Who Shall Live & Who Shall Die? Reflections on Mental Health for the High Holidays
By Lisa B. Ziv
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a time of reflection and hope. It is a time to think about how we have lived our lives this past year and opportunities to be better in the coming year. It is a chance to review and renew our relationships with G-d and with our family, friends and community. While every Jew observes the holiday in their own way, most of us spend time praying in synagogue.
This year will be different. Due to COVID-19, many will stay home out of caution so as not to endanger human life by catching or spreading the virus. Some will pray at home or join in High Holiday services online. Others will attend services in real time, wearing masks and social distancing. Most people understand pekuach nefesh, the Jewish core principle to save and preserve human life, comes first.
As much as we all want things to go back to “normal,” there is an otherness to this new year. The global pandemic has forced us to think carefully about where and how we will observe the Jewish holidays in 5781.
Being together in synagogue creates an opportunity to be inspired by the rabbi’s sermon, the shofar and other Jews praying their hearts out. Every Rosh Hashanah, I look forward to spending the day in my synagogue. I get inspired seeing the building transformed, with the Torahs dressed in white and the sanctuary walls pulled back to accommodate the large crowd, and reconnecting with those I see only during the High Holidays.
There are songs and prayers that are only said on the High Holidays. The most meaningful one for me is the Unesanu Tokef. The words and ancient melody evokes Hashem’s power and the fragility of life during these holy days “filled with awe and fright.”
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time… who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer…
Last year, as the chazzan began to chant the prayer, tears rolled down my face, blurring the words on the page in my prayer book. I really didn’t need to see the words – I felt them in my gut.
A few days before the start of Rosh Hashanah, I was feeling hopeful that counseling was helping my daughter with her depression. Her psychiatrist had assured me she had no safety concerns about Yael. Ironically, and I’m not exaggerating, less than a half hour after leaving that appointment, the principal of Yael’s Jewish day school called. She asked my husband and me to come see her. It was a Friday afternoon, just hours before Shabbat. So I knew it likely wasn’t good news. Yael had missed a lot of school due to her depression. There were days when she couldn’t get to school or would need to be picked up early.
The principal showed us a letter she had found that Yael had written. The letter started: “Dear Mom and Dad, I’ve been trying to tell you I want to die. Not like as a joke, but, like I actually want, I need, to kill myself.” Although she was in counseling for depression and anxiety, none of us – my husband, her counselors, her teachers, or I – had any idea she was in such deep pain.
Thank G-d Yael reached out. The letter was a cry for help that put us on a path to getting her a higher level of mental health treatment. With the guidance of our rabbi, our daughter’s care team and support from family and friends, we were fortunate to get her the intensive medical care she needed.
As you can imagine, my husband and I didn’t leave her alone for a moment after we found the letter. We traded off going to synagogue to pray for a few minutes. As I left the house to walk to services, I tucked the letter inside my siddur. I held it tightly as I prayed the Unesanu Tokef. I prayed with all my might, believing our child’s fate would be determined on that Rosh Hashanah. “On Rosh Hashanah, the year’s decree is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die…” I continued praying the Unesanu Tokef: Who will live in harmony? Who will be harried? Who will enjoy tranquility? Who will suffer?
I remember feeling so overwhelmed with fear for my daughter’s safety, I could barely breathe. Concentrating on the words – harmony, harried, tranquility, suffering – gave me little comfort in this time of crisis. Relief only came when I got home and checked in on her. I took a deep breath before opening her bedroom door and then thanked G-d she was still in this world. For a moment, I found tranquility in picturing my family sitting down to a meal of chicken soup with matzoh balls and brisket.
As a mother of a child with suicidal ideations, I know all too well the incredible heartbreak and havoc a mental health crisis brings. Seeing Yael struggle with acute depression, an invisible and life-threatening disease that left her too sick to go to school for months and caused all her friends to fade away, was devastating. Too often, Jewish families are left alone to suffer the private pain of emotional disease.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that suicide takes the lives of almost 44,000 Americans every year. It is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10–34 and the fourth leading cause of death for adult Americans. Ten percent of young adults say they experienced suicidal thoughts in the past year.?We do not have accurate mental health statistics for the Jewish community, but we know the prevalence of mental illnesses like depression and addiction mirrors that of the community at large. I think we can assume the same holds true for suicide.
I was horrified that my child thought taking her own life was the only path to healing. The thought of her possibly making this irreversible decision petrified me. Recognizing Rosh Hashanah as “the birthday of the world,” I fervently prayed my daughter would live to celebrate her next birthday and many more to come. And I prayed she would recover and have the quality of life all parents want for their children.
During the High Holiday season, we should pause to consider the age-old question of “who shall live and who shall die” with the incredibly scary and sad threat of losing a precious neshama (soul) before its predestined time. As we pray for healing, we need to bring awareness and support to families dealing with mental health and substance abuse. Our synagogues, our schools, our Jewish organizations and our community leaders need to do more. If you would like information about workshops and community initiatives, please visit lisaziv.com.
This Rosh Hashanah, I pray we all will stay safe and be more caring of the health and well-being of others. I hope we will think more deeply about helping those who struggle with mental health or substance abuse with the same chesed (kindness) we give to those facing physical health challenges in our community.
With G-d’s help, this year will bring refuah, simcha and bracha (healing, happiness and blessings) for our community, our people, and the world. My prayer for those struggling with mental health challenges is that Hashem hears their prayers and the prayers of all who care about them and grants them a year of good health and peace. May everyone be inscribed for a happy and healthy new year. Shanah Tovah.
Lisa Ziv has a passion for supporting parents as they navigate their children’s mental health challenges. She helps identify resources and build supportive communities by connecting families and increasing awareness in schools and communities. Her reflections on Jewish holidays, traditions and texts inspire families coping with uncertain times. Lisa serves on the board of the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issues of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond. For information about workshops and community initiatives, go to lisaziv.com.