Yom Kippur and Depression

Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say that before I learned Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, made me truly crazy.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. Obviously I am still here, but it has sometimes been a spiritual battle.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It trumps nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means call someone, call someone. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, whatever, DO IT.

MEDICATION – After a long lifetime of hanging on by my very short fingernails, I finally allowed a kind doctor to write me a prescription for antidepressants.  They do not solve everything, but they have been a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and say a blessing when I do it.

THERAPY – If you can get access to therapy, it can be an enormous blessing. Find a therapist by asking people you trust for a referral. Your rabbi should be able to give you a name of someone who has helped others.  Again, there are no easy fixes, but a good therapist can help you find your way.

PRAYER – This is one of the places where traditional prayers can be powerful. My go-to prayer for navy blue days is the blessing for the soul we say in the morning prayers: Elohai neshama sheh natata bee, tehora hee – “My God, the soul you have put within me is pure.” It reminds me that the core of my soul, the core of every soul, is the Divine spark, pure and good. It reminds me that however I happen to feel, the essence of me is pure Goodness.

Why would a rabbi go online and post that she’s on medication for depression, and expects to be on it for the rest of her life? Because (1) illness, including mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of and (2) because it is the most powerful way I can think of to say it’s OK to take care of yourself and it is OK to ask for help.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings the dead to life.” While I think a future resurrection of the dead is a quaint medieval notion, I do take that prayer literally. Those who feel dead, who are in many ways as good as dead, can come back to life, and whenever that happens, it is a holy miracle.  That’s the blessing I say when I take my meds every morning, and whenever something happens that adds to the spark of the Divine within me.

This Yom Kippur, remember that what we call in English “The Gates of Repentance” are actually the Sha’arei Teshuvah. Teshuvah is much more than “repentance.” Teshuvah means  turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

32 thoughts on “Yom Kippur and Depression”

  1. I feel very proud to know you and to be able to say I am your friend & sister. You are truly amazing. I love you. Thank you for being you JUST AS YOU ARE.

    1. Wow, Nina, now you have me wondering if many people enrich their “medication rituals” (great phrase!) with religious ritual! I wonder how we could research that?

      1. Sarah Yehudit Schneider, the great Torah teacher from Jerusalem http://astillsmallvoice.org/, has a blessing for taking medicine, and she told me where it came from but I forgot (oh brain, why won’t you work????). I’m sure if you wrote to her she’d be happy to share it with you. Mention my name. My go-to prayer is the one that Moses used when Miriam got stricken with tzara’at, a disease that we translate as “leprosy” but we don’t really know what it is except that it comes from not watching what comes out of your mouth….speech-wise, that is….anyway, what he said was Eil na, refah na lah.” Translation: “God, please, please heal her.” I use this as a mantra when my soul is feeling particularly painful. It’s also good for a pre-meds blessing, since God made meds too, right?

        BTW, I’m very proud of you for sharing that you suffer from depression. Rabbis are people too, and I think that it helps other people to know that we (speaking “we” because I am a physician) also get sick. So many times I’ve seen relief on my clients’ faces when I’ve shared that I am bipolar. My disease has now shut down my career, but it seems to help people to know that so far I’ve survived even that disaster, so that gives them hope that they can also survive. You are helping countless people by sharing this aspect of your life.

        1. Thank you for the great resources! I am delighted to learn about Morah Schneider.

          “Eil na” is a prayer close to my heart. I love that it is so compact that it can simply become part of my breath, and that I can adjust it with a simple change of pronoun that changes nothing but a vowel.

          I agree wholeheartedly with you about the power of being public about stigmatized illnesses. I have depression sometimes. One of my sons is bipolar. We do our best not to hide these things, because there is redemption in simply saying, yeah, here it is, happens in rabbis’ families too. Everybody has tsuris, no need to be ashamed.

          I am very grateful for your blog. There are some wonderful articulate bipolar voices out in the world, but yours seems to be tuned especially well for my ears. I’m not surprised to learn that you are a doctor, because you certainly are a healer in ways that transcend “career.”

