Every so often I have nightmares that are simply flashbacks of situations I have been in before. I dreamt of such a situation last night; it involved myself, my friend, my teacher and the classroom. This is something that really happened.
My teacher was teaching us Navi and had somehow taken a pasuk that suggested that God desires us to be happy and had decided to shoehorn her own interpretation into the words. She stated that Jews are "not allowed" to become depressed. She stated that depression wasn't so much an illness as an attitude. She then continued on to say that Jews should try not to see doctors (she seemed not to put much stock in psychologists and the like.) Of course this turned into a shouting match between myself and a few other students as we tried to explain how wrong all of this was. Some of you may remember...
One of the students in the class had a father who is a neurologist. He knows full well that depression can be an illness caused by imbalances in certain chemicals of the brain, and apparently he told this over to the teacher…rather forcefully, I believe. The teacher came back to class the next day, contrite, and attempted to explain herself away, stating- “Of course depression can be an illness; what I meant was that if you stub your toe, you shouldn’t be sad and depressed about something like that, you shouldn’t allow it to ruin your day, etc.” But that was obviously not what she had meant when she first explained it.
I woke up this morning and thought about the people I know who are truly depressed and then went on to think of what this woman had said. And I was angry, even though it was a dream and happened years ago. But I wonder how prevalent this attitude is in the Orthodox world...this thought that if people could simply will themselves to be better, they would be better. It is so cruel to other people to believe that- to make an illness someone's fault. And if you need Jewish sources for illness and depression, surely it is easy to bring up Saul's melancholia which I believe the Rambam mentions...
If you truly loved your people, how could you do this? How could you simply look away and claim that they ought to somehow become better in and of themselves, that if they only wanted to be better they would be? Aren't there homosexuals who would like to be straight- and are they? What if I suddenly wanted to grow wings and fly- could I? There are some times where wanting isn't enough! I do not say that every case is the same- of course it cannot be. But how could someone assert that depression is an attitude, not an illness; how could someone suggest that God forbids depression and that in addition to everything else, this is a sin?
I have heard the oft-quoted phrase "God doesn't give you what you cannot handle." What people rarely realize is that this is a Christian philosophy, not a Jewish one!
"No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it. "
~Corinthians 10: 13
I wonder if there is a Jewish source for the phrase. I'd rather there weren't...I've heard the words Gam zu l'tova or Gam zeh y'avor but that is hardly the attitude or philosophy for every moment of one's life- there are some things that should not be accepted and that should not be borne, where one must cry out against them and fight with God rather than accept them.
"Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person's own need-awareness is dull and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum- I suffer, therefore I am.- to paraphrase Descartes' cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil know suffering.
Therefore, prayer in Judaism, unlike the prayer of classical mysticism, is bound up with the human needs, wants, drives and urges, which make man suffer. Prayer is the doctrine of human needs. Prayer tells the individual , as well as the community, what his, or its, genuine needs are, what he should, or should not, petition God about........Prayer and tzara are inseperably linked. Who prays? Only the sufferer prays. If man does not find himself in narrow straits, if he is not troubled by anything, if he knows not what tzara is, then he need not pray. To a happy man, to contented man, the secret of prayer was not revealed. God needs neither thanks nor hymns. He wants to hear the outcry of man, confronted with a ruthless reality. He expects prayer to rise from a suffering world cognizant of its genuine needs. In short, through prayer man finds himself. Prayer enlightens man about his needs. It tells man the story of his hidden hopes and expectations. It teaches him how to behold the vision and how to strive in order to realize this vision, when to be satisfied with what one possesses, when to reach out for more. In a word, man finds his need-awareness, himself, in prayer. Of course, the very instant he finds himself, he becomes a redeemed being."
-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
To live in a world of countless shades of grey, where there is no motive or desire or pleasure to be found in all the beauty that is granted us, to feel nothing and to have no energy to engage in any kind of meaningful activity; surely this is not what God wanted for you, for me or for anyone! And to claim it does not exist or make it someone else's fault is to completely fail in terms of your duty as another person, another person who loves his fellow Jew- instead we must acknowledge the presence of illness and fight it and offer to help in whatever way we can, in whichever way is possible. There are wonderful people in our world and it is our job to help, love and support them. We cannot do that if we pretend them away, hide them in dark corners to hide the fact that we ourselves are ashamed or close our minds so as not to understand.
Oh, I am guilty of all this as well so do not think I absolve myself of blame- but I am at least aware of the times I have not wanted to hear and know that I have to try harder. Because it is people who matter, above all other things...sometimes even above God.