Read an Excerpt
Healing from Despair
Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World
By Elie Kaplan Spitz Erica Shapiro Taylor
JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing
Copyright © 2008
Elie Kaplan Spitz
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Shattered Vessel
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the sixteenth-century Torah scholar and mystic of Safed, Israel, left us with an enduring vision of creation. The Lurianic view embraces the totality of creation: from the brokenness of the world to the divine light that permeates the world. Luria taught that before creation began, the Infinite One, Ein Sof, filled all that existed. Before God began creation, God withdrew, contracting to leave a vacuum of space to serve as the location of creation. This withdrawal is called tzimtzum, a Hebrew term that is translated in the context of Luria's writings as "self-contraction." Into the vacuum, the Infinite One shined a ray of divine light, an emanation of divine being. The vessels crafted to receive that light could not contain the intense power and shattered. Most of the light returned to its source, to Ein Sof. Left behind were shards from the broken vessels and lost bits of divine light. Those divine sparks remain present in every material manifestation of the creation.
Repairing a Broken World with Sacred Acts: Rabbi Luria's Worldview
Jewish mysticism, the striving to encounter the presence of God and to understand God's mystery, dates to the time of the earliest Jewish sacred texts. Mysticism became more widely studied with the acceptance of the Zohar, an allegorical commentary on Hebrew scripture that first appeared in manuscript form at the end of the thirteenth century and was printed in the sixteenth century. Rabbi Luria, a teacher of the Zohar, expanded on the Zohar's portrayal of creation. In Luria's description, our world is filled with contradictions: God is present but must withdraw prior to initiating creation; vessels purposely created to contain the divine light are shattered by the light's force; creation and chaos coexist. In this world of paradox, if we find ourselves alone in darkness and brokenness, if we find ourselves shattered and lost, we can hold fast to the knowledge that our despair is an inevitable part of existence ever since God created the world.
From the moment of the initial act of creation, chaos ensues as vessels are shattered and divine sparks are scattered. And yet from the chaos arises beauty, as the divine sparks sustain every element of creation, from a rock to a plant to a child. This account of the creation of the world contains a radical concept. Human acts are needed to liberate holy sparks, freeing them from matter to reconnect with the divine source. And more, God depends on our human acts to assist in the work of collecting the sparks. The Luria creation story tells us that in the brokenness of the world we can discern our purpose. We are called on to do the work of healing the broken world. If our world were perfect, we would not be obligated to undertake its repair. But our world has never been perfect, not even from the very first moment, when time and space began.
The power of the Lurianic description of creation is not found in its scientific truth-although there are remarkable parallels to the modern big bang theory of creation-but is found rather in its metaphorical depiction of our purpose in the world. We are called to gather the lost holy sparks by engaging in sacred acts of living. In the tradition, sacred acts not only involve our relationship to the Creator but include deeds of kindness offered to others. This work of healing the brokenness is called tikkun olam, repair of the world.
For the mystics, deeds of goodness, including ritual acts, literally raised sparks to return to their source. Today, deeds of kindness are works of tikkun olam, from parents who honor a child's memory by supporting medical research to the person who listens with compassion and brings comfort to a friend in pain. We are at once broken into bits and yet are containers for sparks of divine light. Our shattered selves may find comfort in this truth: that in being shattered, we discover a deeper capacity to do the work of repair, and therein we find our calling, our purpose.
The causes of despair, depression, and even desperation are unique to each individual. And yet our individual stories of despair share a common bond. For each of us, the descent into darkness results from the convergence of a multitude of factors, like heavy burdens that weigh us down over the course of our lives as we take on the trials and tribulations that come with being alive. There are times when we can relate to the words of the psalmist: "For my wrongdoings are ... as an onerous burden; they are too heavy for me.... I am bent and bowed down greatly, all day in dark melancholy, I go" (Ps. 38:5, 7).
A Sickness of the Soul: My Story of Collapse
My own unraveling began with a physical illness. Only years after my return from the depths was I able to understand that my collapse was years in the making, within my body, my heart, my mind, and my soul. Even on the verge of my own spiral down, I had no sense of the immensity of the impending disaster. The trigger for my own decline was a physical illness, a case of viral encephalitis diagnosed when I was twenty-seven. Up until that moment in my life, I appeared healthy and strong. I had run the Boston Marathon and passed three state bar exams. I was the author of a legal brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court on a matter of criminal procedure. I was working as legal counsel for the Brigham and Women's Hospital, a collective of Harvard teaching hospitals, and teaching Jewish Thought in a religious high school every Sunday. My collapse resulted from a sort of perfect storm, a colliding of factors physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual that I could not withstand.
