Suicide affects the Jewish community, and JF&CS is dedicated to supporting those who live with this unique loss. As Passover approaches, Rabbi Suzanne Offit, who cofacilitates the Suicide Loss Survivor Support Group, offered her reflections on the weekly Torah portion of Vayikra and the importance of sacred connection.
Thank you for opening your hearts to this very difficult topic of suicide. Whether you have been touched personally by suicide or moved by all you are reading and hearing, thank you for listening to me with possibility for compassion, for change and for healing.
I have come to you as a disruptor; I want to disrupt your ideas about suicide. My goal is to transform the way Jewish communities respond to suicide. I am here to help you think differently about suicide and promote healing as a responsibility of all of us.
I am going to connect three dots for you today—the plague of darkness, the parashah (Torah portion) of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26), and suicide.
Soon, we will sit at the Passover seder and we will recite the ninth plague. Let’s start there today.
The penultimate plague: the plague of darkness. This darkness is not night—no light of stars nor even a crescent moon, no ability for our eyes to grow accustomed to the lack of light. This is a plague of darkness that rabbis, both ancient and contemporary, understand to be two kinds of darkness: one, a physical darkness so dense that our senses of seeing, hearing, touching are inactivated or incapable of functioning; and two, an existential darkness that separates us from each other, isolates us, renders us incapable of even knowing that another person is right next to us.
Stigma is an idea so deep within us that we don’t know where it came from. Stigma controls our actions and thoughts using secrecy, shame and fear. Stigma tells us that we are wrong or unworthy.
This idea of impermeable darkness can help us think about depression and mental health. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy light or only occasional darkness must understand those who live in the darkness and we must care for them, find a way to offer them a moment of light, a moment of ease.
Many suicides, not all, are by those who struggle with mental health issues.
Mental health issues, like other illnesses, can be assessed on a spectrum of mild, severe, aggressive, episodic, in remission. Services for prevention and intervention are the front lines for helping people in their moments of crisis with the hope and support that the crisis will pass without harm.
The extreme cases of extreme darkness—these are people with a treatment-resistant disease. Some people are cared for with deep love and brilliant doctors, but like with other illnesses—like some cancers, for example—the body cannot respond. There is no opportunity for healing for these extreme cases of darkness. Some people who die by suicide do have a treatment-resistant disease, a fatal illness.
The work I do and want to describe is postvention.
Postvention is built, ultimately, on compassion and relationship—to dispel another plague of darkness.
This plague is the darkness of stigma. Stigma is an idea so deep within us that we don’t know where it came from. Stigma controls our actions and thoughts using secrecy, shame and fear. Stigma tells us that we are wrong or unworthy.
In my work in postvention, I care for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. I work with suicide loss survivors to help them talk and feel and someday heal from their unique and tragic loss.
Robert lost his older brother to suicide. Robert’s younger sister was ashamed of the suicide, and was determined to keep this secret. She was unable to share grief with friends, and she worked so hard to hide the cause of death and lived in fear of conversations about her lost brother, that she, too, became isolated and incapacitated. Robert sought our help. He learned to share more comfortably his grief with friends and co-workers. Robert is on a path to healing. Stigma is so impermeable for some, like the sister, that all the energy of grieving is used for hiding with nothing left for healing.
Sometimes stigma reroutes the grief of loss and acceptance to rage and blame, and again, no room for healing.
Sometimes stigma reroutes the grief to guilt or denial—with no room for healing.
When that suffering is shared with extended family, friends, community, it is exposed to the light of day, and that suffering may be alleviated as it is shared. Yes, of course, there are deep and abiding scars, but light that breaks the stigma helps make healing truly possible.
In Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we learn of the responsibilities of the Kohen Gadol, Aaron, the High Priest, as he navigates his relationship with G-d. The Kohanim are the leaders in bringing the Sacred to the people and the people to the Sacred.
At first glance, your eyes may glaze over at the details provided for Aaron in the preparations for the offerings to G-d. Yet, we are bearing witness to the building blocks of a trusting relationship. This is what we need from each other to be in sacred connection. I need you and you need me. This is what I want to expect from you and this is what you can expect from me. For gratitude, to relieve guilt, for meals—for growing and maintaining a relationship. G-d calls out to Moshe to tell Aaron the choreography of a sacred relationship.
There is a call. There is a response.
Simply put, as you may know, the word for an offering to G-d is korban. The root of that word is KRV—to draw near. G-d is commanding us to draw near. This sacred relationship is the drawing near to each other. Those closest to us get our most sacred offerings—our hopes, our fears, our most fragile vulnerabilities.
Without this relationship, without any relationship, we are in total darkness, unable to move or feel, or even think clearly. And what can break through darkness of stigma?
Light, love, listening. That is how we break the darkness of stigma.
I met Julia when she was preparing to bury her husband, who died by suicide, leaving her alone with her college-age son. I listened deeply to Julia. She grew to understand that I was safe and caring. And, that although she was sad and angry, feeling so deceived and denied, Julia also discovered that there is still compassion and understanding in this world. Julia could share what she was experiencing—even as it changed day to day and hour to hour.
Over the months of the first year, with the light of love of her parents and friends, Julia began to accept that word, that word suicide. With the help of therapists, she could share honestly with her son and get him the therapy that he, too, needed to heal. Julia is healing. Her son is healing. Yes, they will always carry painful scars and unanswerable questions, but Julia and her son are living fully. They let others come near and they drew near to others.
This is the lesson of Vayikra, that G-d called out to Moshe in sacred relationship. We must call out to one another, and we must listen to those calls—some are not so clear, but they deserve our attention and compassion just the same.
Rabbi Suzanne Offit, a Board-Certified Chaplain, co-leads the nonsectarian Suicide Loss Survivor Support Group at the JF&CS Betty Ann Greenbaum Miller Center for Jewish Healing, in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies. She delivered a version of this Dvar Torah at the event “Let’s Talk About It: Suicide in the Jewish Community” in Chicago, where she was Scholar in Residence, in March 2023.