PARSHAT KEE TAVO
“In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and in the evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see.” (Deuteronomy 28:67)
This week’s portion contains a long list of curses. It lists virtually every awful thing that can happen to a human being. These curses are the punishment if we forget God’s commandments. Traditionally, these are read quickly in a low tone of voice with no interruptions. If we say them in a low voice, perhaps they will not happen. The reading ends on an upbeat note. Even if bad things happen in the present, better times will come in the future.
It is easy not to focus on the details of the curses. Yet there is one that describes the situation of so many people I have known through the years. In the morning you will say, if only it were evening, and in the evening you will say, if only it were morning. It is a description of absolute sadness, where life is not worth living. It is depression at its worst. And too often, I have seen people who believed their lives were not worth living, and who took their own lives. Over the years I have buried too many people who have chosen suicide as a way out of their pain and sadness.
Traditional Jewish law forbids a person who commits suicide from being buried in the regular section of a Jewish cemetery. Like most rabbis including the Orthodox, I ignore this law. I see suicide as a death by an illness and treat it like any other illness. We know that clinical depression can be a debilitating illness that deserves treatment, not condemnation. Depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Fortunately, we have doctors who can treat such depression with medication. But people have to be willing to seek such treatment and take the medication.
Often, depression is created by life circumstances. The loss of a loved one, a physical illness, the breakup of a marriage or relationship, or the loss of a job, can send someone into a deep depression. Few of us get through life without experiencing some kind of loss. There is a Buddhist story of a woman who could not get past the loss of her son. She went to the Buddha for help. He said he wanted her to collect a mustard seed from every home in her neighborhood and bring them to him. But she can only collect from homes that have never known a loss. The woman thanked the Buddha and prepared to collect the mustard seeds. She soon returned to the Buddha empty handed. She has realized, there is no home that has not had a loss. She was finally able to find peace after the death of her son and become a devotee of the Buddha.
We all experience losses, sometimes terrible losses, in our lives. The goal is to find a way to mourn and then to move on. Moving on is not easy. But with time, often counseling, and perhaps finding a purpose for life once again, people move on. I have met too many Holocaust survivors who lost entire families in Europe, came to this country, and built new lives with new families. It can be done.
There is another kind of depression which is spoken of in these curses. Someone who says in the morning, I wish it were evening, and in the evening, I wish it were morning, is suffering from a lack of purpose in life. They have nothing to look forward to. Their lives have become a sad, endless routine. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s powerful lyrics in her song, The Circle Game, “And the seasons, they go round and round. And the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only look, behind from where we came. And go round and round and round in the circle game.” The song strikes me as deeply sad.
We need a purpose for living, for arising in the morning. We need to know why we are here on this earth. To quote psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, paraphrasing Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”