Friday, March 28, 2014

Tazria and Suicide: Being Fully Present

There is a story about the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who received a student in his study at home one day. They spoke of the student’s life and studies, he asked the eminent thinker some questions, all the time seeming pensive, but Buber was distracted, wanting to get back to his work. Later, he found out that the young man, sent to the front during world war I, killed himself. He had come to Buber looking for affirmation, looking for someone to be fully present. He didn’t see what needed to be seen.
Perhaps we see the signs, almost imperceptible:  slight change in behavior, a few cryptic posts on a Facebook feed. Perhaps we miss them, we miss the despair, the urge toward self-destruction. Perhaps we think it’s just a phase, or we don’t feel we know the person well enough to say something. Perhaps we don’t know what to say.
Today, two young women are gone from this community. Bev Shapiro, who was laid to rest yesterday, and Emily Spiegel, a former confirmand, both took their lives this past week. Pirkei Avot says one who destroys a life, it is as if they destroyed an entire world. Acts of depression, of despair, these two women chose to end their worlds: destroying not only their present and future selves, but sending their family and friends reeling in sorrow and grief, anger and guilt.
We cannot fully know what caused them to end their lives, and in the end, does it matter? They are gone, and their leaving—even if we didn’t know them—leaves us stunned. When the young are taken from us, we convulse, knowing intuitively that this isn’t the natural order of things. When the young take their lives, we are shaken to our cores. And we don’t know what to say, afraid that if we say the word, suicide, somehow we taint the memory of the child, or bring shame upon the family. We worry about whether she can be buried in a Jewish cemetery or be mourned. We focus on minutiae of halakha rather than discuss the real and palpable grief the friends and family—and perhaps we—are feeling.
This week we read parashat Tazria. It too describes afflictions that we’d rather hide away—skin diseases and eruptions that cause the afflicted to be sent outside the camp. We don’t want to see it, we don’t want to talk about it; we want to put it away until it is safe. Until she is pure again.
But we forget that the person afflicted is not sent out by themselves; the priest is tasked with looking after the person. And we are a nation of priests. As Martin Buber discovered, we have an obligation to be fully present, to escort the person until such time as they can be called ‘pure’ again. We must walk alongside the families and friends, acknowledge our own fears and grief. And we must speak about suicide openly, without shame or stigma. We rally together to support the person who’s body is sick, so must we rally together to bring healing to one who’s spirit is broken.
I didn’t know Bev or Emily, at least not well. But I have seen suicide, including in my own family. My cousin Moshe killed himself more than twenty years ago. Raised in Israel to loving and creative parents, it was his senior year of high school and he was preparing to join the army. He was sensitive, a fantastic chess and soccer player, and whipsmart. He had applied to join a combat unit has his older brother Amichai had, the same unit his friends applied to. His friends got in, and he did not. Ashamed that he couldn’t measure up to no one’s expectations, terrified of being separated from his friends, lonely and sad, he took his father’s gun, given only because his father had to drive across the Green Line for work, a weapon never removed from its holster, and shot himself while the family was out. It’s been over twenty years, and his parents have never recovered. None of us have. None of us will.
Two girls are dead, their lives ended too soon. Nothing will bring them back. We cannot be present for them, but we can be fully present for their families and friends, as the priests of old—and those we think might be grieving their own lives and contemplating the same choices themselves. We must. We must.
I end with prayer, Rabbi Joseph Meszler’s "Prayer at the Funeral of Someone Who Committed Suicide"
Let there be no whispering, no secrets here:
Our hearts are broken.
Bev and Emily took their own lives.
And even though it might appear
that each died by her own hand,
no one does this without great, coercing pain,
inner suffering that seems to have no end,
even though we wish
they knew that no agony is forever.
Source of Compassion, help us to cry out loud,
to hold each other gently,
to live with unanswerable questions,
normal feelings of anger and guilt,
and this gaping hole of loss.
Help us to reach out to others who are suffering,
to show them our love, to say the kind word,
and that this is not a choice we condone
or is worth imitation.
It is hard to see the divine image in the lives of those who suffer.
The sun sets and rises.
We put one foot in front of the other.
We hold our hearts in our hands.
We lift them up to You, God of eternal peace,
and to each other.
Help us live each day.

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