For the week ending 9 August 2003 / 11 Av 5763


by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: J. S.

Dear Rabbi,

Whats G-ds "take" on depression and what's the Torah's "take" on it as well? Thanks.

Dear J. S.,

First, G-ds and the Torahs "take" are one and the same. In general, when speaking of depression we must distinguish between depression caused by a medical condition, and one caused by things that upset us. The Torahs attitude toward the first type is that just as physical pain, digestive disturbances, and respiratory problems are due to physiological changes that can be corrected by medication, so too biochemical changes which affect the brain and cause depression can and should be balanced by appropriate medication. One must therefore consult the experts to undergo psychotherapy and/or take any of the many highly effective medications they prescribe to relieve clinical depression. We once had an interesting question about this:

Someone who was taking anti-depressants asked since while depressed he used to pray with tears but now the medication makes it harder for him to feel the same connection to G-d, perhaps he should stop taking the medicine. Rabbeinu Yonah (Spain, 1200-1263) addressed this issue some 800 years ago: "Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly." While it is admirable that this person initially used his depression to feel close to G-d, clearly G-d prefers that he face the new challenge of finding spirituality as a healthy person.

Regarding the second type of depression, caused by things that upset us, G-ds "take" is that it is surely unacceptable. In the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Spain, 1075-1141) asserts, "It is not in accordance with the spirit of the Torah to worry and feel anguish throughout ones life; one who does so transgresses the Almightys commandment to be content with what he has been given, as it says you shall rejoice with every good thing which the Lord your G-d has given you (Deut. 26:11)." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (Germany, 1808-1888) cites a talmudic objection to depression: "Judaism never considered pain, sorrow, self-affliction or sadness to be valid goals. The opposite is true one should pursue happiness, bliss, cheer, joy, and delight. For the Shechina (Divine Presence) does not dwell in a place of sadness; it dwells only in a place where happiness reigns." The Zohar goes so far as to say that sadness has elements of idolatry since ones depression proclaims that he gives priority to his own desires over G-ds.

In truth, the Torah promises punishment for "not serving G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart" (Deut. 28:47). If we are accountable for sorrow, then it must be in our control. This is implicit in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav who said, "It is a great mitzvah to be perpetually happy, and to overcome and reject feelings of sorrow and melancholy." The question is how to do it?

One way is through external measures. King Saul, who was extremely righteous and actually attained prophecy, felt depressed when the spirit of G-d departed from him. Saul called David to play music to help restore his prophetic spirit and thereby dispel his sadness. "And it happened when the spirit of melancholy was upon Saul, David would play the harp and Saul would feel relieved" (I Samuel 16:23). While Saul was a spiritual giant and his sorrow was over nothing less than the lack of prophecy, even people on our level can use music to pick up our spirits. In fact, singing, dancing, exercise, engaging in the fine arts or any other healthy, uplifting activity are also good ways to get an emotional "jump-start".

As effective as these external methods may be, they often serve as a relief more than a cure. The most effective way to overcome depression, then, is to address the source of our sorrow by changing the way we think. The Baal Shem Tov noted that this idea is hinted to in the esoteric nature of the Hebrew language: rearranging the letters of the word for "thought" (machshava) results in the word "happiness" (bsimcha). Here are some examples:

A common source of unhappiness is unachieved goals. This can lead to low self esteem which may doom one to more failures, further erosion of self esteem, causing a downward spiral into the abyss of sorrow. One can prevent this vicious cycle by setting realistic goals from the outset. If sadness has already settled in, one can stop the snowball effect by setting short-term, easy goals that bolster ones confidence and in turn empower one to achieve longer-term, more significant goals. This will initiate an upward spiral to level ground.

Another source of sorrow is feeling that we dont have everything we want. On this our Sages taught, "Who is truly wealthy? One who is content with his portion." I recently met a successful investment banker who confessed that the more he succeeded the more he felt he lacked until finally he had everything and yet felt he had nothing. In contrast, a poor man once complained to the Maggid of Mezritch about his poverty. The Maggid sent him to Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli for advice. Rebbe Zusha, who himself suffered dire poverty and poor health, questioned in all sincerity, "I dont know why the Maggid sent you to me, Ive got everything I need".

Also, we often get depressed about bad things that happen. Contemplating the good in the bad helps mitigate ones melancholy. King Davids son Avshalom rebelled against him, forcing him to flee: "David ascended the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went" (II Samuel 15:30). Nevertheless, David concluded that its better the rebel be his son because another man would have killed him. In the end, not only did he not despair, he began to sing: "A psalm of David when he fled from Avshalom his son" (Psalms 3:1).

Finally, one must realize that everything is from G-d for the ultimate good. An observer unfamiliar with surgery would consider it a most terrible act. The surgeon however understands its for the patients good, sometimes saving his life. Ultimately there can always be a sudden turn-around. Abraham and Sara suffered being barren for a long time until suddenly, unexpectedly, they were blessed with a child who fathered the entire Jewish nation.


  • I am I, Rabbi Abraham Twerski M.D., p. 86
  • Simcha The Spark of Life, Rabbi A. A. Mandelbaum
  • Ask the Rabbi, "Should I Be Happy"
  • Rabbeinu Yonah, Berachot, Rif p. 30
  • Kuzari 3:11
  • Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Maagalei HaShana, section 2:98. Based on Shabbat 30b
  • Zohar, Parshat Yitro, 87a
  • Likutei Moharan, part 2, ch. 24
  • I Samuel 10:9-11; Abarbanel on I Samuel 16
  • Ethics of our Fathers, 4:1
  • Berachot 7b

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