God spare us from these things, but have you ever wondered how someone who apparently had everything to live for, took his or her own life? A young woman recently qualified as a physician, with grueling years of training behind her and on the threshold of a promising career, throws herself off her hospital roof. A father parks his car on the George Washington Bridge, races to the guardrail and leaps over it to drop two hundred feet into the Hudson River. It took three days to recover his body.
Neither of these two sad victims had exhibited any mental instability. It goes without saying that both were dealing with what must have appeared to be insurmountable problems. As a result, each made a perfectly calm and rational decision to end it. Permanently. These are just two of the cases that came across my radar screen recently. Both these tragedies involved individuals who felt that their predicaments were beyond help.
Yet, I can’t help wondering, if overwhelming problems push one to such an extreme that this life is simply no longer worth living, why do so few people take the alternative of walking away and starting life all over again in a different place with different people, doing something different? I am not advocating running away from life and its problems, but as the only alternative to taking your life, why not? Something dramatic to be sure. But not as dramatic as deliberately ending your life.
People do continue taking their lives because they are utterly incapable of envisaging some alternative for which it might be worth living. The reason is similar to the reason for why so few of us manage to adhere to our New Year’s resolutions.
Ancient Jewish wisdom illustrates the point in this fashion. In the year 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian determined to crush all Jewish independence, sent his armies to Israel. One of the last remaining Jewish outposts was the Betar fortress a few miles southwest of Jerusalem. Every last defender was slaughtered and in a carefully crafted policy of demoralization, the remaining Jews in Israel were prohibited from burying the tens of thousands of bodies murdered in Betar. I say carefully crafted because Roman tacticians knew of the tremendous importance Jews place on rapid burial.
The reason we bury as soon as possible after death, even if not all relatives have arrived, is because the most important two things are that the dead be returned to the earth with all haste just as God directed, and that the survivors return to living their normal productive and joyful lives as quickly as possible. As long as the dead lie before them, survivors cannot even commence the process of mourning and returning to their lives. The Romans were determined that the trauma of Betar would continue to inflict its damage for as long as possible. To this end, they refused to grant access to the bodies. Naturally, as long as there was no burial at Betar, there was no way to move on and rebuild life.
Similarly, God directed that every Israelite who had known slavery in Egypt was to die in the desert prior to the arrival in Israel. Individuals who had known slavery would never possess the ability to move on and help build a free and independent people. It took forty years but by then, all of the two million or so male Israelites alive under Joshua had been born in the desert and not in Egypt. They proved to be a formidable people.
Putting the past behind us and recognizing that the bad scripts playing on the subconscious tapes in our heads belong to yesterday is terribly difficult but indispensable to moving forward.
Perhaps we have come to believe that the way we behave with our family members, friends, or co-workers is somehow engraved into our DNA. It isn’t! It’s part of yesterday and we need to obliterate its tape running silently in our subconscious so it loses its ability to program our tomorrows.
Every fresh start depends upon obliterating yesterday’s anchor that prevents us moving on. Someone so desperate that ending life seems like the only choice could move on if only he were able to push yesterday out of mind into utter irrelevance. My January New Year resolution stands a chance of being observed if I can successfully obliterate my mental video-tape reminding me of the old me.
This is the point of Judaism’s Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, which ended for me here in Jerusalem a few hours ago. We examined, in painful detail, our flaws and failures of the past year. Then finally after twenty five hours of fasting and excruciating self-evaluation, we joyfully exclaimed, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The man standing next to me in synagogue exclaimed to me, “Well, we are in Jerusalem already, I don’t get it.”
I explained to him what I have just told you finishing off by revealing that Jerusalem doesn’t just mean a stone and mortar city. It also means a bright, incandescent tomorrow. And the only way to get there is to get rid of yesterday’s mental and spiritual impediments.