  2. Great article! I love how you frame these things. I have been living an Orthodox life since 2005, and am just coming out of it. The word “Teshuva” is so laden with meaning. Its inner essence is “to return to your soul,” the person you were originally meant to be, but have strayed from due to the hardships of this life. It’s not an easy road, because the road is full of “shaeila,” questions, which must be addressed on the path to teshuva. And since the process of teshuva is continuous throughout life, the natural outcome is a push me-pull you tension between teshuva and shaeila. Obviously it was meant to be this way, but it can cause anguish when one obscures the other, as is the case most of the time. Flashes of insight are always a welcome relief.

    In the Sefardic tradition, the “Elokai, neshama sheh natata bi…” goes on, “tehorah atah vratah, atah yetzarta, atah nafachta bi…” rather than “tehorah hee.” This is interesting in a number of ways. First, it subtly changes the meaning, as you can see. Secondly, it changes the number of words in the prayer to 72, mispar chesed.

    I know this will be gobbledygook for most everyone who reads this, but hey, everyone has their “thing” and mine is authentic Jewish kabbalah from the Hassidic masters.

    G’mar chatima tova, and here’s a little Yom Kippur treat from Rav Avraham Trugman http://thetrugmans.com/949/yom-kippur-and-the-four-letter-name-of-god/

    1. Interesting! I was not aware of the difference in the prayer in the Sefardic liturgy. Now I shall have to dig out my Sefardic siddur and see what other subtleties are waiting in my favorite prayers.

      I like to think that the tension between she’elot [questions] and teshuvah [return, repentance] is a dynamic tension that can move us upward or forward or in whichever direction the Divine awaits, but sometimes it is a scary ride.

  3. Rabbi Adar, I’m deeply sorry that the cadence of the English translations of our ancient and sacred prayers was injurious to you. Thank God you overcame the depression and went on to be a rabbi for countless searching, needy souls!

    I gently and respectfully disagree that the English words for some of the Yom Kippur concepts such as “teshuvah/sin” and “Father/King” imagery are necessarily Christian-inflected and theologically inaccurate from a Jewish perspective. I am comforted by the cadences of the Union Prayer Book both before and after learning Hebrew. For me, the “grave” and “weighty” feelings of words like “sin” and “repentance” are not scary because I don’t believe that God is an angry old man in the sky who will cause me pain as punishment. I also don’t literally believe in a gendered God at all, yet I find myself comforted by approaching God as “Father” and “King”. God may demand moral obedience like a “King”, but is always ready with a warm embrace when we need it, like a loving “Father” or “Parent” if you like. This, of course, is largely subjective, but I wish that educated Jewish professionals would refrain from casting all such language as “Christian” or Judaically inaccurate, because poetic vernacular liturgy can be a powerful way for some people to encounter Jewish tradition.

    I wish you a meaningful, blessed, comforting, and healing Yontiff.

    Jordan E. Friedman
    The Society for Classical Reform Judaism

    1. Jordan, I appreciate your reply, and am delighted to meet another enthusiast for the Society of Classical Reform Judaism.

      I am glad that you are comfortable with the metaphors and language of the High Holy Days. I am writing here for those who find the language and metaphors distressing, perhaps deeply distressing, based on any number of factors: life experience, lack of Jewish education, mental/emotional illness, or some other misfortune.

      I am happy for you that you find the prayers in the Machzor comforting. However, I ask that you stop for a moment and ponder the fact that you are writing from privilege in your message above. The fact that you received such a good Jewish education that the English words are largely transparent to you, and your association of “Father” or “Parent” with a warm embrace is the result of good fortune on your part. Leaving a message critical of those who have not had such good fortune is neither helpful nor kind to readers who may not have been so lucky, and who will have been attracted to the post precisely because they are suffering from depression or similar difficulties that may be exacerbated by the time of year.

      In sum, you aren’t the target audience for this post. I can see that my preference for the Hebrew is a trigger for you, but that’s merely my preference, not a comment on anyone who likes the English.

  4. You have no idea how much I needed to read this today. I, too, struggle with those images from my Christian upbringing, and I have a family and personal history of depressive episodes. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m going to write down and memorize that prayer and make it part of my daily routine.

    1. I wish you a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Unfortunately ours is not a small club. Sometimes I find it comforting to remind myself that even though the illness causes me to feel isolated, in fact I have it in common with many good people.

