Fighting Depression

Problem 1 :

Reuben is a low paid worker who finds life hard at work and at home. He is upset not only about his financial and family situation but also concerning his emotional state, as he feels little achievement in what he does. When Reuben talks about his job, he feels uncomfortable since his friends all have jobs which he considers superior. Combined with presently feeling a lack of self worth, Reuben does not see much of a future for himself and he drudgingly carries on with life.

Problem 2:

Miriam left college a while ago and is still looking for work. She feels down as there do not seem to be too many exciting jobs available for her to take. Miriam also is starting to feel disheartened as she becomes more aware of her new social scene. She wants to settle down and start a family but she seems to have less time to socialise than her college days and less of a range of people to mix with. As time goes one she becomes more depressed.


Reuben and Miriam do not have an easy time with all their issues and their depressed state of mind will just make things worse. Aaron Beck the founder of Cognitive behavioural therapy explains[i] the vicious cycle of negative thinking. He describes how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all linked. If an individual thinks upsetting thoughts, then they will feel upset and then do something which will likely increase the negative thoughts and strengthen the feelings.

In the case of Reuben an example of a vicious cycle might be the following: Reuben has the thought that he is a loser since he is not really accomplishing and no one cares about him, this makes him feel depressed, which then causes him to go to bed. While Reuben is in bed his thought process will continue and so his lack of achievement whilst in bed will further demonstrate to him how much of a loser he has become. The thoughts and feelings will continue to cycle in his mind which will hamper his functioning at home and work.

A lesson from the Torah portion of Massei could help Reuben and Miriam deal with their problems, overcoming the effects of depression. The Torah portion speaks about the travels of the Jewish people as they wondered for forty years in the desert, recounting each of the forty two stops that they made during this time.

The wording of the opening verse though poses a problem in the way it describes these travels. The verse states “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Mitzraim (Egypt) in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron.” The problem in this verse which needs to be addressed is that the plural form of the word “journeys” is used to describe the exodus from Egypt, instead of the more accurate use of “journey”. To leave Egypt it took one journey from a place known as Ramses to a different location called Sukos, the rest of the journeys recounted in the Torah portion of “Massei” are after they had already left Egypt. Why does the verse use the plural form of Journeys?

Nothing in the Torah is superfluous and so there is a message even in the seemingly inconsequential events the Torah recounts. It therefore also needs to be understood the meaning of why the Torah tells us about the forty two times the Jews had to travel from the time they went out from Egypt until they came to the land of Israel.

Another question arises when the Torah wants to describe the unique qualities of the land of Israel, since it expresses it as a “good and spacious land”. It would follow that if the Torah is trying to express the good qualities of Israel then those terms would be different from the descriptions of the places which the Jews had previously found themselves. The word in Hebrew for Egypt is “Mitzraim” which comes from the same Hebrew root as “Metzer” meaning limitation or boundary. In Hebrew a name is not an incidental point but is intrinsically connected with the object it is describing[ii]. When the Jews left Egypt they had already left the place which is associated with limitations and come to a more spacious land. If the Jews were already in a spacious land when leaving Egypt, why then does the Torah emphasize that the land of Israel is “spacious”?

To answer the above questions, it must be understood that in the concepts of limitation and spaciousness there are many different levels. When there are different levels, it will occur that there will be different perspectives of how to consider a specific point. For example: When two people are talking about a certain car, one might say that the car is expensive but his friend might counter that he feels it is quite cheap. The difference in this case of what would be called an expensive car is dependent on the wealth of each person and so each individual from their vantage point is correct.

The same is true when considering the different levels of limitations and spaciousness. It could be that in relation to a lower level something is called spacious but in regards to a higher level that same thing would be considered as a limitation. All this is when we are comparing the different places which the Jews travelled but when the Jews came to the final place of the Jordan then this was the ultimate level of spaciousness. Until the Jews reached this last stage, even though a place might have been spacious when compared to a lower level nevertheless when compared to a higher level than that same level was viewed as a limitation.

This is the idea of the forty two travels which the Jews took to leave Egypt, until they reached the good and spacious land of Israel. The first journey, although that it lead out of Egypt and automatically into a more spacious place, nevertheless, when compared to a higher level it is still considered as a place of limitations (Mitzraim - Egypt). The Jews therefore needed to take another journey to go out of those limitations. This is why when describing the Jews leaving Egypt the plural word “journeys” is used, since the rest of the journeys which remained were also considered as going out of Egypt. This was until the Jews reached the Jordan river (the border of Israel), which is the highest point (and alludes to the coming of Moshiach, who is described as Moreach Vedayan[iii] which shares a similar Hebrew root as the Torah’s description for the Jordan River) .

