“Silence Into Song”: My Yom Kippur 2018 sermon

One of the most wonderful things about popular music is when someone creates a cover version of a famous song that reinterprets and breathes new life into the original work. A striking example is the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sounds of Silence”. Like many famous songs, it’s been covered by a wide range of musicians over the years, but perhaps never as poignantly as a couple of years ago, by a hard rock group known as Disturbed. What makes this version so powerful is how it transforms over the course of the song’s five verses; the first verse is sung like a lullaby, with only the soft sounds of a piano in the background. The second verse is sung slightly louder, with a guitar added to the instrumental mix. With each successive verse, more instruments are added, while the vocals become louder and louder; the lyrics sound increasingly urgent, with the singer’s voice reaching full tilt by the song’s climactic moment.

It’s a remarkable version of the song, and it was made with an important point in mind. David Draiman, the lead singer of Disturbed, said in a Loudwire.com interview that, to him, the song is “talking about someone who is enveloped in the darkness, who welcomes it, who feels like he is a bit of an outcast in a world full of chaos, who feels like someone who’s an introvert in a world full of extroverts, who feels like someone who’s bearing witness to things that they can’t come to terms with and who’s trying to express words that fall on fears and unfortunately wisdom that doesn’t end up getting developed.”

Draiman’s interpretation of “The Sounds of Silence” reminds us of one of our society’s most urgent challenges: our struggle to understand and reach out to those who suffer in silence. One estimate tells us that 38 million American adults struggle with depression; another estimate tells us that as many as one out of every two people deal with it at some point in their lives. And since it is a condition that is mainly hidden from the public eye, it’s challenging to know how to address it properly. After all, many people who deal with depression are able to contribute positively to society, often without anyone else knowing about that inner struggle.

I can speak to this because, as a few of you already know, I’ve struggled with depression in my life. I first realized it during my so-called “gap year”; I intended to spend the year after graduating college taking standardized tests, and applying to rabbinical school, while simply working a bit to pay the bills. Instead, I wound up taking two part-time jobs — one as a teacher at a local Jewish Day School in the mornings, and one as a B’nai Mitzvah tutor at a large suburban synagogue in the afternoons. Before I knew it, I was working 12 to 14 hours per day, neglecting to eat, spending much of my spare time commuting to and from work, worrying constantly about whether I would get into rabbinical school, seeing little of my friends and barely talking to my family. I thought I could handle it, but before I knew it, as I was entering full-fledged adulthood, I was taking no pleasure in things I usually enjoyed. One night, I was even sitting at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, and I still felt miserable. The Cubs were even winning the game, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to admit that I needed help, because I worried that I wouldn’t be accepted in the professional world, or by my friends, for that matter.

In a sense, this story has a happy ending, but in another sense, it doesn’t have an ending. What I mean is, in the short term, I finally got the care I needed in order to get myself to rabbinical school and to pursue both personal and professional dreams. I’ve been able to function in society and, hopefully, contribute positively. But the long-term reality is that a struggle like this is lifelong. Psychology professor Jonathan Rottenberg writes that there is no “magic pill” to cure depression; it can only be contained. Rather, the approach that I and so many others must take is to recognize the symptoms and to treat ourselves, and others, with kindness.

Why I am sharing this with you today? I don’t do so to ask for pity, nor to make excuses for mistakes I’ve made. Instead, I do so for four reasons in particular.

First of all, because any struggle with depression cannot be endured alone. In addition to professional help, it requires a group of understanding friends and family to listen and to be present at someone’s most challenging moments. Containing depression requires a community effort. And whether you’ve realized it or not, there have been numerous occasions over this past decade when many of you, through your kindness and concern, have given me hope and support during challenging times, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Second, it’s because I know I am not alone. Depression is only becoming more common, not less common. Professor Rottenberg writes, “Depression is worse in humans than in other mammals not because our species has more flaws but because of our unique strengths. Advanced language enables wallowing; our ability to set ambitious long-term goals sets up new opportunities for failure; our elaborate culture presents expectations for happiness that cannot possibly be fulfilled.” I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone here knows someone personally who struggles with depression. It’s up to us to stay aware.

Third, our society continues to embrace cruelty. Common discourse often descends into discord. Vigorous debate often is drowned by personal insults. It seems sometimes that it takes extra effort to be compassionate. Our challenge is to be better than our ever-lowering standards of politeness and decency, especially when so many are quietly suffering.

And last but not least, I share this because of the themes of this day, Yom Kippur, when we engage in self-examination and account for the decisions we make. We know that apologizing for our misdeeds is important, but we also must realize that the sooner we can truly forgive ourselves, the better able we will be to forgive others.

This idea is in the background of our Torah reading from today. We read in the beginning of Leviticus Chapter 16 that the commands for Yom Kippur sacrifices are given just after Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed for bringing a strange fire to the altar that God had not commanded. Aaron’s immediate response to the death of his sons is striking: the text simply says, Vayidome Aharon, Aaron was silent.

What does Aaron’s silence mean? Could it be that he is callous, uninterested in mourning for his sons? We would hope not, and some classical commentators argue the opposite, that Aaron’s silence is praiseworthy, since it shows his acceptance of God’s will. That may be, but it still rings a bit hollow. Instead, I’d like to quote a passage from Orchot Tzadikim, a 15th-century book of Jewish ethics. It says, in part:

“There are times when silence is good, as when divine justice strikes against a man, as in the case of Aaron. … If a person hears people reviling him, he should be silent. … And if one is sitting among the wise he should be silent and listen to their words, for when he is silent, he hears what he does not know, but when he speaks he does not add anything to his knowledge. However, if he is doubtful as to the meaning of the words of the wise he should ask them, for to be silent in such a case is very bad: Ecclesiastes said: ‘A time to keep silence, and a time to speak’.”

I understand this passage to teach us something meaningful about how to understand when silence is helpful, and when we must break our silence. There are times when we are so stunned, saddened, or befuddled, that the only response can be silence. That’s how I understand Aaron’s initial reaction to his sons’ deaths. Sometimes words cannot do justice to our feelings, and when we are feeling despondent, silence is understandable. But we also know that, for the sake of those who suffer from depression and those who care about someone who does — which is all of us — silence cannot be permanent. We must find ways to turn silence into song. For Aaron, this happens shortly after his initial silence, when Moses commands him to do a ritual; this time, Aaron speaks up and objects firmly, and Moses drops his command, satisfied with Aaron’s response. After all, Aaron recognizes what Orchot Tzadikim does, that when we don’t understand something, we can and must speak out.

So too with all of us. For those who suffer with depression, we must allow ourselves moments of silence, times when we must be fully aware of our feelings, times when we must insist that even those who love us give us the space to do so. But once we have done that, we must reach out and speak up, and seek ways to find a better life. If you are suffering like this, take it from me: there is hope, there are people who will give you the time to be silent, and, later, the time to hear you when you are ready to speak. After our silence, we must trust others to allow us to turn silence into song.

And for those who watch the suffering of the silent, know that there are moments when the quiet is necessary, and other moments when those who are depressed need to hear from you, without judgment or blame, and to allow them to sing their song to you.

As we turn in just a moment to Yizkor, let us take the story of Aaron as inspiration. We remember our dearly departed with love. Sometimes, we do so silently. But other times, like the Yizkor service, we say some words aloud to contemplate and work through the pain of their absence. Let us respect the silence that some of us need at this time. Let us embrace those who respond aloud. Let us always find ways to enable ourselves, and others, to transform silence into song.