Jewish texts that spark discussion about suffering in Judaism

9 09 2013

I co-taught a class recently at a private Jewish event, about Jewish life and suffering due to mental illness (broadly defined–not only depression). We did not really discuss theology. The purpose of the discussion was just that–to discuss mental health and suffering through a Jewish lens. In retrospect, we accomplished our goal of having a discussion, but perhaps it all could have been a bit more focused. Everyone has such different experiences with both Judaism and mental health that it’s really hard to pin down something specific to talk about, beyond sharing our own personal experiences and how we have been able to–or unable to–help others.

These were the texts that my co-facilitator and I shared with the group. We used these in various ways. I would love to hear any thoughts or reflections that you may have on these texts, or on the problem that I mentioned above (of narrowing the focus of the session).

The Biblical translations are based on the new JPS (1985).

Psalms 100:2

עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־הבְּשִׂמְחָ֑ה בֹּ֥אוּ לְ֝פָנָ֗יו בִּרְנָנָֽה׃

Worship the Lord in gladness; come into His presence with shouts of joy.

 Ethics of the Fathers, 1:15

הֱוֶי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת

Greet every person with a pleasant face.

Psalms 51

יח כִּי, לֹא-תַחְפֹּץ זֶבַח וְאֶתֵּנָה; עוֹלָה, לֹא תִרְצֶה.

18 You do not want me to bring sacrifices;
You do not desire burnt offerings.

יט זִבְחֵי אֱלֹקִים, רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה:
לֵב-נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּהאֱלֹקִים, לֹא תִבְזֶה.

19 True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Lamentations 1:16

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה, עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם–כִּי-רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם, מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי

For these things do I weep, my eyes flow with tears. Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit…

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשה ז:ב – Midrash Leviticus Rabba 7:2

וידבר האל משה לאמור: צו את אהרון ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העולה (ויקרא ו:א-ב)

[ב] זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה(תהלים נא, יט)

אמר רב אבא בר יודן: כל מה שפסל בבהמה הכשיר באדם. מה פסל בבהמה, עורת או שבור או חרוץ או יבלת אולא תקריבו אלה לה (ויקרא כב, כב), הכשיר באדם, זבחי אלקים רוח נשברה, לב נשבר ונדכה אלקים לא תבזה(תהלים נא, יט).

אמר רב אלכסנדרי: ההדיוט הזה, אם משתמש בכלי שבור גניי הוא לו, אבל הקבה כל כלי תשמישיו שבורין הן, דכתיב קרוב הלנשברי לב(תהלים לד, יט), הרופא לשבורי לב(תהלים קמז, ג), מרום וקדוש אשכון ואת דכא ושפל רוח להחיות רוח שפלים ולהחיות לב נדכאים(ישעיה נז, טו), לב נשבר ונדכה.

God spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons saying, ‘This shall be the law of the burnt offering…’ (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise (Ps. 51:19).

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit: Anything blind, or injured, or maimed, or with a wen, boil-scar, or scurvy – such you shall not offer to the Lord (Lev. 22, 22), whereas in man He declared fit A broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:19) [to be true sacrifice]. R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessel, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers (Ps. 34:19); He heals the broken hearts (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place; Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit – reviving the spirits of the lowly, reviving the hearts of the contrite (Isaiah 57: 15). A broken and contrite heart

Psalms 6

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ בִּנְגִינוֹת, עַל-הַשְּׁמִינִית; מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the Leader; with instrumental music; on the sheminith. A psalm of David.

ב יְהוָה, אַל-בְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי; וְאַל-בַּחֲמָתְךָ תְיַסְּרֵנִי.

2 O LORD, do not punish me in anger, do not chastise me in fury.

ג חָנֵּנִי ה‘, כִּי אֻמְלַל-אָנִי: רְפָאֵנִי ה‘–כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי.

3 Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish; heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror.

ד וְנַפְשִׁי, נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד; ואת (וְאַתָּה) ה‘, עַד-מָתָי.

