Thursday, June 16, 2011

You Can Only Save Yourself

Sometimes you've got to hand it to the Jews; there is always something very comforting about wisdom from a Rabbi. If only our priests had such pastoral wisdom!

I found
this article today; the Rabbi was obviously inspired to write it based on the topic of suicide, but I think what it says about messiah complexes is very true in a broader sense, one all the more poignant perhaps for we Christians who do have a Messiah already (I do find it funny that this Rabbi calls the Messiah a "her").

I never knew there are so many people who are survivors of suicide or are close to someone who attempted suicide. If there is a blessing in my father’s tragedy it is this: I have become a vehicle for others to share their experiences and in turn, have the opportunity to disseminate all of their painfully accumulated wisdom to help others grappling with this issue and all things related to suffering.

Perhaps one of the most common experiences shared among these individuals, myself notwithstanding, is what I call “the mashiakh (messiah) complex.” When it comes to watching someone suffer, particularly a loved one, there is an inclination in many people to not only try to help, but that it is somehow up to us to save them. Although this feeling may originate from an altruistic place, it is not healthy, it is not helpful and it is not possible to do. Whether we are talking about a father who killed himself, a friend who is trying or an acquaintance who is depressed– we simply can not save them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is called to the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, slavery and degradation to the Promised Land. This famous story is usually portrayed as a battle between good and evil, light and darkness, and Moses and Pharaoh. And though it is certainly all of this, there are clearly other battles taking place simultaneously, battles which are less stark, and frankly, more relevant to our day to day lives than simply another tale between hero and villain.

The truth is that Moses is not Charlton Heston, assured, articulate and successful at the task at hand. He is reluctant to do the job yet finally steps up and does as God asks. Moses presents himself to the people, makes his claim, offers his leadership and God’s promise of salvation and is met with less than fan fare and a flock of followers.
And Moses spoke so to the people of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses because of their kotzer ruakh (anguished spirit), and because of the cruel slavery. (Shemot 6:7)
Most of the Israelites, though living in miserable persecution, had succumb to their reality as victims so often do. They were literally confined in an inner Mitzrayim (Mitzrayim, Egypt also means a kind of “suffocating constraint”), unable to see past their pathetic, now accepted plight in life. So, when the mighty Moses comes strolling in with a lofty message of hope, a vision of a better life and a plan to get them out of there, his words fall on deaf ears. Regardless of who he was and regardless of his credentials from on high– most of the Israelites weren’t budging.

Contrary to our popular understanding of this story, the sad reality is Moses didn’t leave with every man, woman and child in tow. The Midrash tells us that, in fact, most of the Israelites preferred to remain in Egypt rather than make the journey. And that is just what they did. Though some did overcome their anguished spirits and arrive in the Promised Land, most died in their inner and outer prisons in Egypt – this is not a fairy tale ending; this is real life.

Anyone who has experienced emotional mitzrayim: deep, dark, internal suffering; depression, addiction or the like, knows what it means to be kotzer ruakh “of anguished spirit.” Literally, this term means your spirit is chopped in half, cut off, you can’t breathe. The inner darkness and turmoil of kotzer ruakh, though possible to overcome, is a condition by which only those who are in it and who are suffering can choose to move beyond. After all, in the Exodus narrative, God doesn’t respond to the Israelites until they call out to Him. In other words, the journey out of Egypt can only begin when the victim chooses to leave. Parents, friends, sponsors, therapists, though not worthless, are not the defining factor in making the journey from slavery to redemption. This is always a journey, and only a journey which the neshama (the soul) of the individual needing to be redeemed must initiate and desire to make.

Over the past few months, not a day has gone by when I haven’t wondered, “what if?” What if I had moved to where my father was living outside of Detroit (where I was considering a job a mere six months ago)? What if, as a rabbi, I would have spent more time guiding and counseling my father? What if I would have, at the very least, seen the signs and intervened? Would he still be alive today?

