A wish for the Jewish new year: to talk more about suicide

With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, coming up, I recall attending new year services a few years ago when I was a Harvard grad student. There I was, in Harvard’s historic Memorial Church, trying to follow the prayer book’s English translations because, honestly, I forgot all my Hebrew right after my bar mitzvah.

Suddenly, we heard a small popping sound in Harvard Yard. Then, police ran inside the church. Needless to say, there were gasps. What on earth was going on? I saw a police officer talking with the rabbi who was conducting the services. The rabbi took a deep breath, then told us to remain calm. Everything’s okay, she said. We were safe. There was nothing to worry about. She said nothing else about the sudden tumult, and went on with her prepared sermon on the value of personal introspection and discovering what’s really important in the world around us–in other words, a pretty typical Jewish new year talk.

It wasn’t until the service ended, and we ambled out into a bright September sun, when we found out what happened. A man with a gun killed himself, right in Harvard yard, just a few feet from our services. I was stunned. Then, I was angry. Why didn’t the rabbi tell us what happened? I could understand the need for calm–and the police’s need to do their work without a crowd looking on. But to not even acknowledge that a man just took his life, right outside the church? As part of the service, we say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. At the very least, the rabbi could have said something right there about this man. But no. This struck me as so hypocritical. Here she was, imploring us to find “what’s really important.” But apparently, a man who just took his life didn’t qualify as important.

I thought about this as I read this excellent article in Tablet Magazine yesterday, dealing with the difficulty many Jews still have around the topic of suicide. It is especially timely now, during what we in the Jewish community know as the Days of Awe–the days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (our day of atonement.) According to Jewish tradition, it is during these days when God decides who will be inscribed in the book of life for another year–and who will not. Unetaneh Tokef, a poem read during Yom Kippur services, tells us that God also decides how people will die: Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by drowning? As the Tablet article pointedly brings out, Who by suicide? is not even mentioned in this list.

It’s time to end the silence. And it’s time to stop pretending that suicide doesn’t occur in “nice Jewish families.” My faith was shaken after that suicide in Harvard Yard. But it wasn’t broken. I am hopeful that there will be a time when more rabbis will talk about suicide–especially when it happens just a few feet away from them.

Happy New Year to all those celebrating.

Read the Tablet Magazine article here.



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