Sunday, July 17, 2011


Being Sad

by Reb Gutman Locks @ Mystical Paths

Steinsaltz at Rutgers Hillel

     Last week, a ‘charedi (“ultra-orthodox”) man and his wife visited Jerusalem from Brooklyn. He had seen my videos and read Coming Back to Earth, and he wanted to meet with me. We met on Shabbos afternoon, and he told me that he has a nice family, lots of kids, a good wife, everyone is healthy (thank G-d), and that he is very successful in business. “But,” he went on, he is not really happy. “Life doesn’t seem to be doing anything.”

   His wife jumped in and said, “He doesn’t enjoy learning. Show him how to enjoy learning.”

     “It’s a huge mistake not to be happy,” I told him.

     “My entire community is depressed,” he said.

     I have heard this many times. It seems that there is rampant depression in many religious communities.

    This problem is very difficult to solve, not because the depression itself is hard to heal (believe me it is not), but because these religious Jews usually assume that they are only reacting naturally to the “burden” of religious life. They deny that anything is wrong, and they assume that they are the way they are because of the weight that they have to sustain.

     The “yoke of Torah” does not increase our burden; it lightens the load that life imposes upon us. The Zohar tells us, “Just as did G-d put Adam (man) in the Garden of Eden then, so does He put man in the Garden today, when he busies himself with Torah andmitzvahs.”[i]

     When we rely on G-d’s kindness, and we understand that all that is happening to us is His doing, then we return to the Garden. We live in the actual Garden of Eden that the Torah tells us about. When we live in the Garden, life is pleasant. We even find our livelihood lying on the ground right in front of us, just as we did in the wilderness when we left Egyptian slavery.

     Anyone, at any time, can ask himself, “What’s wrong?” and he (or she) will be able to compile a huge list of things that are truly wrong. If instead, this same person asks, “What’s right?” he could compile a huge list of things that are truly right. We get to choose whichever world we want to focus on, and that is the world we live in.

     If only we would listen to what the Torah tells us, we would not be sad. “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments….” The mitzvahs we do make us holy, exactly as the blessing says. This is an actual holiness that G-d instills within us when we do something holy. This holiness has been created for us to experience and enjoy-- right here in this world! It elevates us so that we can perceive His holiness.[ii]

     When you live with only a mundane perspective, you will always try to accumulate more. This will be your objective. Accumulating possessions does not satisfy a person, for long. Possessions require care, protection, and maintenance. Very soon, the initial joy leaves, and you have to search for another possession to give you that joy.

     When you spend more and more time doing holy things, and are aware of their holy nature, you will acquire a spiritual, or holy, perspective. When this is your daily perspective, your major drive will be to give. The mindset of one who strives to give is the exact opposite of one whose objective is to take. Giving makes you feel good, and that feeling lasts even beyond your memory. This is one reason why a holy life is so joyful.

     But, if you believe that the Torah and mitzvahs are burdensome, then you have refused His holy mantle, and instead you have created a weight that will certainly pull you down.

     Whenever you say a blessing and then go on to do that mitzvah, try to see how G-d is making you holy with that mitzvah. What is happening when you do it? The more holiness that we recognize in this world, the more we will grow spiritually now. Then our capacity to perceive His presence both in this world and in the World to Come will be greater. Our portions in this world and in that World are determined by our deeds in this world. As you see, Torah and mitzvahs are a joyful and precious opportunity… not a burden.

[i] Zohar 27a

[ii] “… you shall be holy because I am holy.” Leviticus 11:44


  1. im a baal tshuvah who was greatly shuned by the religious its intresting to see the shoe on the other foot . my test is like rabbi akiva josef and jesus though they hit me hard do I return it against them or forgive them ?

  2. akiva, that first post is really weird, can you delete?

    reb gutman, this is a very important topic. it merits a more substantial discussion of how to alleviate the 'sadness' in religious communities.

  3. A few thoughts. First, I think chronic sleep-deprivation may be common in some frum communities, which may contribute to sadness and depression. Chazal warned against sleeping too much, but in that time, there was little risk of sleeping too little, since candles were expensive and electric lighting non-existant. Now, many people stay up late, whether learning or on the Internet or whatever, and get up early for davening. Not getting enough sleep makes it harder to feel happy. Getting enough sleep makes it easy -- try it and you'll be surprised how you start feeling happy for no apparent reason.

    Second, do people in the community often say brachot and daven with little or no kavanah, just going through the motions, and do not hitbodedut (personal prayer in one's own words)? If so, how are they connecting to Hashem? Everyone has trouble concentrating during the prescribed prayers, so we need to pray often in our own words for help, so that we can make our prayers more meaningful. These prayers can make us feel joyful, and when we daven and say brachot with intent, this bring joy and peace as well.

    Even small bits of simple meditation can bring one to joy and help concentration in davening and brachot. Spend a full minute or two before davening with your eyes closed, breathing in and out. On the in breath, try to feel love and yearning for Hashem, and on the out breath, feel His love descend on you like a clear warm light. As Rabbi Locks often tells people to do at his tefillin booth, bless your loved ones by imagining holy light descending on them (also see R' Locks' book on meditation). Really do one of these two things for even less than a minute and it will give you a peaceful and happy feeling, and do it throughout the day and it will affect the whole day.

    Finally, Rebbe Nachman and his modern followers have lots of good advice for how to combat depression and stay happy ("it is a great mitzvah always to be happy.") R' Arush has been focusing on promoting, not only hitbodedut, but especially gratitude, counseling everyone to spend at least 20 minutes a day thanking Hashem for everything, even things that seem bad (see his book Garden of Gratittude). If you sincerely feel thanks to Hashem daily, this will bring happiness and combat sadness very effectively. Psychological studies have shown this very consistently (see the psychology book the How of Happiness).


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