by mental illness or addiction every day, and one-third of all U.S. hospital stays involve these diseases.”Stephen Fried  is a co-author, with Patrick Kennedy, of the 2015 book “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction,” which was recently published in paperback, and the author of five other nonfiction books, including “The New Rabbi.” Contact him at www.stephenfried.com

[6] http://forward.com/news/345095/brooklyn-man-hangs-self-26th-new-york-orthodox-suicide-in-year/

[7] http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/gaining-strength-through-empathy-a-close-look-at-chazkeinu/ and http://chazkeinu.org/

[8] http://refaenu.org/

[9] https://www.facebook.com/Elijahs-Journey-182478658436741/

[10] My translation of Deuteronomy 30:11,14,19, relying also on Mishkan Hanefesh translation, p.267-8.

[11] See 1 Kings 19:12 Mishkan Hanefesh, p.210, line two in the Hebrew and the English. See ftnt there.

[12] https://primemind.com/jewish-and-transgender-ececf3981#.1svh3k8ic

[13] This phrase is used in the very last line of the traditional vidui/al cheyt for Yom Kippur and the phrase quotes the Biblical story of Solomon.

[14] Ki ra alai literally, “evil upon me,”[Ecclesiastes. 2:17]  but in this translation by Ethan Dor-Shav rendered as depressing. http://azure.org.il/article.php?id=214

[15] A  photo of this portion of the original ad can be found in the essay, “This Too Shall Pass: Tracing an Ancient Jewish Folktale” by Avi Solomon, Kindle Books, along with photos of a ring and a key chain or necklace bearing the words as well.  The essay reprints and surveys several different versions of the story including as told by: Abraham Lincoln, Anton Chekhov, Ben Ish Chai (the most famous Jewish version), poet Theodore Tilton, and scifi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Avi Solomon traces its philosophical roots to Maimonides (Regimen of Health, III).

 

Written by Yanir Dekel on Oct 18, 2016 in Drashot/Sermons, Rabbi Lisa Edwards - No Comments

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