Getting Rid of Depression – HaRav Tzvi Yisrael Tau

Joy and valor are the foundation of serving G-d, and this was the way that HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook would always bless people, especially his students in times of war, that they be filled with, “joy and valor!”

Feelings of Depression and Despair are Forbidden

by HaRav Tzvi Yisrael Tau, Head of the Har HaMor Yeshiva

As the horrors of the Simchat Torah attack on Israel are revealed in their magnitude and gruesome detail, and as the war continues without any end in sight, many people are suffering very deep mourning and trauma. While a suffering heart is a part of the mourning process, depression and despair are great internal enemies weakening the spirit and stamina of the individual and the nation.

The difference between pain and depression (or obsessive sadness) is clarified in two of Rabbi Kook’s letters. Rabbi Tzvi Tau, head of the Har HaMor Yeshiva in Jerusalem and a longtime student of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, addressed this subject in classes with his students. Presented here is a very condensed and general summary of his words:

After visiting Rabbi Harlop who was sitting shiva for his mother in deep melancholy, Rabbi Kook wrote him a letter stating:

“I find myself obligated to make clear to my honored and beloved beacon of Torah, Shlita, just as pride and anger, and their offshoots are included in the evil and forbidden traits, as ‘the degenerate plant of a strange vine’ (Yermiahu, 2:21) which we are duty-bound to cleanse them from our beings to the upmost extent which we can…. So too with depression” (Letters of Rabbi Kook, Vol.2, pgs. 261-262).

Western literature is familiar with man’s neurotic disorders, and knows how to describe all of their components in precision and depth, but it lacks both the true knowledge of how to rectify them, and the belief that true healing is possible. In opposition to this, from the perspective of the world of Torah, from its source in G-d as man’s Creator, these faults are called “forbidden traits.” The Torah doesn’t see them as innate, natural disorders which cannot be modified and corrected, but rather as character traits (midot) which are under the control of man’s power of free will, affording him with the ability to cleanse and purify himself from them. This recognition forms the foundation of the trait of Watchfulness which appears at the beginning of “Mesillat Yesharim,” in the book’s exploration of the step-by-step ladder leading to Divine Inspiration. The belief in our capacity to recognize our ways and improve them for the good is the foundation of the Torah’s outlook on man. As Rabbi Kook writes in his letter:

“In truth it must be said that the observation of one’s actions and the scrutiny into their details, when they are examined by the Torah and its ethical values (musar) — is in itself of priceless worth. The very existence of such a scrutiny is on a higher plane than all of the conclusions derived thereof, because this is the pure spirit encompassing the holy essence of the living Torah, informing man of the path on which he is to stride. A person’s Torah way of life is to be constantly studied and reviewed, in contrast to the ways of the wicked, who walk in darkness and do not arrive at the understanding that a way of life must be chartered in order to establish a specific path of life that can rectify their ways” (Letters, pg.287).

“And it has already been firmly and resolutely established by the greatest Torah scholars, that anxiety and worry”— which come hand in hand with deep sadness and depression — “is included as one of the forbidden character-traits, ‘the nest of impurity’, standing on the same plane as anger and pride.”

Depression is the viper’s nest in which all of the evil traits are hatched and born. Every evil trait has a fitting place at the proper time and in the proper measure, as the Rambam wrote in Hilchot Deot 1:4, except for anger and arrogance from which a man must cleanse himself completely to the furthest extreme. In addition, there is no room at all for depression. It has no value and serves no productive purpose. Therefore, it must be totally removed from the faculties of our soul. All of the paths in the service of G-d and the fear of Heaven which are accompanied by deep melancholy and nervous anxiety, they are all impure and must be uprooted from our hearts. Rabbi Kook continues in his letter:       

“And I have already revealed several times to his Torah eminence (Rabbi Harlop) that the spiritual and physical weariness which brings anxiety into being is in itself a branch of melancholy, bringing confusion to man’s spirit and causing him to commit deeds against the will of his Creator, losing thereby the wealth of Torah which he has garnered and the pleasantness of life found in the holy service of Hashem.”

