I Don’t Even Wanna Die Today
Yom Kippur Eve 2019
(I am grateful to Melanie Cole Goldberg for suggesting this sermon, Rabbi Howard Goldsmith for some terrific structural guidance, helpful phrases and terminology, * and Ann Luban and Amy Rubin of JCFS for their supporting information.)
You know, we say happy New Year but the actual Hebrew is have a good new year.
Goodness and happiness are not the same.
We can hope for happiness but goodness is another matter. We can try to be good but that does not always lead to happiness.
We may associate the New Year with joy. The great Chasidic rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav considered Rosh Hashanah his favorite holiday precisely because of its message of joy.
But there is more than joy to feel this time of year.
There is darkness, too, during these days of awe. Our prayers such as Al Cheyt and Avinu Malkeinu remind us of the frailty of life and our own moral failures. Even the stories we read are fraught with fear: Abraham about to slaughter his son, for example. Another example is in the story of Jonah and the big fish (not actually a whale) that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
We can find throughout the tale Jonah experiencing moments of self-importance, of panic, and desperate activity followed by episodes of depression, self-pity, and even thoughts of suicide. According to some readers of the story, Jonah presents a biblical portrait of mental illness.
At the beginning of Jonah’s story, God calls to him and commands him to go to Israel’s enemy Nineveh to instruct the people to repent and stop their wickedness. From the beginning there are possible signs of Jonah’s mental illness when responding, or rather not responding, to God. Jonah tries to run from an all knowing God! According to the ancient Rabbis in the Talmud, he runs in the most overdone way possible. He goes to the coast, to the city of Jaffa, to sail away from God’s demands. He does not simply buy a ticket on a boat, he charters a whole boat and its crew to sail to the other side of the known world, to a place called Tarshish. (Talmud Nedarim) Way overdone!
Statistics say that one in five people suffer from a diagnosable – although not always diagnosed – mental illness at some point in their lives. Our loved ones and friends, our co-workers and leaders; it can be anyone. Sadly, as a community we barely speak about mental illness and we rarely speak about those who suffer from it. When we do, it is often with a sense of embarrassment. Because of this shame, many seek treatment only after the condition has gone too far. Families trying to support a loved one too often do not get the help and support that is needed.
Why the silence even after so much research and years of public acknowledgement that mental illness is real for all of us? The answer continues to be one word: Mental illness is a Stigma.
In the story of Jonah, as soon as Jonah’s chartered boat sets sail for Tarshish a humongous storm hits. The sailors try to throw cargo overboard to survive, but not our Jonah. He goes down below in the boat to sleep. The manic behavior is over and now he cannot get up from his bed; all he can do is sleep. When the storm will not end, when it seems the ship will break apart, the sailors try to get Jonah to help save the ship. He tells the crew, “Throw me overboard, and the water will calm down for you for I know that this terrible storm came upon you on because of me.”
As my colleague Rabbi Howard Goldsmith observes in his own powerful sermon on this subject, Jonah’s words demonstrate at one time both an unrealistic level of self-importance and maybe a suicidal intent reflecting great despair. That’s Jonah. What about the sailors? The sailors do not comfort him. They do not confront his suicidal thoughts or counsel him against destructive behavior. What do they do?
They throw him overboard.
Fortunately, we no longer throw mentally ill people overboard. But let’s not feel too good about what we do or don’t do. All too often we shut them out. We blame them for having a character flaw or something. We’ve been told for years that mental illness is a medical condition in need of treatment, not some sort of character weakness. And yet, the stigma of mental illness often prevents appropriate and timely treatment.
The result can be deadly.
Judaism famously teaches that we are prohibited from willfully taking one’s own life because preserving Jewish life is one of the highest duties a Jew has. And yet the ancient rabbis established a high bar for what was legally considered a suicide. Jewish law teaches that if a person is not of sound mind, as a result of a mental illness, they may disqualify themselves from being responsible for their actions. Only someone who killed themselves knowingly — essentially someone of sound mind — is considered in Jewish law to have committed suicide.
Many years ago my Israeli friend, Guy Takomi, who was like a brother to me and whom I loved so strongly, killed himself after a brief but devastating depression. He left behind a wonderful wife and two little girls. My wife, Melanie and I and Joey were living in Israel at the time and went to his home hours after he died. There I was told by his family in a nervous whisper not to tell the Israeli Orthodox rabbi who would be conducting the funeral that he killed himself or he would not be given a Jewish burial. What an awful thing! Talk about adding insult to injury!
Maybe the rabbi would have been sensitive and understanding, maybe not. The fact that Guy’s family were afraid to tell him the truth itself is so sad. The Jewish prohibition against suicide actually amplifies our obligation to do whatever we can to help people who suffer with mental illness to prevent suicide in the first place. Furthermore, by honoring the deceased and observing all of the death and mourning rituals when a suicide does tragically strike, we demonstrate that stigma and shame around mental illness have no place in the Jewish community.
