Dear Dr. Respler:
Although I am only 40 years old, I feel as if I have discovered the ultimate emotional healing remedy. More than a great relationship, soothing music, superb entertainment or any otherworldly pleasure, I have come to the realization, after having tried so many ways to cope with melancholy and hopelessness, that our holy eternal Torah is the key to the comprehensive development of one’s psyche. This is especially so when dealing with a wounded soul. Despite being taught in yeshivos and in our girls’ high schools “Toras Hashem temimah, meshivas nefesh – studying our Torah revitalizes and rejuvenates our souls,” we often move on in life and place the pursuit of Torah study on our proverbial backburner.
Here’s my question: Do you or any other Orthodox therapist utilize this priceless advice when counseling your patients who are suffering or recovering from mental illness or who are just plain depressed? While here in the United States we have the greatest surplus of blessing that mankind has ever experienced, we are still witness to a staggering number of individuals who are suffering from depression – and even some who have resorted to suicide. In the Torah-observant community, however, we are, thank G-d, not as heavily affected by these and other social ills. The strong promotion by our families of a purposeful life that espouses giving, learning and teaching no doubt plays a pivotal role in keeping us emotionally healthier than the general population.
Wouldn’t it make a lot of sense, especially for male clients, to be encouraged by their therapists or psychiatrists to attend Torah lectures or to have regularly scheduled study partners as a means of repairing an emotionally damaged or wounded mind?
Having benefited from both psychotherapy and psychiatric medications, and as one who has seen many others heal as well, I have come to recognize that the healing procedures based on these scientific methods alone are somewhat incomplete and superficial, as they do not heal the soul but rather the physical body and spirit.
Jews are highly complex individuals who are never really happy unless our holy neshamos are fed the proper spiritual nutrients. Many complain of feeling empty inside or of having a certain longing and hunger that seems so unquenchable that it hurts terribly. If only more of our parents, friends and educators would illustrate to those of us who battle perpetual emotional pain that Hashem’s eternal gift to us is not only a tool in achieving the greatest mitzvah but that it also contains the healing properties that no other physical, medical or psychological medicine can deliver. I write this based on 20 years of experience battling clinical depression. If only I had adhered to my Torah instructors’ admonitions about the celestial powers of Torah study decades ago, I probably would have experienced fewer dark days and scary nights of severe melancholy.
Even Torah scholars are at times smitten with inexplicable sadness, but their ability to recover certainly includes having recaptured the joy that Torah learning afforded them. Yet they might have stopped experiencing it due to their chronic illness. Therapy and medication can help them learn Torah once again, ultimately providing them with the inner peace and sense of self- esteem that is deep in their souls.
Is Torah learning, or doing chesed and other mitzvos, part of the wise advice that you give your clients? Is that the usual practice for frum therapists? Torah learning’s healing effect on me is quite apparent and long lasting.
I’d appreciate your feedback, based on your experience, on this matter.
I was very inspired to receive your letter. Frum therapists walk a fine line on this issue. For instance, I receive mixed reviews when I suggest that people ask Daas Torah. Although I agree with you, not all people are on your madregah. Some clients may feel resentful when a therapist “directs” them instead of listening to their feelings. As a therapist I see my job as one of listening to the client’s pain and trying to guide them properly. If a person is happy with himself or herself, the individual has an easier time learning and doing chesed. It is also true that being productive can help people emerge from depression. Thus being productive emanates from learning and doing chesed.
For most people chesed should begin at home. Those who immerse themselves with outside chesed sometimes forget their own loved ones. I am often forced to remind people who become overly involved with outside chesed projects that the welfare of their families should be their priority. Someone who feels an inner sense of simchas hachaim has the yishuv ha’daas (clear mind) to learn with more enthusiasm. I believe that most frum therapists do not see their role as urging clients to learn and daven. I find that when my clients are happier in their shalom bayis, it helps them to learn and daven with more serenity.