|You are about to walk across a bridge and you see a man frantically running toward you. You ask “what’s going on?” He answers, “my life has no hope; I am going to jump off the bridge!” This exact incident happened about 150 years ago to one of the most prominent Rabbis of that time. The source of his on-the-spot suicide prevention might be found in this week’s Parsha, which begins with Aaron assuming his role as Kohen Gadol, “High Priest” (for lack of a better translation).
The time had finally arrived to assign positions for the religious hierarchy but Aaron didn’t just assume his, he needed to be coaxed by his brother, Moses (Lev. 9:7). Why did Aaron need persuading; he was eminently qualified for the job and nominated by the Almighty Himself? Rashi explains that Aaron was embarrassed and didn’t think he was appropriate for his new role due to his participation in the Golden Calf incident. Moses needed to remind him that if he (Aaron) had been selected to this service, he was the man for the job and was qualified to do it.
Let’s postulate what might have been going through Aaron’s mind. Until this point, he had led an honorable and even exemplary life, and was a beloved servant to his people. His only wrong doing was his active involvement in making the Golden Calf and even then, he had a good (and logical) objective. He reasoned that if he complied with the demands of the frenzied crowd, he would be able to stall them until Moses returned. Still, he bears responsibility because (1) he didn’t protest and (2) cooperated with the plan of making the idol. Pure intentions and a logical plan were not enough to release him of some level of guilt.
No one wants to lose an opportunity of a lifetime either professionally, academically, athletically, or in a relationship simply because (s)he feels unqualified or unworthy. What should we do when we feel paralyzed by fear and feelings of insecurity when encountering a new responsibly of great magnitude? We need to enlist the aid of trusted friends or mentors. The intervention of a different person can help to escape the control over our mind resulting from the fear. Each of us contains a Divine spark but fear and thoughts of inadequacy have the power to darken that spark. G-d didn’t create us to live in a vacuum and when we feel restricted or without hope, we are meant to connect with others.
The Talmud tells the story of Rav Chiya, who was very sick. Rebbi Yochanan, known as a spiritual giant, prayed for him and he got better. Sometime later, Rebbi Yochanan got sick and Rav Chiya prayed for him. Why, asks the Talmud, couldn’t the great Rav Yochanan, known for his efficacious prayers, simply pray for himself. The Talmud answers, a prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
At various points in life, we need others to help us surmount what appears to be insurmountable. We don’t need to give up, be depressed or go into seclusion when we find ourselves overwhelmed by unexplained or irrational anxieties, and the apprehensions accompanying them. The way to release your negative feelings is to go to someone with whom you feel safe and can trust. If you freely share your anxieties you might become free from them. You can’t take yourself out of prison, but someone else can.
An extreme example of this is the story we mentioned above. R’ Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) was crossing the bridge in Kovno, Lithuania, when he encountered a young man running frantically. He stopped him and asked where he was going. The young man told him that his life was so mistake ridden and miserable that he was going to jump off the bridge and commit suicide. The Rabbi asked if the young man could do him a favor before he killed himself. He (the Rabbi) had many deceased relatives he missed very much. Would he mind if Rabbi Salanter made a list of these relatives and, after the young man killed himself, he could send regards to the Rabbi’s departed relatives? The request was peculiar and the young man looked in wonder at the Rabbi and was thrown off kilter for a moment. That short pause saved his life. He continued thinking and finally realized the foolishness of the rash action he was about to take. At that point he was able to speak to Rabbi Salanter, who served as a source of encouragement. Rabbi Salanter was known for his profound insight into human psyche and knew that this tortured heart and mind needed something extreme to momentarily stop his irrational thoughts that had spread like a toxic cancer inside his head.
Most of us find ourselves in situations that seem insurmountable. For some, it’s years of not being supportive of a spouse and by the time they realize it, the spouse doesn’t trust them to change. For others, it’s career or life choices that cannot be undone. We don’t necessarily want to commit suicide but we give up, which is a form of spiritual or emotional suicide because we have lost hope and don’t believe we have a future. When the body stops producing cells or transforming food into nutrients, it means there’s no life left. In the physical world, our body creates, transforms, and produces and the same holds true for the soul. When a people feel they has made so many mistakes personally or professionally that they are resigned to a miserable life, they have committed a sort of suicide because they have become numb to the possibility of that they have the ability to change and have a future they can embrace. We all have the ability to overcome these challenging episodes or periods in life, the prerequisite for doing so is to talk to a trusted impartial friend, mentor or family member.
May we all accept on ourselves never to give up and always be willing to enroll ourselves in the possibility that we can be happy, self-confident, people who can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. The next time someone lets you out of your own self-inflicted prison, remember that you might be the one to help them and others to be released from theirs.
(Sources: Rashi, Levitcus 9:7; Brachot 5b)