And then I think about Moses, who with clarity of purpose and with authority from God still had absolute and utter dismal results. Moses couldn’t save the Israelites; I couldn’t save my father and you can’t save anyone either.

The “mashiakh complex” is a noble but misguided tendency in anyone who wants to help another human being. The beautiful side of it is that it calls upon us to do all that we can for another human being, particularly one who is suffering. Not enough people heed this call, reach out or are willing to move past themselves to help others. If only more people would, we wouldn’t need the Messiah – we’d have done her work and put her out of a job.

But as important as it is to intervene in another’s suffering, it is equally important to know when enough is enough. Too often, the shadow side of this desire to help sucks us in, pulls us down and deludes us into thinking we can be a source of salvation for another. At first we begin to think and obsess over the idea that if we work a little harder, sacrifice a little more, we can fix someone’s problem, end someone’s suffering, and save someone’s soul. And when we can’t save them from depression, addiction, suicide or the like, we begin to internalize it as somehow our fault.

As this week’s Torah portion reminds us, when another person is in a place of kotzer ruakh, anguished spirit, it is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to ease their pain and help them find their way out. We must step up, speak out and give completely of ourselves, our resources and our ruakh, our spirit. And yet, when all is said and done, we have accomplished nothing if, in the process, we have sacrificed our own ruakh, our own spirit trying to save theirs.

Ultimately the greatest gift we can ever give someone whose spirit is fragmented is to live as a complete spirit ourselves. Sometimes, all we can do is lead by example. At some point, we must embody the possibilities of redemption by living it and that may mean turning our back and just walking the path to the Promised Land. It just may be that those we leave behind will choose not to follow and languish in the suffocating depths of Mitzrayim, perhaps they will even choose to die– that is their choice. However, maybe, just maybe, when the time is right they will follow. Perhaps it won’t be right away but at least they will have our footsteps in the sand of life to follow. This is a painful gift in the moment, one that takes courage and an act of humility and faith, but in the end, when we have done all we can, in truth it is the only thing we can do.

You can’t save anyone else in this lifetime but you can save yourself and in the process you just might inspire others to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom,

Baruch HaLevi (Baruch ben Shimon z”l)
Sometimes, at the end of the day, all the Monicas of the world can do for the errant and obdurate Augustines is to fast and pray. After that, it's up to God. But that shouldn't make us fear; on the contrary, it should make us very confident indeed.


Who Am I said...

Now you understand my fixation ? :)

L'hayim !

Wait till you check out, they have some REALLY good stuff there even if some of it is kinda weird. :P

RebbeTeve said...

It's very true, you can't save anyone. Or at least you shouldn't expect to.

There are many New Testament passages for us Christians which support the approach the article ultimately gives: "shake the dust off your sandals," "if your brother sins confront him privately, with friends, and before the church and if he still won't repent, treat him as a tax collector or heathen," "Keep not company with fornicators," "What harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever"??

Sometimes people are like the cities Jesus said, "for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? thou shalt go down even unto hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee."

You can't give and give forever, some of these people are black holes of emotional expenditure and you need to just let go and let God.

A Sinner said...

I think you are right Rebbe, and sometimes we have to learn this the hard way.

One thing I'd also think that the Gospels show us is how it may be, frankly, more likely that we'll win over someone totally lost than someone "close" to the Kingdom. All-out Tax Collectors and Prostitutes have a way of coming around because, perhaps, they've hit rock bottom or because that's what a radical conversion is, it's a 360 change.

On the other hand, we could waste years and years on someone who seems to be 98% of the way there. We think them being "close" is a sign that they only need a little nudge, but in reality...if they're already that close, we can't really expect much: if they were going to take the leap, they'd have already taken it. As it is, standing at the edge is likely a sign that there's nothing we can do, that they're not coming around not for lack of any resources or knowledge but because they don't WANT to, and you can't force the human free will.