The Torah of Despair

Save me, God, for the waters are flooding me. I have sunk in deep mire, where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, overcome by flood. I have grown weary crying out; from pining for God my throat dried out, my eyes exhausted.

—Psalms 69:1–4 1

It is my job to be with people on the worst day of their life. I work as a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco tending to the spiritual needs of those struggling with grieving, illness, and dying. Someone tells me they would like to die at least once a week. I hear feelings of a loss of taste for living from the lips of those who are elderly and have lost the capacity to care for themselves or recognize their loved ones; I listen to an anguished desire to die from those living with long-term mental illness; I am often told by those who just lost a loved one that they too would like to die; people with long-term chronic pain conditions who despair of recovery often tell me that their deepest desire is to end their suffering.

Every fiber of my being longs to “fix” the situations of those who dwell in this much pain and heartbreak. Sometimes this is possible and I am able to assess the situation and offer a solution like referrals to a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist; grieving rituals; or prayers to sustain their spirits until their anguish lifts. However, some of the people who utter these words are in situations that are “unfixable” and often the desire to die seems fair to me or at least very understandable. This is not an article about suicide prevention, which is a worthy and important topic about which much has already been  written.

Rather this is an article about how to stay present and spiritually engaged with people who habitually live in a place of desolation. In this article I will explore the characters in the Bible who struggle with despair and I will discuss the living Torah I learn from my clients who share their journeys through anguish with me.

This article was originally published in  The Reform Jewish Quarterly in the Summer of 2012.

Read the full article here.