4 My whole being is stricken with terror; while You, LORD—O, how long!

ה שׁוּבָה ה‘, חַלְּצָה נַפְשִׁי; הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי, לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ.

5 O LORD! rescue me! Deliver me as befits your faithfulness.

ו כִּי אֵין בַּמָּוֶת זִכְרֶךָ; בִּשְׁאוֹל, מִי יוֹדֶה-לָּךְ.

6 For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

ז יָגַעְתִּי, בְּאַנְחָתִיאַשְׂחֶה בְכָל-לַיְלָה, מִטָּתִי; בְּדִמְעָתִי, עַרְשִׂי אַמְסֶה.

7 I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed; I melt my couch in tears.

ח עָשְׁשָׁה מִכַּעַס עֵינִי; עָתְקָה, בְּכָל-צוֹרְרָי.

8 My eyes are wasted by vexation; worn out because of all my foes.

ט סוּרוּ מִמֶּנִּי, כָּל-פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן: כִּי-שָׁמַע ה‘, קוֹל בִּכְיִי.

9 Away from me, all you evildoers, for the LORD heeds the sound of weeping.

י שָׁמַע ה‘, תְּחִנָּתִי; ה‘, תְּפִלָּתִי יִקָּח.

10 The LORD heeds my plea, the LORD accepts my prayer.

יא יֵבֹשׁוּ, וְיִבָּהֲלוּ מְאֹדכָּל-אֹיְבָי; יָשֻׁבוּ, יֵבֹשׁוּ רָגַע.

11 All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.

Psalms 13

א לַמְנַצֵּחַ, מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד.

1 For the leader. A psalm of David.

ב עַד-אָנָה ה‘, תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח; עַד-אָנָה, תַּסְתִּיר אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּי.

2 How long, O LORD; will You ignore me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

ג עַד-אָנָה אָשִׁית עֵצוֹת, בְּנַפְשִׁייָגוֹן בִּלְבָבִי יוֹמָם;

עַד-אָנָה, יָרוּם אֹיְבִי עָלָי.

3 How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

ד הַבִּיטָה עֲנֵנִי, האֱלֹקָי; הָאִירָה עֵינַי, פֶּן-אִישַׁן הַמָּוֶת.

4 Look at me, answer me, O LORD, my God! Restore the luster to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;

ה פֶּן-יֹאמַר אֹיְבִי יְכָלְתִּיו; צָרַי יָגִילוּ, כִּי אֶמּוֹט.

5 Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him”; my foes exult when I totter.

ו וַאֲנִי, בְּחַסְדְּךָ בָטַחְתִּייָגֵל לִבִּי, בִּישׁוּעָתֶךָ:

אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי.

6 But I trust in Your faithfulness, my heart will exult in your deliverance.
I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, excerpt from “Redemption, Prayer, and Talmud Torah,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 17:2 (Spring 1978), p. 65 (I have shared this text on this blog before)

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 knows 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.”

Wishing all of my readers a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year!

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4 responses

9 09 2013
Ayelet Survivor

Hello — *Ayelet* was the one who asked for this! ;)

Thanks for posting. Amazing how I relate to David’s anxiety & agitated depression — and I thought I was more like Saul, who seems to have had bipolar d/o…

9 09 2013
The Editor

Thanks! A few people asked for it. I’m glad that you found this thought-provoking!

22 09 2013
EmFish

These texts in themselves are thought-inspiring but I would love to have been there to hear the discussion. Other texts I’ve had good mental health/substance abuse discussions about include the first few chapters of 1 Samuel, Psalm 30, and of course the ever-classic end of Jonah.

Thanks for taking the time to put them together and share them!

22 09 2013
The Editor

Thank you for your comment! I’ll have to check those texts out. We cut Psalm 30 from the lineup, because we had enough psalms already. I’ve never thought of Jonah as relevant to mental health or suffering, really. The end actually always puzzled me a bit. I’ll have to take another look!

I can’t really share anything that we discussed because we established confidentiality before starting. Also, it was very dependent on who was present, so it would be impossible to recreate regardless.

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