Sunday, 6 March 2011

Why are we so sad?

The following sermon was delivered three years ago on Parashat Vayakhel. Even though it is slightly dated the message still applies. Here goes:

Tuesday there was a Report published by the University of Hull about the benefits of the widespread use of anti depressants, and according to this report;

“The new generation of anti depressants has little clinical effect on the majority of depressed patients”- However for those people who suffer severe depression, the report says that these drugs still have a benefit.

It wasn’t actually the findings of the report which drew my eye- But I will come back to that later. What I want to mention are the shocking statistics published from 2006, and that is over 31 million prescriptions were written out by Doctors in the UK for anti depressants.


O.K you might say that many of them were repeat prescriptions. Yet according to reports, as many as one in five members of the population at any time are suffering from depression. These figures are overwhelming. Let me reframe what that means: If I were to say that 20% of the population were suffering a disease; that would be called an epidemic because that is really what it is. Because you cannot necessarily see the physical effects of the disease doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It’s here lurking under the surface.

The fact is that we are living at a time of unprecedented prosperity – despite the gloom and doom from some of our economic forecasters. However, never in history has there been so much affluence and freedom to do what we really want.

Nevertheless; look at the figures from the past twenty years alone...suicide , depression, drug and alcohol addictions have seen a 300% increase, and we have witnessed the collapse of the family.

We have everything – at least more than we have had in the past, but it has not brought happiness.

So what can be done about this problem? If anti depressants don’t really work- what are the alternatives?

David Cameron suggests that we should begin a campaign to see how we can improve society’s sense of well being. He calls this GWB- General Well Being as opposed to GDP- gross domestic product.

In response Philip Hadon- A fellow of the British Association for counseling and psychotherapy said a rather thought provoking statement: A happiness agenda is a laudable aim, but one that is meaningless; happiness is not something you can buy from Tesco.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson in reaction to the report says that 3600 new therapists are to be trained in the next three years.

It has also been suggested that we look at other countries and how they deal with the problem of depression. A model is Holland for example who have invented ecotherapy- where patients are transferred to more rural environments where they get a change of scene, and apparently this has had a curative effect on those suffering from depression.

The bottom line is that the doling out of anti depressants by our doctors to “cure” the effects of a general feeling of unhappiness and depression is not working. More has to be done to alleviate the problem. Depression is not only chemical but there are deeper issues at stake here.

What has Judaism to say about all this? Is there anything that Judaism can contribute to this debate?

I have a Ladies Shiur which meets in my office every Monday afternoon at 2 o clock.

Any lady is welcome to come and participate. At present, we are learning together the Laws of Tefillah in the Rambam - Maimonides. Previously we learned about Hilchot Deot, the laws that speak about our own personalities and defects and also how to look after our own health.

However the Rambam doesn’t just speak about physical health but he also speaks about what he calls the health of the “soul”-mental health. In other words, the Rambam, one of our greatest Rabbis and thinkers and physicians who lived over 850 years ago, recognized that there was such an illness as depression.

What does he recommend as a way to move out of depression?

Listen to what he says

How can we help those people who are suffering from sickness of the soul?

“They should go to experts who are soul healers and they will heal them through delving into their own personality traits and teach them until they turn back to the good and upright path.”

Remember this was written over 850 years before Freud or any of the modern day psychoanalysts came on the scene, yet he suggests that the way forward is to go to a therapist and speak over whatever is troubling the mind and the expert “Rofeh Nefashos”- the soul healer will help you get out of the situation.

There is much more to mental health than just popping pills.

Let me quote the Talmud in Berachot;

“The Shechina, the Divine Presence cannot find rest in the midst of sadness, depression or worry, only through joy of a mitzvah”.

This dictum is inferring that G-d desires that man be in a state of constant joy and happiness in his service to God, and if that is lacking then the Shechina- The Divine presence is affected by that void.

The Psalmist declares;

“Serve the Lord with gladness. Enter His presence with singing.”

In Devarim - Ki tavo the Children of Israel are warned about serving G-d properly and the Tochechah - the curses that come about if we collectively turn our backs on Hashem. Says the Torah;

“These exhortations will occur because you did not serve the Lord Your G-d with joy and good heartedness and an abundance of all.”

The verse is saying that sometimes you can have a physical and material abundance but with that must come contentment.

Focus on the well known words of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:

“Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his portion.”

Notice the stress placed here on wealth and happiness. True wealth can only come about when one is happy and content with ones lot in life. The Mishnah also speaks about the human psyche.

“A person who owns 100 zuzim wants 200.”

It’s human nature that people want more. But it doesn’t buy the happiness. Our Sages, our prophets knew this from day one. The mindless pursuit of material possession will not buy the happiness.

Happiness is a state of mind. It is not about how good or bad your lot is in life, it is about how we deal with what Hashem has given to us.

I’ll conclude with the inspirational Chassidic story of Reb Zusha of Annapoli. A Chassid once came to Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch and asked. “How can I deal with my poverty and suffering?”

The Maggid told him; “go to Reb Zusha and he will teach you about suffering.”

So he travels to Reb Zusha, sees he is living in great deprivation and poverty, and asks him; “How do you deal with your great suffering in life?”

Reb Zusha answers; “Suffering?! I never suffered a day in my life.”

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