Psalm 116: “Return, O my soul, unto thy rest”

16 12 2009

I don’t have a plan yet for the long-term viability of this project, but, in the spirit of the “one day at a time” attitude that I am desperately trying to cultivate in myself, I had a short thought that I would like to share in honor of Chanukah, the holiday of light and the redemptive power of hope. (See this post from last year for a longer thought about Chanukah.) I also wanted to thank you all for your comments, both public and private. They mean the world to me. And, rest assured that I won’t continue with this if I decide that it isn’t good for me. I need to balance that feeling, though, with the thought that it might just actually be my best chance at (psychological, if not spiritual) redemption. Scary. (Oh, let’s be realistic, what isn’t?)

Psalm 116 appears in the Hallel that we say every morning during Chanukah.

Psalms Chapter 116 תְּהִלִּים

א אָהַבְתִּי, כִּי-יִשְׁמַע יְהוָה–    אֶת-קוֹלִי, תַּחֲנוּנָי. 1 I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications.
ב כִּי-הִטָּה אָזְנוֹ לִי;    וּבְיָמַי אֶקְרָא. 2 Because He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him all my days.
ג אֲפָפוּנִי, חֶבְלֵי-מָוֶת–וּמְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל מְצָאוּנִי;    צָרָה וְיָגוֹן אֶמְצָא. 3 The cords of death compassed me, and the straits of the nether-world got hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow.
ד וּבְשֵׁם-יְהוָה אֶקְרָא:    אָנָּה יְהוָה, מַלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי. 4 But I called upon the name of the LORD: ‘I beseech thee, O LORD, deliver my soul.’
ה חַנּוּן יְהוָה וְצַדִּיק;    וֵאלֹהֵינוּ מְרַחֵם. 5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yea, our God is compassionate.
ו שֹׁמֵר פְּתָאיִם יְהוָה;    דַּלֹּתִי, וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ. 6 The LORD preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me.
ז שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי:    כִּי-יְהוָה, גָּמַל עָלָיְכִי. 7 Return, O my soul, unto thy rest; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee.
ח כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי. 8 For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.
י הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד. 10 I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted.’
יא אֲנִי, אָמַרְתִּי בְחָפְזִי:    כָּל-הָאָדָם כֹּזֵב. 11 I said in my haste: ‘All men are liars.’
יב מָה-אָשִׁיב לַיהוָה–    כָּל-תַּגְמוּלוֹהִי עָלָי. 12 How can I repay unto the LORD all His bountiful dealings toward me?
יג כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.
יד נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 14 My vows will I pay unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people.
טו יָקָר, בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה–    הַמָּוְתָה, לַחֲסִידָיו. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
טז אָנָּה יְהוָה,    כִּי-אֲנִי עַבְדֶּךָ:
אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ, בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ;    פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
16 I beseech Thee, O LORD, for I am Thy servant; {N}
I am Thy servant, the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
יז לְךָ-אֶזְבַּח, זֶבַח תּוֹדָה;    וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא. 17 I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD.
יח נְדָרַי, לַיהוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם;    נֶגְדָה-נָּא, לְכָל-עַמּוֹ. 18 I will pay my vows unto the LORD, yea, in the presence of all His people;
יט בְּחַצְרוֹת, בֵּית יְהוָה–    בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלִָם:
19 In the courts of the LORD’S house, in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem. {N}

The entire Psalm is beautiful.

Here, in the middle of the joyous Hallel, where mountains dance like rams, we admit that we are, right now, in a place of “trouble and sorrow.”

Now that I look, I see that other parts of Hallel also contain a strong element of calling out to God from the narrow place, or מיצר. For some reason, I always had the impression of Hallel being a wholly celebratory, happy sort of collection of Psalms (that I loved to hate on when depressed). I probably had that assumption because we say it at celebratory occasions, like Chanukah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Rosh Chodesh. Also, probably, because this Psalm as well as many of the others is expressing the point of view of a person who has already been saved or redeemed: “וְלִי יְהוֹשִׁיעַ.” “He saved me.” “כִּי חִלַּצְתָּ נַפְשִׁי, מִמָּוֶת:    אֶת-עֵינִי מִן-דִּמְעָה; אֶת-רַגְלִי מִדֶּחִי.” “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.” But before today, I never noticed that some of Hallel can be read as coming from a place of deep despair.