The Torah is everlasting and is relevant for every generation, especially the concept of the going out of Egypt. The special relevance of the going out of Egypt is found in the Talmud and Jewish mysticism, where it states[iv]: “a person is obligated to see themselves just as they came out today from Egypt.” This is a lesson for each Jew, that also at the time when they have gone beyond their comfort zone, going beyond their limits, which means that they have gone out of their Egypt (Mitzraim), nevertheless this not enough. The reason why this is not enough is because when compared to a higher level this person is still in Egypt (a place which has its limitations) and consequently they will need to work further to achieve their goal. Each person must work on themselves to travel another journey from their second stop to the third and so on etc.

How would the process of going out of an individual’s personal Egypt (limitation) express itself in a Jew’s day to day life? Limitation in this case would find expression in an individual being focused on their own issues and difficulties, having no place for a different perspective. The individual gets so caught up with the world around them and their own needs, they can forget about the bigger picture (including family, spirituality etc). How can one break free from this self centered perspective? An example of leaving/changing this type of life view is when an individual prepares to go and pray, they will turn their attention from a more self centred perspective to one where they become more aware of a greater reality.

Prayer is called a ladder[v], as there are many different levels which one can ascend during their prayer (each level is seen as a limitation to the level above it). The sensitivity to a deeper reality during prayer has many different levels, starting from an awareness that there is a deeper reality outside of them. The next level is where the individual realises that they are dependent on the spiritual for their physical needs and how there is a deeper unity in the world etc. This awareness of a deeper reality is peaked when during prayers then one is able to ask for their material needs while seeing them as part of their spiritual service i.e. the spiritual and material do not contradict anymore. With this awareness the Jew can go back into the world and be able to deal with the material world.

To summarise, the first lesson which is taught from the recounting of the Jews travels, is that when an individual is found even in the highest spiritual level, they need to constantly ascend higher and higher. A person should not say it “is enough for me what I have achieved previously” because an individual has a role and function in this world to be a traveller and not to remain standing in one place.

The second important lesson from the Journeys of the Jews is that even when an individual finds themselves in a low point of their life, they should never give up. When we work and try to improve ourselves, moving from one level to the next, then we have moved out of our present Egypt (limitation) and come to a higher level.

A person should never think “that since I am in such a low spiritual and material situation, there is no point in working to free myself from here. All the work I have done until now is worthless”. The lesson of the Journeys is that even one journey alone (which could be an instantaneous event), can mean that one is going out of their limitation and coming to a good and spacious land. This is all in relation to one’s present station in life and from here one can go further and further, until the highest of heights.

The first number of journeys from Egypt which the Jews took were also at a time when spiritually they were at a low point. They had just come out of slavery and had been very affected by their unethical surroundings. Nevertheless, they were able to move out of Egypt and their limitations, ascending higher and higher towards the giving of the Torah. How much more so, after the Torah has been given to us, which presents us with a unique strength to overcome our daily obstacles to doing what is necessary.

From these two lessons it now becomes clear why this Torah portion is read during the three weeks of the year when Jews focus on the destruction of the Temple and exile. An individual when focusing on something negative can just concentrate on the negative or they can also have the option to appreciate a broader picture. The point of the destruction and exile is not an end in themselves but a medium to reach a higher level of the ultimate redemption (like destroying a house to build a better one).

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov explained the verse[vi] “and a time of pain for Jacob and from it he will be saved”, that from the actual pain will come the deliverance. The lesson of Massei teaches us that we need to see the bigger picture and that the actual reality is that from the negative situation we find ourselves presently, it will lead through stages, to a more positive situation. [vii]

Back To Reuben and Miraim

The problems of Reuben and Miriam are quite different but there is a common issue which both are feeling at present. Both individuals feel that they are not achieving and their future also does not seem to be too bright. Aaron Beck explains that these thoughts can actually cause more negative thoughts and feelings. One of the ways to help such people is through challenging their thoughts.

Conventional therapy will focus on challenging these thoughts with a more rational train of thought. The difficulty with this type of therapy is that sometimes the situation which the individual finds themselves in is quite depressing. It might be not be as bad as the individual thinks that it is but it is however still not very good. The therapist might therefore have a hard time breaking the cycle of negative thoughts.

