Physical maladies, psychological illness, financial difficulties — these are pervasive in contemporary society and seem to be becoming more prevalent. And so are books meant to help people navigate through these choppy emotional waters. Judaism has answers for these problems: not a single, monolithic answer, but responses as varied as the Jewish people themselves.
Here are some current answers:
The Sun Will Shine Again: Coping, Persevering, and Winning in Troubled Economic Times. Rabbi Abraham Twerski. (Shaar Press, $9.99)
Rabbi Twerski, a member of the clergy and of the medical profession as well, is today’s maggid, offering words of inspiration and rebuke on paper (and in his frequent public lectures) as the old-time Jewish preachers did in pre-Holocaust Europe, traveling from shtetl to shtetl, from pulpit to pulpit, exhorting his listeners never to give up hope.
In five words — the sun will shine again — Rabbi Twerski summarizes the message he delivers through stories of his own life, the experiences of Jewish sages and thoughts from Jewish tradition.
“The world is repeatedly cyclical,” he states at the start of his book, quoting a Talmudic aphorism; the dark night will yield, eventually, to the light of day; the economic recession that dominates contemporary headlines and concerns will eventually take its place as yesterday’s news.
Rabbi Twerski, while an optimist, is no Pollyanna. “It would be foolish to minimize the severe blows that many people have sustained,” he writes, discussing diminished self-image and self-confidence, and a decreased ability to give to tzedakah. “The financial meltdown struck us with the force of a tsunami. Could it be that this is a wake-up call, arousing us to re-evaluate our lifestyles?”
The question is posed rhetorically.
“This is certainly not a time to sermonize,” the rabbi reflects. And he doesn’t.
Instead, he offers suggestions — practical suggestions for readers who share his faith in a just God — to keep one’s head spiritually above water until economic conditions improve. Keep Shabbat. Keep praying. “If a friend has invited you to a wedding, by all means go and dance. It is amazing what a little bit of simchah [joy] can do.
“This is a time when everyone needs chizuk [moral support],” Rabbi Twerski writes. “Husbands and wives should be supportive of each other. Rebbeim [rabbis] in yeshivos and teachers in girls’ schools should discuss the present economic situation with students, make them aware of their parents’ predicament, and teach them how important it is to be supportive.
“The kids need lots of hugs,” he advises. “Sometimes children who have long slept in a darkened room may want a night-light again. When you leave the house, even to go shopping, they may be worried. Reassure them. ‘Mommy is just going to the store. I’ll be right back.’”
Above all, Rabbi Twerski writes, be open to learn the lessons from yissurim (suffering). “Yissurim are intended to prompt soul-searching, and we should welcome yissurim just as we would appreciate being told that we were traveling in the wrong direction, away from our destination instead of toward it.”
Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World. Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, with Erica Shapiro Taylor (Jewish Lights Publishing, $21.99)
Rabbi Spitz is an expert on his topic, depression. “I know about despair,” he writes at the beginning of his book. Then he proves it, tells how he dealt with it and how others can.
A pulpit rabbi for more than 20 years, he was suicidal earlier in his life. “I was committed as a patient at three mental hospitals to keep me from my suicidal yearnings,” he writes.
You feel the pain in his words.
He returns to the darkness that enveloped his life. The son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up as a sharer in his parents’ pain. “I was aware as a child that suffering is as much a part of life as the warmth and calm of my family home.”
His metaphor is childbirth; a new life comes about only through the mother’s pain on the delivery table.
Psychological pain, Rabbi Spitz writes, gives birth to a stronger person. “The pain of giving birth is distinct from suffering because we see the pain as necessary and natural part of bringing a new life into the world. Our own suffering can become a blessing, which leads us to Job.”
He analyzes, of course, the lessons learned from the Torah’s most tested man. “Job finds that he is not alone, that order and beauty are present amid the chaos in the world.”
For a while, his depression was his secret. “I did not share the depths of the darkness, the particulars of my story, with my congregants,” he writes. “Only gradually did I begin to reveal my secret past in the course of my counseling work.”
If Rabbi Spitz is as effective a counselor as he is a writer, the benefit is his patients’.
“Because I had tasted the bitter darkness, the ashes in my mouth” he writes, “I could return to that place to offer empathy, understanding, and hope to souls in pain. In my own life, my experiences of excruciating pain have allowed me to become more compassionate and humble. My memory of great loneliness has allowed me to become more present for others.
“When I counsel, as when I write these words,” he writes, “I bring my own firsthand knowledge of despair along with the collective memory of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Spitz buttresses his own recollections with interviews he conducted with his siblings and psychiatrist.
As valuable as his self-reflections are the “Tools for Gratitude” he adds to many chapters, The morning Modeh Ani prayer. Psalms. “A Love Letter to Your Family.”