I think that my favorite line from this Psalm is the fervent hope expressed in these distressed words from the seventh verse:
“!שׁוּבִי נַפְשִׁי, לִמְנוּחָיְכִי”
“Let my soul return to your rest!”

My soul, which was once at rest and at peace, is no longer. I beseech you, God, to return my soul to your rest, to your peace, to your comfort. Please God, listen to me, and speak to me, and, most importantly, let me hear your words and feel your eternal presence in my life.

The word, “מְנוּחָיְכִי” which comes from the root נח, or rest, has many connotations to me. Rest and comfort, but also, somehow, a loving embrace of God. Perhaps because it sounds (a little bit) like the word חיבוק, or hug. I don’t know why.

I am certainly not feeling that מנוחה, or rest, at the moment, but it’s times like these that I am so glad that I have these resources at my disposal. These words, in my lips and on my heart, with which to say:

Please, God, let me have back what I once had.

Please, God, let me have the kind of peaceful, restful soul that I imagine that others have, that may have always eluded me.

Please, God, incline your ear towards me. Be gracious and compassionate even when I cannot be. Especially when I cannot be.

And if it’s not quite true that “הֶאֱמַנְתִּי, כִּי אֲדַבֵּר;    אֲנִי, עָנִיתִי מְאֹד,” “I trusted even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted,'” well, maybe saying the words makes it so. In this case, I sort of think it does. Whatever reason I say these words, my saying them, in the midst of my great affliction, means that I still have hope or trust in God, or something greater than myself and my own deep personal pain and sorrow. I must still believe, a teeny tiny bit, in redemption, or I wouldn’t say these words.

And, finally, the words that get me every time:

ט אֶתְהַלֵּךְ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–    בְּאַרְצוֹת, הַחַיִּים. 9 I shall walk before the LORD in the lands of the living.

I shall. Because that’s where God wants me, and that’s where I will be able to “כּוֹס-יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא” or “lift up the cup of salvation.”

Happy Chanukah!



7 12 2009

A few weeks ago, I shared material from this blog, in person, with a group of people. Their reaction was underwhelming, leading me to wonder why I embarked on this project in the first place and whether I should continue. However, one person, at least, from that group seems to have “gotten” it, and told me–nay, commanded me–that I had to keep writing even when I felt terrible.

Here’s the thing that I was not able to articulate to her at the time, but that I have spent a lot of time thinking about since. When I started this project, I was in a very different place. I was, quite frankly, not depressed and had not been for some time. This is important for two reasons:

(1) The stakes were different. I wasn’t “outing” myself, to the extent that writing this is “outing” myself as someone currently somewhat incapacitated by depression. (So many qualifications! “Outing” in the sense that people will not hire, befriend, or date me if they know that I suffer from the nasty scourge of depression. “Somewhat incapacitated” because if I said “totally incapacitated,” which is honestly how I feel a lot of the time, I would be digging my own personal/professional/educational grave.)

(2) The experience was different. Writing about depression having come through it is disconcerting, but also empowering: “Wow! Look at how terrible I felt and look at how much better I feel now!” It reconfirms my belief in hope, change, and the potential for a less-depressing future for myself. Writing about depression while depressed feels extremely unhelpful. I will even go as far as to say that it feels destructive. In some ways, it makes the feelings more real and more intractable to see them written out as harsh black letters on a blindingly white background. Although any number of people will tell you that the alternative–bottling it all up–is much less helpful, it seems to me that talking about the feelings in therapy or with a sympathetic, human, flesh and blood listener maybe the best way to prevent the bottling effect. Writing about it actually makes me feel worse right now.

So, it’s not that I don’t have anything to say. Of course I have things to say. I am a spewing volcano at the moment, spewing mostly tears, but also rage and disappointment and regret and trembling fear.

It’s that I don’t have things to say that I want to say.

