Just a few weeks ago, Jews around the globe read the painful cries of Moses in Chapter 11 of Numbers. “Please end my life,” he begs in verse 15, “so that I may not have to endure this terrible destiny any longer.”
Just a few weeks from now, many synagogues will read a similar plea from Elijah in 1 Kings, Chapter 19. “Please take my life now,” he cries in verse 4, “for am I no better than my ancestors.”
Moses and Elijah are just two of several Biblical personalities who resonate strongly with those of us in the suicide awareness/prevention movement. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that there are nearly 1 million suicide attempts in the United States every year.
Eight years ago, while in the midst of a horrible bout of depression, I was almost part of that statistic. In the months that followed that moment of desperation, I learned just how valuable and necessary communities are to the emotional healing process.
In 2009, I was invited to attend World Suicide Prevention Day at the United Nations. Inspired by all the great suicide awareness/prevention work being done in the elderly, ethnic, college-age, LGBT and immigrant communities, the group I was working with felt that an organized response dedicated to the nuances of the Jewish community was needed as well. In the aforementioned story from 1 Kings, God responds to Elijah's emotional struggles by suggesting that he go on a 40-day journey and then reassess the situation. It seemed only fitting to name our project Elijah's Journey.
While many are sympathetic to the cause, few are aware of how shocking the national statistics on suicide actually are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that there are nearly 40,000 confirmed suicides annually in America. The unreported estimate is likely closer to 50,000. In short, not only do reported suicides outnumber homicides by a ratio of 2:1 (with the unreported suicide estimate outnumbering homicides by a ratio of nearly 3:1), but suicide is also one of the few causes of death where the numbers are rising.
Depression and suicide affect many in the Jewish community — all ages, all ranges of observance, all levels of financial status, all levels of leadership and all permutations of relationship status. Many people have shared their stories with Elijah's Journey over the last five years but many are still not comfortable talking about their struggles with even their closest friends or family.
The Gemara (Shabbat 133b) notes that just as God is gracious and merciful, so should we be gracious and merciful. Just as God allowed for a space where Elijah could openly cry out in his time of emotional turmoil and thus be comforted, so should we make our own spaces as welcoming as possible for our sisters and brothers who seek comfort in their own moments of emotional turmoil.
The suicide awareness/prevention community owes a huge debt to the city of Philadelphia and the entire Delaware Valley region. Your city served as the backdrop for Silver Linings Playbook, a novel and film that meant more to us than you ever could have imagined. Former Phillies pitcher and current member of the team’s broadcast crew, Jamie Moyer, and his wife Karen, are founding members of The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Former Eagles stand-outs Brian Dawkins and Troy Vincent have helped normalize depression for so many of us by talking publicly about the issue, as has New Jersey's favorite son, Bruce Springsteen. And representing the fine state of Delaware, Vice President Joe Biden brought so many of us to tears in 2012 when he spoke both openly and personally about his own emotional scars and past suicidal thoughts.
The story of Elijah's Journey is rarely read in the synagogue. In fact, after this summer most communities around the world will not have an opportunity to read it again as part of a formal Sabbath service until 2035. (The Haftorah of Elijah's Journey is read infrequently because of a quirk in the Jewish calendar. It is the assigned Haftorah for Parshat Pinchas but Pinchas usually falls in the three weeks leading up to the 9th of Av, so a seasonal Haftorah usually displaces it. The only time Parshat Pinchas comes prior to the three weeks are in Hebrew calendar leap years that began the prior fall on a Thursday. Recent cases of these are 1981, 1984, 2005, 2008, 2011 and the current year of 2014).
May we all live to see a world where the voices of Elijah in all of us can be answered with the graciousness and mercy that they often so desperately need. This is my dream for the Philadelphia of 2035, for the Jewish community of 2035 and for the world of 2035. Together, we can make it a reality.
Efrem Epstein is the founder of Elijah's Journey (ElijahsJourney.net), a nonprofit focused on suicide awareness and prevention in the Jewish community. He will be speaking at Minyan Tikvah in Center City on June 28 as part of Philadelphia’s inaugural Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk for suicide awareness. For more information, go to: minyantikvah.org .