Struggling in the Dark

Woman in the darkDepression is not a sin, but it can take you to places lower than any sin.
-Chassidic saying

That is why, every mitzvah must be done with joy, every prayer with song and every word of Torah studied with enthusiasm – not just because without that joyful enthusiasm, you are simply not there within that mitzvah, but because without joy, the Jew lives in a precarious state. “Because you didn’t serve G-d your G-d with joy and a good heart…and so you will serve your enemies.” Meaning: When a Jew acts as a Jew but with a heavy heart, he is fair game for the enemy within – the urges and passions of his animal soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why Did G-d Give Me Depression?”

And the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.”Genesis 4:6-7

Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, each brought offerings to God. God “paid heed” to Abel’s offering but not to Cain’s. Cain’s “face fell” (he became discouraged or depressed) and subsequent to God’s “pep talk”, in a fit of rage and jealousy, Cain murdered his brother. Yet had Cain already “killed” Abel while God was still talking to him?

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. –Matthew 5:21-22

Ironically, Jesus says something immediately after these verses that directly applies to Cain and Abel, and perhaps to us as well.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. –Matthew 5:23-24

Depression, discouragement, and anger get in the way of drawing close to God. Certainly Cain’s feelings for Abel and his disappointment at Abel’s gift being accepted while Cain’s was not, inhibited Cain’s relationship with God, yet God cared enough about Cain, not to chastise him for his feelings, but to try and encourage him. God didn’t berate Cain for bringing an inferior gift but supported his efforts to do better in the future.

But was Cain’s gift inferior? All we know is “Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” (Genesis 4:3-4). We assume that Cain’s offering was not the “choicest” of his “fruit of the soil” but what if it was? What if Cain had problems before even bringing his offering? After all, it’s hard to believe that a single incident was enough to drive Cain to murder, something that had never happened before in the history of humanity. Maybe Cain already had “something against” his brother, whatever that might have been. Maybe Cain believed that Abel was generally better or was seemingly more accepted as a son by their parents and as a person by God.

If Cain had been nursing a grudge for sometime against Abel and was nurturing a slow-burning depression and resentment, his “rejected” offering may have simply been the final catalyst that fanned these smoldering embers into a blazing conflagration resulting in a passionate, violent murder.

In Rabbi Freeman’s commentary, he says:

When a person is happy, he’s healthy. True happiness is when every faculty, every sense, every neuron and every muscle is in tune and functioning harmoniously. When happy, a person can fulfill his purpose in life, all of him, all of his purpose. Which is why depression is so despicable. Because depression is a surrender of purpose, of meaning.

Walking in darknessThus being depressed draws us away from the very reason God created us in the first place. A depressed person cannot fulfill the purpose for which God created him or her. The person becomes like Rabbi Yehuda Loewe’s Golum, “an unfinished person – one with all the right aptitudes not yet in the right places…a hunk of clay or otherwise shapeless substance”. We’ve already learned that “every mitzvah must be done with joy, every prayer with song and every word of Torah studied with enthusiasm” and maybe that was Cain’s big mistake. Maybe his offering was indeed the very best his garden had to offer, but he didn’t bring it with the boundless joy that Abel brought his offering.

Maybe that’s the mistake you make sometimes. Maybe that’s the mistake I make sometimes…trying to serve God without joy, song, and enthusiasm. Without joy, even the holiest of actions is performed by an empty heart.

But what is there to do? Rabbi Freeman responds:

Depression argues that you’re a worthless, hopeless scum in whom nobody would ever take interest. So agree with it. Tell it back, “You’re absolutely right. I’m even less than that. I was created with a purpose that I have not lived up to. I’ve messed up again and again. And yet, nevertheless, I have a G-d who has put up with me despite all my failures, who continues to ask me to be His agent in His world, eagerly awaiting my mitzvahs, looking forward to me sharing my concerns with Him three times a day. My purpose still lies before me, and whatever of it I can fulfill, even for a moment, is worth more than all the pleasures of the Garden of Eden.”

The Rabbi admits that he “ripped off” his answer from Chapter 31 of The Tanya (an early work of Chasidic philosophy), but is that really sound advice? The Tanya (and Rabbi Freeman) suggests “reasoning” with depression, but depression is hardly a rational state of mind. It’s a heaviness of spirit that seems to weigh down every human thought and action that tries to oppose it. Is the secret to overcoming depression just admitting that God still waits for you, even when you feel like doing nothing?

