One evening a Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle going on inside him: “My son, it is between two wolves. One is evil: Anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee replied, “The one that I feed.”
We all have similar battles that take place in our minds. Our actions, positive or negative, often result from the wolves we feed–the impulses that come out of these struggles. Sometimes we do great things. Other times we make mistakes but are able to repair them. Once in a while, the human impulse brings about great tragedy.
Several weeks ago, the world was shocked by the untimely passing of actor Robin Williams. Many of us asked how it was possible that a man who brought so much joy and laughter to so many millions of people over many decades would feel so tortured by demons on the inside? When news broke that this comic genius had taken his own life at the age of 63, the world was shocked. Print and electronic media were filled with outpourings of love for Robin Williams as both a performer and a person. His untimely death awakened society to the inner sufferings of people afflicted with the diseases of depression and substance addiction.
A few months earlier, a rabbinic colleague and teacher of mine, Rabbi Joel Wasser, z”l, died. He was only 50, and he took his own life. Like Robin Williams, Rabbi Wasser was a comic genius. I laughed convulsively at his jokes and stories. Moreover, he used his amazing natural gifts and charisma to make Judaism fun and inspiring, particularly for younger Jews. In 1987, he was one of my advisors on USY on Wheels, a cross-country bus tour. I was a high school student, and he was a young rabbinical student. He sat next to me on long bus rides and taught me how to lead services. Beyond the technicalities of how to chant the prayers, he brought me into the liturgy so that it came alive for me. I owe my interest in Jewish text and tradition and my ultimate decision to enter the rabbinate in large measure to my bus rides with Joel. I had lost touch with Joel over the years. However, nearly four years ago, when I was facing a moment of transition in my life, he called me out of the blue to offer his support and encouragement. I will never forget that simple act of kindness.
Rabbi Wasser spent the bulk of his rabbinic career at Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa. I attended his funeral there in May. He had already been away from the community for several years, but the impact that he had on hundreds of people of all ages was palpable. Like Robin Williams, it is a mystery that Rabbi Wasser who brought joy, a sense of purpose and a love of Judaism to so many people could be haunted by inner demons that would lead him to such a tragic demise. Both of these extraordinary men fell victim to the diseases of depression and addiction that cut their lives short when they still had so much left to give.
Hayim Nachman Bialik, the Hebrew Poet Laureate of Israel of the early 20th century prior to Israeli statehood wrote a poem titled Acharei Moti/”After My Death,” that captures the essence of losing dear ones before their time.
AFTER MY DEATH
Say this when you mourn for me:
There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity! There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
There’s hardly any tragedy as great as losing a loved one to suicide. It’s something that surviving loved ones often never get over. To make matters worse, few losses carry as much stigma and shame for the survivors. And yet, suicide has nothing to do with the moral character of the victims or survivors. According to estimates, some 8,000,000 Americans contemplate suicide each year, resulting in 1,000,000 suicide attempts and nearly 35,000 deaths. Suicides outnumber homicides 2:1. Suicide expert Joanne Harpel notes that suicide is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or an easy way out. It’s a fatal complication of an underlying illness, the same as dying of heart disease or cancer. Harpel adds that when we pray for healing in the Mi-Sheberach prayer, we ask for refuat hanefesh u’rfuat ha-guf, healing of spirit and body. Depression afflicts both, and suicide is the ultimate breakdown of these two systems.
According to Harpel, laypeople cannot diagnose, but with compassion we can encourage those we care about to get professional help. Harpel writes, “When we are worried about someone, we can say, ‘I’m concerned about you. Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ If the answer is yes, we should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.” She suggests that this is a number we should all have in our phone contacts for easy access and give it to loved ones who might be at risk.
Within the Jewish world, We should also know about Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to the Issues of Suicide Awareness and Prevention. It is a non-profit founded in 2009 that has created a vital support network in the Jewish community to raise awareness of this crisis and provide comfort and support to people who are suffering.
When we reflect on beautiful souls like Robin Williams and Rabbi Joel Wasser, we are reminded of life’s mystery and fragility. They were both complex and ironic men who suffered greatly inside even as they brought great joy to others. When I think about them on Yom Kippur, I’m reminded of Yom Kippur’s great irony. Today is both solemn and joyous.
There is no doubt about the great solemnity to this day. We fast; we beat our chests in sorrow over past mis-deeds; we mourn the absence of loved ones during Yizkor. Some may have lived out the fullness of their years, while others may have passed before their time. No matter the circumstances, we are likely to yearn for one more song that they may have had left. We long for their closeness, the laughter they aroused in us, the tears they shed with us. At the same time, Yom Kippur is regarded by the Sages as the most joyful of days. It is the day in which we are cleansed of our sins. We are reminded that while so many tragedies happen that are beyond our control, our destiny is still in our hands. U’teshuvah u’tefillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeira–Repentance, prayer and righteousness lessen the pain we suffer from life’s travails. We have the power to make a difference in the lives of others.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to bring departed loved ones back to life. The music of their lives has stopped. Here’s what we can do: we can deepen the relationships with those near to us now so that nobody feels alone. Use this relationship worksheet as a guide. It asks you to identify people who are close to you and complete the following sentences: Thank you for…; I’m sorry for…; I forgive you for…; and I love you for…. This worksheet may help trigger important conversations in your families and social networks. In turn, we may be able to heal untreated wounds. We may hear songs not yet sung. We may discover pain in others we were not aware of. We may even save lives.
First, say thank you. We can’t say thank you enough to people. When we are in the habit of saying thank you, we cultivate an ongoing feeling of gratitude, the foundation of a happy life. In the prayer book, the first thing we say is Modeh ani lefanecha, Melekh chai vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabbah emunatecha. “I am grateful before You, everlasting Sovereign, who has mercifully restored in me my soul; your faithfulness is great. When we begin our day with words of gratitude to God, we are more likely to feel gratitude and convey that sense to others. Expressing our gratitude towards other people benefits their self-esteem as well as our own.
“I’m sorry for….” I work under the assumption that we are all basically good people. None of us wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Gee, how much can I destroy today?” We go through our day to day lives trying to do the right thing, and we are not perfect. We all make mistakes both by things we do and say and by things we fail to do say. Because each of us is a decent person at heart, it’s hard for us to admit our mistakes. We justify our actions. Our relationships suffer as a result. It takes courage to humble ourselves before another person. One of life’s great ironies is that when we show vulnerability through a genuine apology, we actually gain strength in the eyes of the offended.
“I forgive you for….” A favorite teaching I’ve mine that I’ve quoted before is from the renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski. He writes about patients who are paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.” Forgiveness is as much for our own benefit as the person being forgiven, and it brings tremendous healing.
“I love you for….” In Disney’s animated hit “Frozen,” the Trolls sing in their song “Fixer Upper” “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best.” Reminding our loved ones that we love them and why–and doing so repeatedly–reflects our ultimate commitment to the wellbeing of relationships. Love brings out our best.
With these four simple statements, imagine the healing we can generate. Imagine the renewed joy and laughter when there had once been tears and hurt. Imagine the self-esteem we build up in ourselves and others. Imagine the songs we will hear that we never knew existed. Imagine the lives we might save.
We cannot bring back to life loved ones who died whether by suicide or by other causes. But we can resolve–we must resolve–that they did not die in vain. Yom Kippur gives us space to mourn, but it also calls upon us to grow, change, and redefine ourselves. It is a day to cleanse ourselves of that which is broken and to create and reinforce everlasting bonds of trust, hope and love. Let us listen to and savor one another’s songs before the music stops. So may it be God’s will.