Reflection on Unetaneh Tokef
It seems appropriate that as the festival of Sukkot approaches that I would welcome a guest post to my blog. Sukkot is a time in which we are encouraged to welcome ushpizin, guests, into our home and our sukkahs.
I’d like to welcome my first guest blogger, my dear friend Gabrielle Kaufman. Gabrielle is therapist in private practice in Los Angeles with an expertise in postpartum depression. She runs programs for new moms in both the Jewish community and in the greater Los Angeles community. She is a mom, a sister, daughter, and a very good friend. She has a beautiful way with words. And she offers all of us something to think about as we seal the book of Life and transition to our Sukkot festival.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…
I sit across from Rachel (not her real name). She has been my client since a few months after the birth of her child, 4 years ago. Rachel is an observant Jew. She has tears in her eyes today, the day after Rosh Hashanah. Her guilt at having driven to synagogue this holiday eats at her. But so does her crippling depression. Rachel has never fully recovered from her postpartum depression. Sure, she has come to find meaning in her life as a mother, but her isolation, marital struggles, low self-esteem and anxiety continue to limit her greatly. Over the years, I have seen Rachel in moments of great pain, plagued by suicidal thoughts. In a few short years, she has suffered the loss of her mother, a home robbery, health setbacks and financial ruin. She has agonized at having to care for babies when she was lost and lonely. Yet, I have also seen her beam in triumph as she has successfully fought her demons and found joy in her young children. She has been in therapy, on medication, attends a parenting class. In truth, as her therapist, I feel at times that helping her is beyond my reach. I share my concerns with her psychiatrist who recognizes the fragility of our shared client’s mental stability. And right now, Rachel utters something that shakes me to the core again.
“I know that you probably don’t want to hear this. But yesterday, in shul, I heard the unetaneh tokef prayer and thought, ‘it’s okay, God, if this is the year I don’t survive. It is okay if I die.’” She was right, I didn’t want to hear it but I did. Quietly, I hold space as Rachel talks of her struggles and sadness. In my own mind, I wonder what to do with her passively ‘suicidal’ thought. I don’t have the answers. As I witness the sadness, without criticism, she begins to move to a new topic. Though I was relieved, I knew I had to address her comment.
Then, with 3 minutes left of our 50-minute session, something comes to me. There are many ways to look at death. Having seen Rachel’s pain over the past years, I do not envy her life. I can understand not wanting to continue this existence of pain. It makes sense that she is ready to give up. “Perhaps, your thought is not to actually die, but to have the depression in your life die. Perhaps, you want to start a new life, a life where you are not in the depths of despair (a fate worse than death). Perhaps you are finally ready to be part of the lot that God chooses to fully live.” Her posture lifts and her facial muscles change. “I like that,” she says quietly.
Now our hard work begins.