One Sunday I visited the Brigham Hospital emergency room, suffering from exhaustion and a stiff neck. The emergency room doctor diagnosed meningitis and recommended several weeks of bed rest. One week later, despite the Boston winter, I returned to running and to work. Two weeks later, I was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with encephalitis, a swelling of the brain lining that leads to a major disruption of brain chemistry. I have little recollection of my first few days in the hospital. A responsible son, a diligent student, a lawyer with a prestigious position, I saw all of my hopes and dreams slipping away in a morass of confused thought. What I do remember of my two-week hospital stay is calming myself by singing my mother's lullaby, "Home Again in Israel." One incident that my cousin Joe, a neurologist, told me about much later was my phone call to him from my hospital bed. I called in a state of panic to report: "Nazis are trying to shut me into a coffin." This episode from my delirium reveals the presence of my mother's sufferings in my own unconscious mind.
I also remember that during my hospitalization, a clinical professor from Harvard Medical School interviewed me before a group of medical school students to demonstrate how to evaluate a patient's mental status. The professor spoke to me with a condescension that the renowned twentieth century professor of Bible and theology scholar Martin Buber would describe as characteristic of an I-It relationship, one in which a person treats another as an object (more on this in chapter 5). I remember-even though I was not thinking clearly-how he failed to address me by name, treating me as if I were not present and demonstrating to the students a manner of complete disrespect for the patient. This experience has become a source I draw on in treating people with dignity at all times.
When I returned to work I was conscious that I was no longer whole, that I was in some sense broken, that I was forever altered. My ability to concentrate was impaired. Without focus or energy for my work, I would read the newspaper at my desk in the hospital's legal department. I found myself angry, filled with fear, and increasingly isolated. To those who offered companionship and care I responded with arrogance and impatience, too emotionally self-absorbed to maintain a relationship. Illness represents loss-at the most conscious level a loss of health and of the capacity to live a productive life, and at a deeper level a loss of trust that all is right with the world. Years later, a close friend told me how the illness had changed me from a kind and easygoing person to an arrogant fellow with an attitude of impatience. Aware that I could not work and profoundly uncertain of whether I was meant to be a lawyer, I sold all of my possessions-my car, my Persian rug, my stereo-with the idea of traveling to Tahiti. Tahiti for me represented a paradise found, a place of harmony. Perhaps in choosing to travel so far to an unknown locale, I was trying to flee my self. I had no clue that within a year I would have spiraled down into utter darkness, leading to a series of hospitalizations in mental hospitals, a story I will tell in greater detail in the next chapter.
The Weight of the Burdens We Bear: Stories from Scripture
Stories of the Bible broaden our understanding of the human condition and how collapse is often the product of accumulated weights. In reading these tales, we find that the experiences of our own lives are also present in our collective memory. Finding despair in the lives of our biblical heroes normalizes and adds context to our own life stories.
Let's turn again to the story of Rachel in the Bible. She and Jacob had fallen in love at first sight by a well. When Rachel's father, Laban, required seven years of service for Jacob to take her as a wife, the Bible tells us, "Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but he loved her so much, it seemed like no more than a few days" (Gen. 29:20). In one of the many examples of dysfunctional family behavior that appear in Genesis, Jacob's future father-in-law switched the brides on the wedding night. In the morning, Jacob discovered that he had married Leah, Rachel's older sister. Although Jacob was permitted to marry Rachel after the week of wedding festivities for Leah, he had to pledge another seven years of labor to her father.
By the time Rachel declared, "Give me children or I shall die," she was already carrying tremendous burdens. Each burden represented a loss: the loss of trust in her father who had betrayed her by marrying off Leah to Jacob; the loss of a sibling bond in the rivalry with Leah for the love of Jacob; and the loss of hope to become a mother of children even as her sister gave birth to four sons. In response to Rachel's plea, the text records, "Jacob became furious with Rachel, 'Shall I take God's place?' he said; 'It is God who is holding back the fruit of your womb'" (Gen. 30:2). Jacob's indignation is all the more perplexing in light of the precedent set when his own mother experienced infertility. His father, Isaac, "pleaded with God for her sake; God granted his plea, and Rebecca became pregnant" (Gen. 25:21). Jacob himself was a product of caring prayer! For Rachel, the cumulative disappointments of her past and the rebuke by her husband made the added weight of her inability to conceive unbearable.