“When we become mired in anger and fear,” he writes, “we lose our capacity to understand the blessing of despair. And yet with time and willingness … we can reach a place from which we forgive ourselves, we heal from our wounds, and we find that the world is good.”
Coping With Adversity: Judaism’s Response to Illness and Other Life Struggles. Dr. Joel Roffman and Rabbi Gordon Fuller (Brown Books Publishing Group, $16)
Dr. Roffman and Rabbi Fuller do together what Abraham Twerski — a doctor and rabbi — does individually. They bring the perspective of a member of the medical profession, clinical, and a member of the clergy, theological, to a wide range of physical and physiological problems.
But, like others who attempt this Rofeh-Rav (doctor-rabbi) marriage, they don’t do it as well as Rabbi Twerski.
Rabbi Twerski — scion of a prominent chasidic family, psychiatrist with decades of experience dealing with substance abusers, prolific author — is the acknowledged master in the Jewish community, with a prominent reputation in the outside literary and medical world, of the transcendent applied to the temporal, bringing to his writings the insights gleaned from his work in the religious and secular communities.
He and the authors of “Coping With Adversity” join a growing movement that combines the empirical with the spiritual, two approaches to help and self-help that once ran along parallel lines that never intersected. Any attempt to bring one practitioner’s worldview to the other’s is automatically beneficial. And interesting.
But the authors of “Coping With Adversity,” obviously concerned and caring men, lack the rabbi’s command of the illustrative anecdote and his way with words. Which is faint criticism. Anyone attempting this genre is overshadowed.
“The intent of this book is not to try to convert anyone to Judaism or its way of thinking,” Roffman and Fuller write in their introduction. “Rather, we simply strive to show, from a cardiologist’s experience and a rabbi’s perspective, how this religion’s ancient teachings and wisdom can help all of us cope with hardships.
“The lessons of Judaism apply to virtually any of life’s crises that befall us,” they write. “The multitude of blessings force observant Jews to call attention to things we would otherwise take for granted.”
They deal with disabilities and dysfunction, mortality and grief. They cite stories from their work, and offer advice from their hearts. They point to Maimonides, Judaism’s lauded scholar-physician, and the totality of Jewish tradition, as examples of a philosophy that accepts — actually venerates — the application of human knowledge to humans’ existential maladies.
“In Judaism, the longer we are of healthy mind and body, the more of God’s work we are able to do,” they write. “Caring for our bodies — our gift — is an essential step in doing His work.”
Miracle Ride: A True Story of Illness, Faith, Humor – and Triumph. Tzipa Caton (Shaar Press, $22.99)
“The first thing that went through my mind was that I must’ve had a brick in my neck.”
With similar words begin many first-person books about encounters with illness. An unexplained pain, a frightening diagnosis, months of treatment and side effects.
In the case of Caton, a 16-year-old student at a New York-area day school when she entered this new world five years ago, the diagnosis was cancer. Caton decided to keep a journal of her feelings and experiences, which grew into a book.
In an era of tell-all I-beat-the-monster memoirs, of idealistic depictions of faith overcoming life-and-death challenges, Caton’s words stand out. She writes both as a teen, with the argot and concerns of her peers, and as an adult, a kid who grew up fast in a year.
Her book is neither maudlin nor preachy, neither fatalistic nor Pollyana-ish and never too graphic.
Mostly, Caton is honest, about herself, her own foibles and insecurities, and about others, her friends and health care professionals who usually passed the test of competence but often didn’t.
Mostly, Caton has an attitude, pitting herself in a staring contest against death, and winning. Sometimes sweet, sometimes street-smart, always funny, she exudes a savant-like level of confidence that typically earns praise in the self-assertive secular community and condemnation in the modesty-first Orthodox circles.
Mostly, as evidenced in her words, it was Caton’s life and she really didn’t care what anyone else thought. Which is how a seriously ill person becomes well.
In school and around her neighborhood, Caton was the object of great acts of chesed (kindness and sensitivity were common), and examples of unthinking, uncaring behavior (while infrequent, some were doozies).
Her no-holds-barred style, a change from the knee-jerk, hagiographic, laudatory type of writing that characteristically infuses books by and for the religious community, makes her experiences more poignant, more credible.
Most people, of course, meant well, but many didn’t know what to say or do around someone with a potentially terminal illness. On the night Caton told her friends she had cancer, “I spent most of the night comforting them and promising I wasn’t going to die and I was so busy comforting them, I didn’t have time to think about comforting myself,” she writes.
“Miracle Ride” has a happy ending. Next month will mark Caton’s fifth year off chemotherapy. She’s married, with a young son. She got engaged on her 17th birthday. “Seventeen sounds really young,” she writes, “but there’s no such thing as a young person after cancer.”
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