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Bracha Jaffe
Associate Rabba @ the Bayit

Vayikra: The Still Small Voice of Depression

A new rabbi comes to a congregation. The first Shabbat, the rabbi delivers a terrific sermon. The community loves it! The second Shabbat the rabbi delivers the exact same sermon. Still good – but people are wondering. The third Shabbat, when the rabbi delivers the same sermon – again – they say: “Someone has to talk to the rabbi!.” The president goes over to the rabbi and says: “Terrific sermon!” “Thank you,” says the rabbi. The president continues: “However, you really don’t have to give the same sermon over and over again! The rabbi answered: “Why? Have you already done everything I told you to do?” 

This joke was on my mind when I thought about the sermon that I gave six years ago as an intern entitled “The Double Darkness of Depression.” I spoke about the feelings of shame and the stigma associated with depression and other forms of mental illness. I urged us to notice those who are shrouded in darkness, who are not attending shul and other public functions, and reach out, helping them feel less alone. I quoted articles that attempted to open the door on the feelings of shame and was heartened to see titles such as “You Are Not Alone.” 

But has anything changed? Have things improved? Do we now talk about depression and other mental illnesses? 

A few months ago, I had a conversation with a health professional who works in a hospital. I asked her if she thought that things have gotten better. Has the stigma lessened? Do people treat depression as they do other physical illnesses? 

Her reaction came sharply and swiftly. She said that not only had the situation not improved, in the last two years she felt that things had gotten worse. The unusual circumstances of the pandemic intensified and magnified mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety for many people while in other cases induced these illnesses and disorders. 

In addition, they were seeing many more cases of attempted suicide in the hospital, partly because mental health services and insurance coverage are not adequate, but also because there is still so much societal shame attached to it. 

I recently had a discussion with my former husband, David Jaffe. I asked his permission to share details of our story and our pain. He agreed without a moment’s hesitation, because he feels that it is important to share as well. I am glad to be able to say today that David is doing really well and is living in Israel, reconnecting with family and friends. But it was not always so. 

And still, this is hard to talk about. It is painful to open up old wounds and it is daunting to overcome the feeling of shame and the stigma. So I am here today to restart the discussion with a personal narrative. A story about what it means to shoulder the burden of caring for a person with severe depression, primarily by myself, and what it can feel like to open up and allow others to be there with you. 

While we don’t find the word “depression” in the Torah itself, we can find some hints here and there.

While we don’t find the word “depression” in the Torah itself, we can find some hints here and there. There is a word at the very beginning of this week’s Parasha, the very first word in the book of Vayikra [Lev 1:1]   וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

“And God called out to Moshe from the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting.” What is unusual about the word Vayikra is that the א is written in a very small font, one third the size of the other letters. The gematriya, the numerical equivalent of א is “1.” One way of understanding this is that the א is God – who is only One – and who is contracting Godself to make space for Moshe to enter the Ohel Moed. And while that is how I have read it in the past, one of the beautiful aspects of Torah is that it is timeless and we find connections in different ways, at different times. 

This year, the little א stands for אנכי I, me – the lonely, small voice of one who suffers from depression and is unable to call out. It is the lonely, small voice of those who live with family members who suffer from depression and whose voices are stilled out of shame and embarrassment. 

Six years ago, my sister Geela z”l asked me to tell her story right here, in this space. She suffered from depression and other ailments for many years of her life. Sadly, two-and-a-half years ago, she succumbed to depression and died by suicide. I miss her fiercely, her quirky sense of humor, her sharp wit and intellect, and the loss of my dearest chevruta, study partner. 

For many years, we didn’t open up about the depression. Or when we did, it wasn’t in much detail. Our story was shrouded in silence. No one knew what it was like to live with it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

But today, I am here to tell a different story, my own story. The story is about living day after day with someone who is in the grips of depression. My former husband David was diagnosed with severe depression almost thirty years ago when our youngest was one year old and our oldest was eleven years old. 

For many years, we didn’t open up about the depression. Or when we did, it wasn’t in much detail. Our story was shrouded in silence. No one knew what it was like to live with it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I often felt that we weren’t a couple, there was a third entity, a nameless, black thing that caught David in its claws, in a split second turning a calm moment into one fraught with anger and angst. 

David had severe, treatment-resistant depression. Tweaking the dosage of a medication or starting a new treatment plan often gave us hope, but sadly these periods of reprieve were mostly short-lived. Oftentimes he was unable to parent or work steadily. For years, I thought that I could reason with him, but that’s not really possible. You can’t reason with an illness, it doesn’t know how to listen. I covered for him, and I made excuses. 

I told very few people. Those few who I had told about the depression, had no inkling of what it was really like. How hard it was. I often felt like the still, small, lonely א  (alef) and I was not able to call out to others for help. I felt embarrassment and shame. I didn’t hear others talking about depression or any other mental illnesses. I felt that family and friends couldn’t truly understand or know what to do with it. Some were even unable to believe that the diagnosis was true. I felt a need to protect David and my family. Often it meant going alone to celebrations , Shabbat meals, or gatherings of any kind. Being unable to count on my partner as a co-parent or confidante. And feeling isolated in my marriage. 

In coaching we have an expression: “Holding up a mirror to your face.” It is when whatever mask you are wearing gets stripped away and you are able to see the truth for what it is. I had a moment like that when I watched the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” It is the story of a brilliant man, haunted by his schizophrenia and how it affected his family and his marriage. There was a scene where his wife was alone in the bathroom, feeling desperate, alone and at the end of her rope, crying hysterically. I had to turn away because I saw myself in that scene, in those endless tears and despair. 