Yet Rachel found her purpose from that shattered place and demonstrated resilience, endurance, and the ability to maintain the relationship with a husband who adored her. She eventually became the mother of two sons through her maid-servant Bilhah and of two more sons that she later conceived and delivered herself. In this broken world, Rachel would die in delivering her second son. In understanding the full weight of the burdens upon Rachel and her ability to move forward purposefully, we gain awareness that we are not alone with our limitations as humans, beings who at times are no more or less than vessels shattered by divine emanations.
In the case of Moses, his crisis followed years of struggle. Soon after the people reached freedom and Moses began serving as the shepherd of the people, his father-in-law, Jethro, warned him about carrying burdens. Watching Moses stand from morning to night judging the people's cases, the older, experienced leader cautioned: "What you are doing is not good. You are going to wear yourself out along with this nation that is with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it all alone" (Exod. 18:17-18). Jethro advised Moses to appoint a hierarchy of judges so that he could decide only the major cases. To Moses's credit he followed the advice of his father-in-law.
The crisis Moses encountered later was much more serious. His very purpose as a leader and as a servant of God was called into question. For over two years, the people had received food in the form of heaven-sent dew, called manna. Although the manna was presented to the people, who had no need to plant or harvest in order to eat, they grumbled:
"Who's going to give us some meat to eat? We fondly remember the fish that we could eat in Egypt at no cost, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now our spirits are dried up, with nothing but the manna before our eyes." (Num. 11:4-6)
The people were stuck in a state of misery, unable to appreciate the glory of their freedom and their newfound purpose of living in covenant with God. They expressed their hopelessness by focusing on the trivial: onions and garlic.
Finally, Moses cried out in despair: "I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! And if this is how you deal with me, then kill me now!" (Num. 11:14). Burdened with responsibilities, unappreciated by the Israelites, without a sense of purpose, Moses was overwhelmed. From a place of despair, we may feel like Moses in crisis, exhausted by the weight of our burdens, filled with anger at God that we have been made to suffer, and overwhelmed by fear that we can no longer bear the responsibility and pain. And at that moment, God had a message for Moses, instructing him to gather seventy elders: "When I lower My essence and speak to you there, I will cause some of the spirit that you possess to emanate and I will grant it to them. You will then not have to bear the weight all alone" (Num. 11:17).
Moses gathered the seventy elders outside the camp, around his tent. God descended in a cloud and caused the spirit that had been placed on Moses to emanate upon the seventy, who spoke in ecstasy (Num. 11:25). God would also bring the people quail, but this unanticipated invitation by God quelled Moses's despair. Although the transfer of the divine spirit was only temporary, this event renewed his sense of mission. In seeing that there were others who shared a commitment to God and an appreciation for freedom, hope replaced a feeling of futility. God had also shown Moses that he served a unique role as a spiritual conduit for others. The lessons to be drawn from Moses's experiences are:
Even the powerful and the strong are vulnerable to collapse and must share their burdens.
Lack of purpose is a weighty burden. Moses's recognition that God needed him to lead the people and serve as a spiritual conduit gave him purpose. When others that we admire validate our commitments and goals, we can see beyond immediate complaints and challenges.
From a place of hopelessness we may heed a caring message that moves us from crisis to hope. Moses heeded Jethro's counsel and accepted God's offer of help. It is often hard to ask for help when it is needed and to accept help when it is offered, yet doing so can give us renewed perspective.
With purpose and hope we can see the world as good, even when our situation (such as Moses's responsibilities for a multitude or Rachel's infertility) remains unchanged.
Identifying with the Biblical Language of Despair
In the story of Moses, we see how the language of the Torah is crafted to convey the great weight of the burdens placed upon him. Born into a time in which his people were oppressed by slave masters, the grown Moses "went out to his brethren and observed their burdens" (Exod. 2:11). Later in the story, Moses protested that the Children of Israel would not listen to him, "for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech" (Exod. 4:10), repeating the word heavy to emphasize his inadequacy as a leader. And when Moses could bear no more, he told God: "I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me!" (Num. 11:14). Despair feels like a heavy, dark, impossible weight, caused by a multitude of burdens gathered over time, perhaps until a final single blow crushes us. From his low point, Moses went on to find his purpose in the work of leading the people, reconciling God to the Israelites, and calling upon God to be merciful (Num. 14:19).
Excerpted from Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz Erica Shapiro Taylor Copyright © 2008 by Elie Kaplan Spitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.