There must be something to it. Before psychiatrists and anti-depressant medications, some of the greatest men known to us and to God suffered similar feelings, as Rabbi Freeman recounts:

Looking at it that way, it makes sense that the greatest men and women of history, including our own giants, were people who suffered dark moods to the extreme. Moses cries out to G-d, “I can’t deal with these people any longer! If this is the way You treat me, if I have found favor in Your eyes, please kill me so that I don’t have to see my own tragedy.” King David cries, “I am a worm and not a man; a reproach of man, despised by peoples. All who see me will mock me; they will open their lips, they will shake their head.” The question arises: Without that capacity for inner suffering, would these men have been as great as they were?

And yet it was not their suffering that made them great, but the vital energy that burst out of that darkness.

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, has a name based on the Hebrew root word “merirut” meaning “bitterness”. “She was bitter about exile, slavery, oppression and she refused to surrender to it. She fought it, defying Pharaohs decrees and encouraging others to do the same.” Midrash considers Miriam’s Song to be one of the “ten preeminent songs in the history of Israel — ten occasions on which our experience of redemption found expression in melody and verse” (Exodus 15:1-21).

Is there a beautiful song in this world with not a tinge of bitterness? Is there a story that uplifts the soul without first striking its darker chords? Is there an act of love that does not contain sorrow, a magnificent scene that does not harbor strokes of blackness?

The Tanya, that classic work of Chassidic thought that I’m always encouraging people to study, describes the joy of breaking out of that tunnel as the joy of returning home. You were lost, forsaken, alienated from your true self, and now rediscover that place where you belong. The child who never leaves home can hardly celebrate being where you’ve always been. You, who have tasted the other side of life, you now know the true meaning of the word “home.”

My brilliant light of selfCain had a choice. If Cain had listened to God and relied upon God to lift up his downcast spirit, he could have risen above his depression and experienced the joy of conquering what separated him from his brother and from God. Jesus tells a parable about two brothers who also chose different paths, but this tale has a different outcome.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. –Luke 15:13-20

The full narrative is found in Luke 15:11-32, but you’re probably already aware how the story turns out. Instead of completely surrendering to his depression, the son who had fallen away, humbles himself, for after all, he has nothing left to lose, and returns to his father and his brother. While his brother ironically objects, the son’s father rejoices that his son, once dead, is now alive again, and celebrates with great feasting and merriment.

Sometimes, the greatest height of joy cannot be reached without descending onto an equal depth of sorrow and darkness. Every descent is for the sake of an ascent and the purpose of every darkness is so we can fill it with light. While we might not be able to reason our way out of depression in the short run, God, like the prodigal son’s father, is always waiting for us. Even in our depths He is encouraging us, even as he encouraged Cain. Like Cain and like Miriam, we have a choice to either surrender completely to our darkness, or to rise above it in joyous song. In following Miriam’s path “one day you will turn to look back, and discover depression itself has been transformed and all you are left with is a celebration of life.”

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

2 thoughts on “Struggling in the Dark”

  1. Shalom,

    I have always believed that Cain’s offering was not accepted because it was inferior, but had never considered that it was because his attitude was inferior. Thank you for giving me another way to look at it. I still believe that Cain’s offering was not the choicest of his crop otherwise why point out that Abel’s offering was. But if his attitude was bad or just weak, then it makes sense that he might have brought less than his best.

    You used the story of the prodigal son as a corollary for this story but if your view about Cain’s offering is accurate, a better one might be Mary and Martha.

    Luk 10:38 And it came to pass, in their going on, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman, by name Martha, did receive him into her house,
    Luk 10:39 and she had also a sister, called Mary, who also, having seated herself beside the feet of Jesus, was hearing the word,
    Luk 10:40 and Martha was distracted about much serving, and having stood by him, she said, `Sir, dost thou not care that my sister left me alone to serve? say then to her, that she may partake along with me.’
    Luk 10:41 And Jesus answering said to her, `Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and disquieted about many things,
    Luk 10:42 but of one thing there is need, and Mary the good part did choose, that shall not be taken away from her.’

    I have often struggled with this story because it seems to diminish Martha’s works. But you have helped me realize that they are both making an offering of sorts with Martha offering her works and Mary offering her attention. Some will make this story a grace vs works story, but it is clearly Yeshua teaching that heart comes before hands.

    Thanks for reminding me of the fact that it should alway be heart before hands. I unfortunately often look more like a Martha than a Mary. And quite possibly more like a Cain than an Abel.


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