There is no permission to engage in melancholy, whether in private or public mourning. Even in the stages of tshuva, with all of its bitterness and pain, depression has no place.

Lingering melancholy stems from psychic and physical weariness, and it brings a person to defeatism and despair, heresy, deep depression, to a shortness of breath, and to mental and spiritual breakdown.

In contrast, a feeling of inner pain has a legitimate source when a person recognizes what perfection involves and when he longs to achieve it. When it stems from seeing clearly the certainty of Salvation and the absolute greatness of Hashem’s guiding hand in Israel’s Redemption and Revival, the inner suffering we experience when we are yet far from this goal is precisely what deepens our connection to the ideal, to exalted holiness, and to the awaited Salvation. The inner anguish shows just how much every barrier in achieving perfection in life causes us pain, and thereby serves to increase our yearning for Salvation, and charge us with greater courage and alacrity, with joy in our mission and renewed energy in our deeds.

Rabbi Kook states: “I wish only to add that timidity of heart – which accompanies melancholy – is also to be included in the negative character-traits, being a derivative of sadness and lassitude from whose venom we must be wary.”

Instead, we must strive to educate ourselves to strengthen the power of our will, fortifying it until it can overcome every obstacle and delay.

“We must gird ourselves with valor” – in all aspects of our personal lives, and even more so in situations involving the Jewish Nation as a whole.

Joy and valor are the foundation of serving G-d, and this was the way that HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook would always bless people, especially his students in times of war, that they be filled with, “joy and valor!”

Without valor, all of our talents, desires, and ambitions cannot be actualized in reality, because they will lack the strength to withstand the decadence, pettiness, and impure external forces that seek to rule in the world and to swallow up all that is good and holy.

In another letter, to Rabbi Moshe Seidel who expressed worry and impatience over the spiritual and material plight of the Jews in his day (ibid., II, p. 262), Rabbi Kook writes:

“I was a bit astonished at your nervousness and impatience, which is not fitting to such an earnest spirit such as yourself. These are not empty words that have been passed down from our fathers, the Sages of our heritage, who stated that ‘the joy in G-d shall be our strength'” – as the Rambam writes that a man must ‘be joyous in all of his days, living in tranquility and bearing a positive demeanor’ – “To be joyful with G-d is the very basis of our lives, it is its deepest eternal truth, illuminating all thought, and is the source and soul behind all ideas and philosophies, it is the starting-point of life and its final conclusion. The natural tendency to believe in G-d is a constant presence in the core of every soul, with the practical aspect of our lives giving it form and expression. Faith (emunah) is the source of all wisdom and talent; it is the foundation of our zest for life. Both of these basic forces of belief and of practice have been implanted in us, the Children of Israel, and have become the principal aspects of our lives, manifested in traditional Judaism by both ideas and by actions. Their ultimate expression is the commandments, which are so elevated, so cherished and full of holy content. Immersed in all of them together, we brim with the fluid of life, rejoicing in G-d as our strength and correcting thereby the neurosis of modern society, transforming these social ills into joyfulness of heart and the love of life” – with no need for therapy or the latest techniques of meditation.

Rabbi Kooks reminds us that Hashem has promised that the Israelite Nation will return to its true greatness and a life of bounty and joy in its full Redemption in our return to a life filled with Torah in our Land. The connection of each individual to this national destiny gives optimism and strength. He writes:

“‘For thy work shall be rewarded…and there is hope for thy future…’ (Yermiahu, 31). There shall be reward and hope for both the work of the Clal and the work of the prat, for the future of the nation and the future of the individual. They are so well integrated, so united together, so much is each one full of the shining light and joy of his partner, to the point where the upright of heart is not capable of distinguishing between the two. Therefore, what is the reason then for this nervous impatience?!” (Letters, Vol.2, 645, pg.262).

Hashem is with His nation. With valor and joy in Hashem in the knowledge that all of His workings are for our good, there is no need for worry, depression or despair. Hashem is with us in this war as well. With valor and joy we shall prevail over our enemies and sanctify Hashem’s Name and Honor throughout the world.

 

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