The Torah portion of Massei helps such people realign their thoughts and feelings into a more productive place. The first question which both Reuben and Miriam need to ask themselves is “what defines achievement for them?” At present they are focused on their problems but do not seem to realise that challenging their thoughts and feelings is itself an achievement.

People have the choice to do what is correct in life but the outcome of that choice is not necessarily within their control. They could for example decide to help someone clean out their garage but at the end of the day find that the person they helped is very ungrateful for their help. It could also happen that they make a good financial investment but then for some new political reason the government increases interest rates which causes the investment to turn sour. There is not better proof than the financial markets which have been prosperous, then lost billions of dollars, recovered and then dived again etc. There are an infinite amount of reasons why the outcome of a situation can change from what it originally seemed to project.

It is nevertheless hard to overcome a natural tendency which people have to want to fit into a picture of what society considers an achiever. Society’s premise is that we do have total control over the choices which we make in life and our rank in society is very much tied to how much someone earns or how many friends they have.

The Torah does not view society’s value system as one which is based on solid ground or evidence. According to the Torah what is important is that each individual is aiming to become a better person by learning more Torah and doing more commandments (between man and man and between man and G-D). This is what draws down G-D’S blessings into our lives and so gives us hope even when the future seems bleak.

The Torah views the emotional turmoil which we go through as a test which if we pass it, can be considered a greater achievement than earning millions of dollars. The emotions which we feel should be based on the first few of the Ten Commandments, which include belief in G-D and his involvement in an individual’s life. Our goal is to move forward throughout our life trying to deepen our awareness of G-Dliness and how G-D is involved in our lives which will affect how we feel and what we do.

The awareness of G-D in an individual’s life is not a one step process of just saying “I believe” but takes learning and work to integrate the belief and trust into their daily thought process. This effort would include a process in prayer which not only means saying lots of words but also to think about to whom we are praying and his relationship with each individual thing in this world

Reuben and Miriam feel pretty depressed which itself can negate their feeling of achievement. Thoughts like “I am useless” or “what does it matter” can occur when someone experiences such a mood. The Torah counters these thoughts with the understanding that any action which one achieves to carry on even though they feel down is a real achievement. In regards to the lesson of Massei they have left their limitations, since a depressed person would naturally rather be inactive. They have come to an awareness that despite their feelings there is a more important goal which they need to achieve which will include getting out of bed, going out to help someone or going to work. The individual understands that each of these actions is part of G-D’S plan for us each day and it is our job to put it into practice. However small of an action which that person takes when they experience such a mood is a real achievement in the Torah’s eyes and is compared to the leaving of Egypt. The Torah though does not stop there and still demands of the person to try and learn more while integrating their deeper awareness in their daily lives.

Reuben and Miriam need to come to an awareness that they have a role in this world which is not defined by the values of society but instead based upon what the Torah sees as important. Every Jew has their own journey in life and is credited by doing what they need to do and not what someone else would have done in the same situation. This will help them overcome their feelings of depression and be able to move on with their life.

Part of the process in changing our values to help us overcome the depression found in society is through challenging our values, which can come through learning and prayer. There are such people which are not able to access these tools because of the severe extent of how depressed they have become. This type of Jew would need an orthodox Jewish therapist to help them overcome their difficulties and challenge the thoughts and feelings which are holding them back from achieving in life. This kind of situation might also demand that the individual take medication to help move forward in their lives with each step being celebrated. The therapy will nevertheless be based on the above principles put into practice using different techniques.

Ultimately, we believe that even the darkest times in our lives are as the Baal Shem Tov explained, a means to an end. When a Jew can recognise the good, feel that they are not alone and see that they are achieving then that itself can cause G-D to change their situation into circumstances which are revealed good. So it should be for the whole Jewish Nation!

[i] Beck, A. (1979). Cognitvie Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford.

[ii] Shaar Hayichud Vehaemuna ch.1

[iii] Sanhedrin 93,b. Lekutei Torah Bamidbar 88, 3 [The Jordan river is called in Hebrew Yarden Yericho which shares a common root with the description in Hebrew of Moshiach as Moreach Vedayan)

[iv] Pesachim ch.10 mishna 5, Tanya ch.47

[v] Zohar chelek 1 266,b; chelek 3 106,b

[vi][vi] Jeramiah 30,7 sefer Hamamorim Yiddish p.55

[vii] Lekutei Sichos 2 p.348 - 354

These articles are only general scenarios and for specific advice a professional should be consulted

#Depression #Bamidbar #Massei #prayer #cbt

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