I want to say that
…my belief in God gives me hope that things will improve.
…my belief in God makes me think that there is a reason that things go bad, when they do. That there is some grand plan.
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me feel less alone in the world.
…my observance of Shabbat gives me a break, in time, from the unending grind of depression and anxiety.
…my dedication to a tefillah practice makes me feel heard and listened to, even when depression does bring me down or otherwise make me feel alone.
…my engagement in the study of Jewish texts reaffirms my belief that Judaism deals with, and accepts, both the good and the bad. Life is hard. Judaism sees that.

All of those things are sometimes true or were once true. In that sense, Judaism has been extremely life-affirming for me. It’s been a salvation of sorts, and I don’t use that term lightly.

But, really, at the moment, I’m feeling that
…if and when I believe in God, I rail against him for producing someone who scorns life and generally makes a mess of it. Really, God? This is your idea of tselem elohim, a being created in the Divine image?
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me feel utterly alone. Everyone else is out there, being all communal, and nobody is noticing my immense pain and suffering. Nobody cares. (Of course nobody cares! I am far too wrapped up in my own misery to notice anyone else’s pain; why should they notice mine?)
…my membership in the Jewish people makes me wonder why nobody says anything when I cry in shul. All the time. I guess they don’t want to get involved. I can’t say that I really blame them.
…Shabbat is the world’s loneliest day when all you feel is pain and your normal modes of tempering that pain–through the numbing and relatively non-destructive distractions of the television and internet are forbidden. On Shabbat, there is nothing to do but contemplate the misery of your existence and of life itself.
…it is inherently lonely to observe Shabbat alone when the rest of the world mostly celebrates it in family units or groups of friends.
…I am so done with tefillah. Not because I don’t think God is answering. I don’t know if that was ever a primary reason for me to pray. And maybe it would be good for me, just like exercise is good for me. But I mostly can’t bring myself to do it, except sometimes when I make it to shul on Shabbat. That’s been true for a very, very long time and not the sort of thing that you generally want to admit on a blog dedicated to the intersection between prayer and depression.
…my engagement in the study of Jewish texts reaffirms my belief that Judaism expends a lot of time and energy worrying about small, inconsequential minutiae, at the expense of ignoring real human suffering.

Wow. See, that is all very depressing and I don’t feel at all better, having written it. I imagine that you don’t, either.

Although a blog that’s going to make me and you both feel worse does not have much point, in my eyes, I also feel that there is some inherent value in shining a spotlight on the parts of Judaism that make life harder to bear, not easier to bear.

You few who are reading–do you want to read this kind of thing? Does it add anything positive or worthwhile to the world? Maybe it’s time to take a hiatus from this project until my brain is functioning better, which is probably going to be after I’m feeling less depressed.

At one time, I had a vision of fostering the creation of a warm and embracing Jewish community that wouldn’t let people like me–and all of you–feel through the cracks and feel so utterly uncared for. I no longer really think that vision is realistic. I think it’s probably up to each one of us to save ourselves and ask as little from others as possible. What a terribly depressing thought…

I promised you, last time, that I would tell you what I am doing instead of “waiting around for Christmas to dry up all my tears,” but since nothing I am actually able to get myself to do is making a difference, so far, I don’t think I’ll go into details about that. I’ll just share the advice that I gave to an acquaintance who came to ask me how to deal with depression, knowing that I’ve dealt with it. It’s the same advice that any website will give you: Therapy. Drugs. Exercise. Sunlight. Rinse and repeat. Over and over again. And try not to do too much permanent damage to yourself in the meantime.

I also wanted to leave you with these two things to read:

  • “Don’t Go,” a post on the Ask Moxie blog (read the comments, too). This blog is mostly a parenting blog, and I am not a parent, but I find Moxie and her readers’ attitudes refreshing.
  • “Among Rocks and Stones,” by Peter Bebergal from Tablet Magazine. I no longer remember exactly why I wanted to share this second piece, only that I had a strong desire to after I read it several months ago. Maybe it will do something for you.

I’m sorry, also, for the somewhat scattershot nature of this post, and perhaps some other recent posts, as well. This is my brain on depression. It does not function nearly as well.