Over one tenth of the population in the US has been treated with anti-depressant medicine in the past month, studies show. Some people say that it is an epidemic, and yet depression is still little understood and treatment is challenging. The human brain and human emotions are very complex and often mysterious. Contemporary researchers and therapists have noted that depression and anxiety often occur together, yet the scientists readily admit that they do not know why. It is estimated that 85% of patients with depression also have anxiety disorder, says Dr. Leon Seltzer in his 5 part series on depression and anxiety in Psychology Today. (May 2010). In our parsha (Torah reading) this week, there is a very unusual statement we can attempt to understand with the background of these two psychological phenomenon, anxiety and depression.
In the beginning of the parsha, after G-d reassures Moshe that the Jewish people will be liberated, it says they could not hear Moshe “because of shortness of breath and the harshness of the work.” (Exodus 6:9) Let’s look at the events leading up to this moment to understand the challenge the Jewish people were facing. In last week’s parsha Moshe followed G-d’s directive at the burning bush and went to Egypt to demand that Pharaoh send the Jews out of Egypt. Not only did Pharaoh refuse, but he compounded the situation by increasing the difficulty of the Jews’ already crushing labor. The Jewish overseers accused Moshe of exacerbating the situation, and Moshe turned to G-d and asked Him why He sent Moshe when it only made things worse. It is at this point that G-d reassured Moshe that the Jewish people would be saved. He would punish Pharoh and force him to send the Jewish out to freedom. Moshe related this to the Jewish people, and you would have expected the Jewish people to be brimming with anticipation at their immanent salvation. However we are told “they could not hear Moshe because of shortness of breath and the harshness of the work.”'
Nachmanides in his commentary tells us that the Jewish peoples’ inability to hear the message their salvation was not because of a lack of faith. This was not a weakness of trust in the Almighty. He presents two elements to why they could not hear. A person whose life is in fear that they may be killed will be short of breath. He also says that a person whose being is confined by their burdensome work will feel like they do not want to live with their pain. Let’s take a closer look at the two points of this explanation. Shortness of breath is one of the symptoms of an anxiety attack, which is often diagnosed as anxiety disorder. One aspect of anxiety disorder can be that a person is fearful of things that are not really dangerous or dangers that do not really exist. This was the not the case for the Jewish people; the fear was very real. They may have had an anxiety attack, but in this case it was justified. We all experience anxiety at times in our lives, before a test, a job review, of if we do not know if the other person will say ‘yes’ to a proposal. However another aspect of anxiety disorder is when the anxiety prevents a person from functioning in their daily lives. And this is what happened to the Jewish people. The anxiety was so great that they could not even hear Moshe’s promise that G-d would save them.
The second element of Nachmanides’ explanation is that their very being was so constricted that they no longer wished to live. They no longer wished to live because their pain was so great. This loss of hope, and loss of will to live are two of the signs of depression. The person cannot see that their life will get better. Unfortunately many people who are depressed begin to have suicidal thoughts because they are unable to see a better future for themselves. Some take the next step of trying to act on those thoughts. Rabbenu Bachye, a student of Nahmanides presents a correlation between the two states. He says that a person who is afraid to die despises his life. The anxiety leads to depression which in turn leads to giving up or despair.
I have often heard people quote the high rate of depression, and anti-depressive drugs which are administered in the United States as a symptom of the fact that something is very wrong with the society. (12.5% of the population. See ‘The Number of People on Anti-depressants Has Skyrocketed’ by Drake Blair on the Thrive Global website) While that may be true, we must be very careful not to look at depression as a societal ill or a statistic. We need to be sensitive to the human element of this terrible state by recognize the symptoms of depression in those close to us, by realizing how debilitating it can be, and by offering support and sympathy to the person who is afflicted. Depression is a horrible state of mind and a terribly debilitating disease; and it is difficult for someone who has never experience it to truly understand how hopeless people who are depressed truly are, and how paralyzing it is. I have had the experience of trying to help people with depression, and there is a terrible feeling of helplessness because you just want to shake the person out of their despair, but nothing seems to move them.
G-d is very patient with the Jewish people, and does not ask anything of the Jews until 10 months later (each plague lasted a week with a 3 week break between them). Even then he did not demand much of them. At the Red Sea it says “G-d will fight for you and you can be still” (Exodus 14:14) Yet they still had to get up and go. It is said that the best thing you can do for a person who is depressed is to get them moving, get them to do something, or even get them to do something for someone else.
There are times in our lives when we feel hopeless and depressed, or we may even feel like the events of our life are suffocating us and we are anxious. We may lose all hope in the future and even our faith cannot get us out of our dark hole, like the Jewish people in Egypt who could not hear Moshe’s message of hope. In those moments we need to reach out to friends, family and community, and in many cases proper professional treatment is needed, which often involves medication and therapy. Yet whatever the severity of our state, we should take hope from the fate of the Jewish people in the darkness of Egypt to know that the Almighty is still there even in our moments of difficulty, and that circumstances will change and the light and redemption will come. Shabbat Shalom