      I am glad the prayer is helpful and I am grateful that you told me so.

  5. Great article. I had a scary dilemma this week. Kol Nidrei services conflicted with my regular Al-Anon meeting, and although there are others during the week, this meeting is a regular source of healing that I miss at great jeopardy to my mental and spiritual wellbeing. And although I love Kol Nidrei services, I dreaded the awkwardness I’ve felt since leaving the staff of the shul, combined with finding our services spiritually unfulfilling. I had decided in favour of self-care: to chose Al-Anon, when I realised that I could at least go to services for an hour and still make my meeting. Then I saw this article and felt such relief and affirmation. Yes. I am responsible for my wellbeing, spiritual and psychological. And while it felt awkward to leave services so early, I experienced such support from my fellow Al-Anon members last night that my decision felt affirmed. Much of what I hope to do differently this year has to do with self-care; your invocation of pikuach nefesh was right on target for me.

    1. I am glad that my little article was a help. As it turned out, I spent Kol Nidre in the emergency room, which was certainly not my original plan. But preserving life trumps everything – we both made the appropriate choice.

  6. Dear Rabbi, thank you for sharing. Your blog post came up when I searched (do people get spiritual attacks after Yom Kippur?)
    Quick bio: raised catholic, started reading Old Testament in my late 30’s, knelt and prayed asking to become servant of Yeshua ha Moshiah, YHVH Moshiah, the Great I AM who has manifested His Almighty Presence through all history in MANY WAYS. I asked Jesus Yeshua to come live in my heart and forgive my sins, which I still ask for regularly! This year I learned about Yom Teruah (two mornings I heard repeat horn blasts that others in my presence didn’t hear). Then I learned about Day of Atonement Yom Kippur and committed to observe it as best I could. I observed it when the moon was first quarter in Kentucky USA, and I observed again on the day designated by Israel. I drank fluids, I took medications, but didn’t eat until sundown. After the 2nd day observing, I listened to pastor teach Revelation 4, that God on the throne is also the Lion of Judah, is also the Lamb sacrificed and standing with him, who is the only one WORTHY to open the scroll which has the names of those who have inherited life ( Book of Life ). I felt happy and filled with joy.
    The next day, I was attacked with mood disorder, anger at self, depression, deep suffering over finding out my daughter’s copying my own PREVIOUS pattern of sexual immorality sin. I felt like I was attacked by spiritual forces of darkness, accusation, condemnation.

    1. Andrea, I see that you are a spiritual seeker. I urge you to supplement your prayers with a doctor’s checkup. Hearing things that others don’t hear can be a sign of illness. God commands us to take care of our bodies as well as our souls in this life. I urge you to tell a doctor about this, or to show your message to a doc. I pray for your continued healing of body and spirit.

  7. Continued…
    Later when I had opportunity to go walk and talk with our YHVH, I declared out loud, Yeshua bought my soul with His perfect, loving, sin-destroying blood and I thanked Yeshua for promising to not lose one sheep that the Father called to Him, I thanked Yeshua that he will come back and give the gift of salvation to all whose names are written in the Book of Life. I prayed please help me be included in the Book of Life. I got angry at Satan and reminded it that it will be destroyed, and to get out of my midst, out of my thoughts, out of my family and friends, and declared the Almighty Power of the Creator who is I AM, who is YHVH, who is Adonai, who is Yeshua, is no match for His enemies, and I scolded Satan and it’s demons for condemning and accusing me and said “GET AWAY FROM ME, Satan, in the name of ALMIGHTY YESHUA, I command it!” So in this way I did spiritual, scriptural, verbal battle. LOOK! How the Holy Spirit who comforts and guides us, continues to share Adonai-Yeshua as THE FINAL SACRIFICE by which MANY shall be given eternal life. I ask precious Adonai, to speak this truth into your heart, to call you to come to Yeshua to ask for eternal salvation and to be baptised by Water AND receive the Holy Spirit if you have not already. God is waiting for us to spread the gospel about THE FINAL SACRIFICE, YESHUA, throughout all the world, and THEN he’ll send YESHUA AGAIN.
    “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all… For He shall bear their iniquities….” (Isaiah 53:6, 11). Please come ask Yeshua, G_D already called you! I ask G_D to BLESS YOU and ALL ISRAEL because you have obeyed the Law and are more deserving of life than me.

