Depression And Its Antidote

Depression And Its Antidote

By Rabbi David Algaze

Act even as we cry

“If despite this you do not heed Me, then I shall punish you further…”

(Vayikra 26:18)



In this section we find the grave tochachah, G-d’s admonition about what will happen to us if we stray from His will. This warning is replete with graphic and very explicit descriptions of the innumerable tragedies that will befall us both on the personal and national level when we fail to obey G-d’s laws. The Torah explains that if we do not learn the lesson from the first set of punishments, then G-d will send a more severe set and so on until we repent and return to Him.

Our Rabbis have extolled the value of suffering. In fact, some important things are acquired only after we agonize over them. “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says, ‘Three good gifts G-d gave the Jewish people, and all of them were given only after inflicting pain over them, and they are: the Torah, Eretz Israel and the World-to-Come’” (Brachot 5b).

Suffering also has the advantage of making a person come closer to repentance, and thus in our anguish we become more sensitized and more aware of our shortcomings. As we experience grief, we are more inclined to examine our deeds and thus to improve the way we act.

Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l suggests, however, that sometimes suffering has the opposite effect, bringing a person into a depression and despair, which makes him less interested in having a positive outlook on life. When a person undergoes a difficult period in his life, he may forget that the hardships are the result of his sins and that, if he only repents, these troubles will immediately disappear. Instead, as the anguish and the pain increase, he may feel a sense of despair, and instead of understanding the true source of his tribulations he may set his sights on resolving the problem. Despair sets in when we forget that all troubles are caused by our own actions and sins, and that the true solution to them is to return to G-d. G-d is capable of solving our problems in an instant, “in the blink of an eye,” yet in the moments of our agony, we have a propensity to forget this and become hopeless. On the other hand, when we comprehend the true reason for our suffering, when we apply a correct etiology of our diseases, we immediately will gain hope in the salvation and be able to take the measures that will enable us to merit G-d’s help.

Rav Hayim of Volozhin in his book, Ruach Hayim, writes, “A man is always going up and down, and when he is down he feels that his actions will be irrelevant and that whatever he does will be not good. At those moments, he may feel a desire to “go to sleep,” to take a break until this “bad time” passes. On the contrary, a person will only regain his standing if he continues to serve G-d and do the mitzvoth and not if he ceases to perform them. The more a person abandons the performance of good deeds, the more difficult his return will be. If the yetzer hara (evil inclination) tells you to stop your work, do not leave your place.” We see how grave the abandonment of our good path is even when we are down.

Every one is subject to periods of depression, even if only mild ones. This may be due to some suffering, or because of having fallen into a sin or sometimes for no (apparent) reason at all. G-d ordained that we go through different moments in our life, some will be periods of exhilaration and joy, and some will be moments of depression and anguish. There will be times when everything we do turns to gold, and sometimes when we seem to be doing nothing right at all. In those latter moments, we have an urge to stop, to let go and just concentrate on the problem at hand. However, as he focuses on his problems, more feelings of melancholy will increase in his heart. The more he focuses on his problems, the more he will arrive at dejection and despair. The antidote to depression is to remember that all our troubles originate in our own actions. We have to think that the suffering may be G-d’s way of correcting us and putting a “red light” in our path. With these reflections, we will arrive at the conclusion that the best way to reach a cure is to improve our deeds and return to G-d. Even in the moments when we feel that we cannot serve G-d appropriately because we are depressed, even in those moments we have to continue our work and our study of Torah, because through these acts, we will regain our position and our joy.

The antidote to depression is to remember
that all our troubles originate in our own actions

A beautiful chasidic parable illustrates how “to act even as we cry.” A traveling watchmaker and repairman arrived in a town where no such professional lived and none had visited in a long time. As news of arrival spread throughout the village, a long line of residents formed quickly, each holding the watches that had long stopped working. With great expectation they waited and watched how one villager after another left the watchmaker’s office dejected. Their watches had been idle for so long that they were beyond repair. Suddenly, a man with a beaming face emerged from the watchmaker’s cabin and proudly gazed at his now functioning watch. In great surprise the villagers asked how come his watch could be repaired while all others could not. The simple villager told them, “What did you do when your watch stopped working?” They all answered, “Obviously, when something does not work you put it aside. What else could we have done?” To which the proud villager responded, “Instead of putting it away, I kept wearing my watch and winding it from time to time. Thus, the mechanism of my watch can be repaired now, while yours is so decayed that they are beyond repair.”

Even when our “watch” stops ticking, we should not “set it aside” but maintain the hope and keep wearing it, for some day a “repairman” may come around and fix what is broken. When you feel down, when are depressed, do not stop winding up your “watch.”

There are two lessons to learn against depression. First, do not welcome the negative feeling. Put it aside, do not focus on it. The more attention you pay to the depression, the stronger it gets. Like an unwelcome guest, if you do not pay attention to him, he would get the message and leave. Second, you can banish depression by the simple act of going on with your life as if it did not exist. Keep praying, even if you are not up to it, even if you feel it is not going to help, that you are unable to concentrate. When you feel disappointed by loved ones, do not stop loving them or start feeling unloved by them. Keep up the flame, keep up your hope, and your constancy may be rewarded one day. Our lives are full of turns where we will feel that “there is no point.” Make sure that at those junctures, you keep in mind the motto, “Act even as you cry.”

Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.


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