And then there’s Jonah. After the boat, Jonah’s journey is not concluded. Supposedly carried inside a big fish, he eventually reaches land. He then accepts his role as a prophet and heads to Nineveh to warn the people to repent or suffer God’s punishment. His story of the big fish may have been true but the kind of exotic story it represents sounds familiar with those who know mental illness. Too often, people with mental illness, reflexively create exaggerated stories to cover up their symptomatic behaviors. I personally see it very often. The story is dramatically compelling but something seems off. But we shrug it off and walk away.
There are other important symptoms to warning us of someone’s need for help: withdrawal, apathy, nervousness, strange behavior, sleep or appetite changes, and mood swings. Noticing any of these signs is an opportunity to have a conversation, to check-in, to show support, to help connect with treatment.
The Jonah story really becomes strange and sad at this point in the tale.
The people do repent. And God spares them. Jonah climbs a hill overlooking the city and sinks, once again, into depression. He is depressed that God did not destroy the Ninevites. He cries, “Please, God, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” God responds, “Are you that deeply grieved?” Jonah then settles down and God provides a plant to shade him from the desert heat. The shade makes Jonah happy. And then God lets the plant wither and die. Again depressed, Jonah says, “I would rather die than live.” And again, God asks, “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?”
Finally, someone engages with Jonah. We can read God’s questions as a rebuke. Or, we can read it as the first question of a good therapist: “Tell me what is bothering you. Are you sure it is about what has happened here today?” (Aptly put by Rabbi Howard Goldsmith.)
God seems to say, “I hear you. I see your pain. It seems discordant, disproportionate to the events. Can we speak about what’s really bothering you?״
And this is the end of the book. The Bible does not tell us any more of Jonah’s story. God’s engagement with Jonah’s pain is the last we hear of this sad prophet.
Jewish tradition usually sees this story as a repentance tale. Even people as wicked as the Ninevites can repent and be forgiven. And so we read it on Yom Kippur. But we can read another key message in this story. Jonah’s book records the prophet’s downward spiral of mental illness. Maybe Jonah’s story ends with the first step of his treatment – with God’s asking about his pain.
Real therapy and work are not so compelling. They ask of many hard work and patience and also a caring community.
Temple Sholom can be that caring community.
This congregation can offer an antidote to feelings of shame so often associated with mental illness. Instead of shame, we strive to foster a sense of hope and support for those who choose to engage with us. The stigma that for so long isolated people with mental illness has cracks. Communities like ours can take that stigma away. Increasingly, people understand that mental illness is just that, illness. That, like any acute or chronic condition, it can be treated. That those in treatment, benefiting from the support of a caring community, can move into recovery.
If Jonah left his rock and went to Temple Sholom we could help him along the path of healing. Our clergy, our staff, our leadership and all of you, our congregants, play a vital role in creating the kind of community that can make all the difference. I and the other clergy invite all congregants to share with us your struggles and your concerns about your friends and family members.
You should also know about our partnership with Jewish Child and Family Service to help congregants and the community find the resources they need for mental health and social services. Ann Luban is our Sholom liaison to the agency; the Temple has her contact information. Ann can help congregants find therapists, support and other resources. You should know that I proudly serve on the Board of Jewish Child and Family Services, giving of my time to help strengthen the services the agency brings to the community. My mom was a therapist with JCFS in Kansas City. The work of this organization has deep meaning to me and I’m grateful to our JCFS and Sholom communities, that we have a such a strong relationship between us.
Another powerful resource in our community is No Shame On U. This is a relatively new non-profit dedicated to raising awareness and eliminating the stigma associated with mental health conditions in the Jewish community. They offer a variety of resources (www.noshameonu.org).
The third major resource is NAMI (www.nami.org), the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And, if needed, there is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-TALK (8255) that people can call if they themselves are in crisis and considering suicide or if they are concerned that someone they care about is considering suicide.
Nobody knows what happened to Jonah after God recognizes his pain at the end of the book. Most of us do not expect God to call down from heaven and inquire about our pain. But the spiritual reservoirs of our faith can play an important role in our emotional and mental well-being. When we come to the synagogue, whatever the state of our mental health, we create the time to recognize the blessings in our lives, to see the ways that the holy acts through us, that the Divine might touch our souls. When we gather for worship in community, if we open ourselves to it, we can feel the blessings and goodness and kindness and wisdom of our world.
As the song 1-800-273-8255 by Logic imagines healing of a soul, may all those suffering, too, find healing.
Pain don’t hurt the same, I know
The lane I travel feels alone
But I’m moving ’til my legs give out
And I see my tears melt in the snow
But I don’t wanna cry
I don’t wanna cry anymore
I wanna feel alive
I don’t even wanna die anymore
Oh I don’t wanna
I don’t wanna
I don’t even wanna die anymore.
Jonah’s story ends abruptly but our stories can be happier. We have to begin with honesty and a dedication to reality, and from there anything is possible. And so I pray: May all those suffering find healing and know the redemptive power of hope.
* Rabbi Howard Goldsmith, Welcoming Jonah, October 2016.