  8. Somehow, I missed this post when it came out, and I just saw it this morning. Yom Kippur is one of the toughest days in the year for me (in the spiritual sense) and I see that I’m not alone. I have finally accepted that I am not 100% on my own and have been doing therapy for the last few months. I am coming out of the dark but slowly and my therapist IS suggesting medication to strengthen/stabilize me. Your suggestions will become part of my routine. Thank you!

  9. While I am grateful that antidepressants work for you, Rabbi, I would hesitate to recommend them.

    I’ve suffered from depression for literally four decades. Antidepressants not only fail me, but they cause me to try to kill myself over and over and over again. At each antidepressant trial, I was not suicidal, then became suicidal on the med, and finally stopped being suicidal after weaning off the med. I had lengthy antidepressant trials from every antidepressant class only to experience the same problem. I’ve been off meds now for some fourteen years; no suicide attempts.

    I’ve known a number of professionals, like myself, whose lives were destroyed by antidepressants.

    Depression is not, as a psychologist or psychiatrist would lead you to believe, just like any other illness. NO. There is no blood test, urine test, etc., to diagnose depression. We do NOT know that depression is caused by a neurochemical imbalance. We really know nothing about depression.

    So please be VERY CAREFUL if you decide to try psychiatric medications of any sort. And please don’t be cavalier about recommending them. We don’t know why they help some people but not many others. We don’t know why so many patients find them harmfully, life destroying, even deadly. We don’t know anything, really.

      1. Correct. Actually, I understated my point. Just two examples for whomever might be reading and pondering antidepressants.

        First, I was a graduate student in psychology with a NASA fellowship. I was depressed but managing. I started an antidepressant, and then I went suicidal. I tried to kill myself. My NASA department chief found out. I lost my NASA fellowship and then had to drop out of graduate school, all due to the suicide attempt. Three years later, after many suicide attempts – I even hung myself once in a hospital – I weaned myself off the meds. No meds, no suicide attempts. It’s been 35 years since NASA. No suicide attempts. I am now a law student at age 61.

        Second, a friend was a dentist in private practice. His wife died suddenly. He grieved and grieved. His adult children said, “Dad, you don’t have to go through this grief. We have antidepressants now. Please see a psychiatrist about a prescription.” My friend did. Not only did the antidepressant fail him, but it gave him a tremor that began to cause him trouble at practice. The psychiatrist adjusted the dose, changed the script, did everything he could, but the tremor grew so bad that my friend had to sell his practice and go on disability. Then he became doubly depressed: His wife was dead, he could no longer practice dentistry, he was legally disabled, and he had to sell him home. He never recovered from the depression, even with supposedly the best of care.

        Again, please, people, be careful with psych meds! I was once a believer in my grad school days, when psychobiology was all the hype, but now I know better. Antidepressants are not “like any other medical intervention.” They are the modern-day psych equivalent of blood-letting.

  10. Thank you for reminding us that we are allowed, even required, to care for ourselves on Yom Kippur. We are to do whatever we need to do to survive.

    Last night, the YK davening pushed me all but over the edge. All the davening about how I am supposedly so terribly ‘sinful’ was just too much – and not true. Hours on end of that particular ritual was crazy-making. I actually told HaShem that, if He wanted to kill me, to just have at it already and give my positive life force to someone more worthy.

    So, today, I am not going to open the Machzor. Enough! YK should not make me want to die.

      1. I am a yeshiva educated male from Monsey, NY. While blessed with an advanced yeshiva education that allows me to live a fully observant life, I know that some of our rituals can be poisonous when taken too seriously by those who should not.

        An older rebbe once told me not to study muser. Musar, he said, is for those who would not examine themselves without a formal course of musar study. Those who are introverted, who turn inwards daily, such as I do, are far too hard on ourselves and should not study musar at all, lest we self-destruct.

        Similarly, the YK ritual was intended for Jews who needed an intense retreat-like ritual to force them to examine themselves deeply. Those of us who deal with clinical depression examine ourselves too thoroughly on a daily basis, never letting up, and so we can go too far on YK.

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