Mostly I realized that I was simply too worn out and downhearted, and no longer wanted to carry this burden by myself. 

Eventually, I came to a realization. Partly it came from learning about mental illness in Yeshivat Maharat and understanding that these are physical illnesses which cannot be overcome by sheer willpower. Partly it came from being overwhelmed by the American insurance system and needing help to navigate it. Mostly I realized that I was simply too worn out and downhearted, and no longer wanted to carry this burden by myself. 

It was hard to open up. It felt like violating the taboo against speaking out. I had to muster up some self confidence. At times, I stumbled over my words. As I pushed forward, began opening up and sharing, this is what I discovered. I received love, not disdain. I received hugs, not scorn. I received empathy, not pity. I received warmth, not dismissal. Several people listened and understood. I was introduced to those who guided me in navigating the insurance system, and clarified the American disability laws. I felt the massive burden dissipate; shared among the many people to whom I turned and in whom I confided. 

The first time David was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit, there was only myself and my daughter who came daily to visit him. The second time felt totally different. There was a group of family and friends supporting us. There was a virtual signup sheet for visiting hours which filled up quickly and others offered to bring him treats and books that he requested. When David finally received the treatment that relieved his severe depression, there were volunteers to drive him to Brooklyn and back. 

What I realized was that I had not only deprived myself of their support and love all this time, I had expended a great deal of my energies into hiding what was going on in my life. 

When I opened up to my Israeli friends and family, there were two different kinds of reaction that felt so polarized: 

– Some people said: You always seemed so smiley and happy. I never had a clue and I’m so sorry. 

– Others said: I’ve noticed that for years and wondered how you were managing, but didn’t say anything because you didn’t say anything. 

What I realized was that I had not only deprived myself of their support and love all this time, I had expended a great deal of my energies into hiding what was going on in my life. 

I am heartened by the stories of two sports figures who recently opened up about their struggles with mental illness. One is Simone Biles, referred to lovingly as the GOAT (Greatest [gymnast] Of All Time), who withdrew from Olympic competition, as her mental health state made it impossible for her to compete. She publicly acknowledged that she was doing so for her own mental health. The other is Ohio State offensive lineman Harry Miller who bravely opened up to his head coach when he had thoughts of suicide. His coach immediately put him in touch with professionals who helped him emerge from his depression, which enabled him to make the decision, just two days ago, to retire from football. 

If you walk away after reading this piece  with only one thought, let it be this: 

You don’t have to do this alone. You shouldn’t do it alone. You deserve support and caring. 

I would like to take this moment to offer my support and caring. A compassionate, non-judgemental, listening ear. Many times I have heard this from people who have confided in me: “That was hard but I feel so much better now.” 

Rav Steven, Rav Ezra, Rabba Sara, and Rav Avi are here for you as well. We are open to hearing your story, your questions, your struggles and challenges. We also have a large supply of tissues for your tears. We are available to you, we are here to support you, we can help you feel less alone. 

Rav Steven, Rav Ezra, Rabba Sara, and Rav Avi are here for you as well. We are open to hearing your story, your questions, your struggles and challenges. We also have a large supply of tissues for your tears. We are available to you, we are here to support you, we can help you feel less alone. 

Taylor, our social worker, is a wonderful resource and a caring and empathetic listener. She is also putting into place various support groups for caregivers of people with mental illness. 

Confiding in a trusted friend or family member with whom we feel safe can be a helpful way to relieve some of the emotional burden. 

But these words are not just directed to those living with mental illness. There is something all of us can do to be supportive and caring. We can each play a role in creating open and healthy conversation about mental health. We must undertake to understand and accept that mental illnesses are physical illnesses and should be treated as such. With just this small step, we are creating a safer space for people to open up about the challenges they are facing concerning mental health issues. 

The line in the Mi Sheberach L’Cholim, the prayer for sick people, asks for

רְפוּאַת הַנֶפֶשׁ וּרְפוּאַת הַגוּף  (healing of the soul and healing of the body). It is significant – and quite forward thinking by today’s standard – to craft a prayer  for spiritual & emotional healing of the nefesh (soul) and then for physical healing of the guf (body).The ancient authors of this universal Jewish prayer knew the importance and consequence of emotional health and well-being. 

When we use our voice to call out to another person, it can transform us from a still, small voice to a full-bodied אנכי (me), an emboldened and healthier self. 

I suggested that the little א of Vayikra was the still small voice that felt unable to call out. The very next letter in the pasuk is also an א .However, this א is full-sized. It is the א inside the word אל – which is relational – משה אל – to Moshe. Perhaps, this juxtaposition helps guide us. When we use our voice to call out to another person, it can transform us from a still, small voice to a full-bodied אנכי (me), an emboldened and healthier self.

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About the Author
Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe is honored to be serving as the Associate Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a large Orthodox congregation in Bronx, NY. A defining moment in her life was receiving Semicha from Yeshivat Maharat in 2017. She is a dynamic educator who loves teaching in Hebrew or English and inspiring others to learn. She has taught many to leyn and is the voice of the JOFA Megillat Esther and Megillat Rut Apps. Some of her favorite pastimes are kickboxing and reading books to her grandchildren. Rabbanit Bracha lives in Riverdale with her husband Martin.
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