Are We Responsible?

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Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson
Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson

By Rabbi YY Jacobson

The last few months have seen a staggering number of untimely deaths of young people in the Jewish community. Since last Rosh Hashanah, more than 80 young men and women under 35 years of age have died from suicide or overdosing, and the like.

This is beyond devastating. If for one slain victim the Torah commands all of Klal Yisrael—starting with the Sanhedrin—to mobilize and ask themselves if their “hands did not spill this blood” (as we just learned at the end of Parashas Shoftim), how ought we to respond to such staggering numbers?

The parashah of the Eglah Arufah, decoded from a practical and spiritual point of view, teaches us that each and every soul that encounters a form of physical or emotional death—death of innocence, of hope, of dignity, of meaning—is the concern and responsibility of each and every member of the nation of Israel, including the spiritual giants of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem!

When a fellow human being wanders out to the scary fields of hopelessness, every individual of the community, particularly its spiritual teachers and leaders, must shake the heavens. Each of us must ask ourselves the question, as Rashi puts it, “Perhaps we sent him off without food and without escort.”

Did this teenager need somebody to talk to about his frustrations and doubts but could not find anybody? Was this young boy or girl craving some love, encouragement, inspiration—to no avail?

Each of us must ask ourselves, Are we not responsible in some small way for this youngster’s mental and psychological deterioration?

Community leaders often talk about statistics. Let us never forget that it was Joseph Stalin who said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” When we begin viewing people as statistics, we know that our society is eroding from within. Human lives are not means; they are ends in and of themselves. The value and sanctity of an individual destiny is infinite, absolute, and eternal.

Parents, educators, and leaders of all communities ought to open their eyes to the struggles of so many of our young, most precious souls, to be attentive to their needs, rather than getting frustrated that they are not living up to our delusional expectations of them.

Do not shut your eyes and heart to mental illness, to addiction, to depression, to the results of molestation and abuse of all sorts, to all types of agony these youngsters are suffering from.

This includes, first and foremost, three things:

  1. Stop the stigma of mental illness. We empathize with, accept, respect, honor, and love patients who are physically ill. Yet when it comes to mental illness, many of us shut down. Many people who struggle with mental challenges—chemical disorders, depression, and all other forms of mental illness—feel that if anyone finds out the truth about them, they will be shunned for eternity. They feel they can’t talk to anyone, because nobody will lend them an ear or a heart. They feel that nobody will be there for them. In their minds, we blame them for their problems. As one young boy suffering from mental illness told me: “My father told me, ‘Just snap out of your issues and get back to normal living. Enough!’”

This is deeply tragic. People do not choose these types of challenges; they are the result of G‑d’s choices. What they need most is the feeling that they are not victims of the devil, destined to a miserable life. They are powerful neshamos who can bring light into the abyss of darkness. Our profound acceptance, respect, and affection for them helps them empower themselves and see themselves from another vantage point.

I heard the following story from the person it happened to. There was a young woman struggling with mental illness. It was very serious, to the point that she was suicidal. After a long ordeal and hospitalization, and much advice from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, her father thanked the Rebbe for “schlepping her out of her deep darkness.”

The Rebbe responded: “She was in no dark place that I needed to take her out from there.”

When she left the hospital, the Rebbe wrote to her: “From now on, may you serve G‑d with joy and gladness of heart.”

Trust me, the Rebbe knew very well the seriousness of her condition. He was deeply involved in her entire journey, down to the electric-shock treatment given to her. But, in my opinion, the Rebbe was attempting to give her the feeling that he will never look at her as this “dark, scary soul.” He will look at her as a shining piece of Hashem who was sent down to this world with infinite power, and was sent into a very deep place of darkness in order to reveal light there. The Rebbe reminded this person that she is an ambassador of G‑d, not a victim of the devil.

Till today, this woman, who has many challenges, lives with a deep sense of purpose, joy, and dignity.

This is not about denial and being naive. On the contrary, it comes from a broad and truly deep and Divine perspective, where we do not run away from trauma, pain, and mental illness. We have the courage to stare it in the eyes, and to see the pure light of those souls struggling with something they did not choose.

We have got to change our paradigms about mental illness.

Admittedly, sometimes it is very difficult. Individuals with mental illness often say and do hurtful things to people who love them most. Yet we must remember that they are not bad people. They were given a trying challenge. Nor is our role to become supermen who will heal them. We can’t heal them. But we can embrace them; be there for them; allow them to be open with us—and treat them with the dignity they truly deserve.

  1. Stop trying to make your child “fit in.” Parents and educators must be attuned to what their children and students need today, based on who they are at this very moment. Do not try to create a child who will make you look good and make you proud in your own circles. Do not try to force your child to “look good,” so that everything appears normal. Your goal is to allow your children to discover their own depth, their own soul, their own beauty, their own creativity, and their own connection to Hashem. You want to make your children believe that they are more powerful than all of their trauma; that they may have “chains,” but their soul and willpower are more potent than all the chains that life conferred upon them.

How do you give youngsters that sense of power? By loving them infinitely and unconditionally. By making them feel and understand how valuable and powerful they are, and how much Hashem believes in them, even if they do not believe in themselves. How awesome and perfect they are in the core of their being, which nobody can ever, ever take away. No illness, no molester, no traumatic experience, can ever rob them of their wholesome, perfect, sacred, confident, joyful, holy, Divine core. We need to show our children they do not need to fear their own challenges, because we do not fear them. They can talk about them, they can look at them, they can share them with us. We love them unconditionally and we believe that a “chelek Elokah mi’ma’al” can overcome trauma, abuse, mental illness, and addiction.

Never allow your children’s choices to become a personal affront to yourself, and never sever the relationship. Keep the bonds as strong as ever. Talk to experts who will help you—but only experts who believe that a soul is “a part of Hashem,” and that every Jew is holy forever, and that—as Eliyahu HaNavi says in Tanna D’vei Eliyahu, chapter 14—the Jew comes before Torah. You break the Luchos to save a Jew!

(Some of us will never forget the endless flow of tears when the Lubavitcher Rebbe communicated this message on Simchas Torah 1986, and then again on Shabbos Shoftim 1989. It is one of the deepest memories etched in my mind. I never saw the Rebbe weep with such intensity and for so long—and on Simchas Torah! The Rebbe said then that the entire Torah concludes with the story of Moshe breaking the Holy Tablets—because the ultimate peak of all of Torah is this lesson: We break even the Torah to save a Yiddishe neshamah.)

This is not, chas v’shalom, because Torah is secondary. To the contrary, the Jewish soul is one with Torah. “Yisrael, Oraisa, v’Kudshah Brich Hu Kula Chad.” By breaking the Luchos and embracing a soul, you are allowing the neshamah to ultimately discover the Torah etched within her very core.

Stop trying to make your child “fit in” at all costs, even at the cost of his or her future and dignity. Do not worry about what your relatives will say at the next family simcha. Think about one thing and one thing only: What do I need to do to allow my child to flourish, to discover his or her infinite dignity, to feel wanted, loved, cherished, and accomplished?

  1. Talk and listen—constantly. We must constantly talk to our kids and listen to them. We must talk to them about the dangers of abuse of all forms, and always, always communicate with them, watch them, listen to them, be attentive to their state of mind, and build unshakable bonds of trust with them.

More than anything, do not make them feel like outcasts, losers, disappointments. Believe in them, so that they can believe in themselves. See them as fragments of G‑d, as particles of holiness, as rays of infinity. (COLLive) v

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