א׳ בטבת ה׳תשע״ג (December 14, 2012)
So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon … and Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph’s hand, and … placed the golden chain around his neck … and they called out before him, “[This is] the King’s patron,” appointing him over the entire land of Egypt
— Genesis 41:14; 41-43
This past week we heard news of a great tragedy, the suicide of a young teenage girl in County Donegal, Ireland, just fifteen years old. It seems she took her life because she could not handle the pain of living without her younger sister, who took her own life seven weeks ago, aged just thirteen, after being subjected to online bullying.
We also heard of the tragic loss of a young Indian woman, a nurse who fell victim to a prank phone call. Humiliated and embarrassed, she took her own life, leaving behind grieving relatives, a husband and two children.
For many who read these stories and are shocked by the tragedy, it is very difficult to fathom what could drive a person to the point where they feel there is no way out, and that the only solution left is to leave this world behind. Most of us have coping mechanisms to deal with the harsh things life sometimes throws at us, and although we try to understand the extreme effects bullying and humiliation can have on vulnerable targets, we struggle to understand why they would choose such an extreme and final way to deal with their difficulties. Surely, we think, there are support groups and networks they could approach; surely their parents, spouses or siblings can help; surely time will heal; surely …
For those of us on the outside there are a million solutions, simply because we stand outside.
To someone contemplating taking their own life, there are often no solutions at all. There is no way out. All that is visible is thick, black darkness. There are no paths and options, easy or hard choices … there is just suffocating darkness. The outstretched hands of friends and family are simply not visible to grasp. The devastating effects on the loved ones who will be abandoned is not being ignored, it is just lost in the dark fog of depression.
On Chanukah we read of Chana, the heroic figure who watched her seven sons slaughtered by Greek soldiers for refusing to worship their idols. After her youngest son, just seven years old, was killed, Chana took her own life. (Although some versions say she died from shock and grief, the Midrash describes her as losing her mind with suffering, and jumping to her death.) She had just seen her whole family wiped out, surely she too could see no light around her, no way to move forward.
In Jewish law, one who commits suicide cannot be buried within the normal part of the cemetery, but in a separate area, as suicide is considered a form of murder. This may seem harsh, but it is only applied when the person was deemed to be of sound mind. In almost all cases the person who tragically feels forced to take their own life is not in a rational state of mind … the darkness all around blocks out all logic, all solutions.
To those outside there are always solutions. Sometimes the solution is time. We need only look at the parsha today to see that the most hopeless situations can miraculously turn around. Yosef (Joseph) is thrown into a dark pit, filled with snakes and scorpions, without food or water — on the very cusp of a painful death. From there he is transferred to Egypt as a slave, only to end up in a dark dungeon. Yet within a short time he is wearing the royal signet ring and is seated on a royal throne, viceroy of Egypt.
Yosef was a unique individual, he never gave up hope. To many in difficulty the solution is often not visible at all. There is no hope. The dark pit is all they see.
So what can we do?
First and foremost we need to be aware. We need to be ready to call for professional help when we see someone who needs it.
We need to be in tune with those around us, listening when they suffer … really listening, not listening to offer a solution.
We need to talk to those we care for, about never leaving it too late, about asking for help before the darkness is too much to bear.
And along with all that we need to bring some light into that darkness; the light of Torah and mitzvot which can often give hope, support and meaning in times of difficulty. Inside every one of us is a small flame, flickering silently within, the soul. If we fan that flame we can often chase away the darkness in our mind and heart, for it only takes a small amount of light to banish a roomful of darkness. We fan that flame by doing mitzvot such as laying tefillin, praying to G-d, lighting Shabbat candles, helping those in need and by studying the Torah. Those of other faiths can achieve the same by observing the Seven Noachide laws. We sometimes need reminding that G-d placed us here for a purpose, that we each have a mission on this earth, and we cannot leave until it is complete. The time we spend on this earth is precious and every moment is full of meaning.
May G-d grant us the strength to stay strong in times of difficulty, to see the light in times of darkness, and to merit the days when “death will be swallowed up forever.” Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Zalman Lent
Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.