“Breaking the Silence.” Why we must speak our truths, no matter how hard they may seem.
Rabbi Michal Loving
Most people in this room, I’m guessing, have heard a shofar before.
What are the words that come to mind when you hear a shofar?
We started blowing the shofar every weekday morning since this past Sunday, September 4th, otherwise known as the 1st of the Hebrew month of Elul. This is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah.
We blow it loudly, triumphantly, as a reminder that the New Year is on its way. The shofar is a reminder, a call, to be introspective. To take stock of the year that was, to reflect upon it, what we did and what we thought and how we acted, and how we treated other people. And it’s the time to ask ourselves how we can change for the better. To ask for forgiveness from others.
That, at the least, is one perspective, the most common perspective, the one usually talked about by rabbis in sermons all over the country. Tonight, I would like to offer a different view.
The shofar, to me, is a way of breaking us out of complacency. It literally, breaks our silence about issues that are important to us, but about which we never speak. Those issues that are swept under the rug. The ones that we don’t want to address in public. The ones that I’m going to talk about right now…at least some of them.
September is National Suicide Awareness Month. Tomorrow, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. The World Health Organization estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide every day. 800,000. And up to 25 times as many make a suicide attempt. The ripple effect of these numbers is monumental. More people than we can even imagine are affected, are bereaved, have been close to someone who has attempted to end his or her life.
Yet we don’t talk about it. At rabbinical school, in fact, we are taught ways to talk around the issue at a funeral. There’s a belief that there exists a shame, a stigma, if a father or mother or son or daughter has committed suicide. It’s as if because of it, the loss has less value, because the person chose to go. But that’s not true.
If someone chooses to take their own life, it is because they felt they had no other choice. There is no shame. For them, or their family, or their friends. There is only loss. And grief, and sorrow, often combined with anger and hurt. The only shame is when friends choose not to give comfort, or to stay away because we don’t know what to say.
But if we do speak up, if we do address this issue with our friends and family, we make it clear that no conversation is off-limits. We open a dialogue that, if we’re speaking to someone on the verge of attempting suicide, may lead to that person getting help, and averting a possible tragedy. And if we’re speaking to survivors after someone has died, we’re showing them that they’re not alone. That they don’t have to deal with their emotions alone. That they too have help.
Another subject that’s hard to address with other people is mental illness. People will gladly share with their neighbor that they take insulin, or that they swallow a daily pill to keep their cholesterol in check. But what about anti-anxiety medication? Or pills for depression, or for bipolar disorder? How many people are willing to share those details of their lives? Sometimes we don’t even want to take the medication, because we feel weak, we feel that we should be able to handle life ourselves, that we’re not strong, or we’re not capable, if we need extra help.
But that’s not true either. If we’re at a place in our lives where we function better, we process better, through medication, then it doesn’t matter if it’s insulin or Ativan, we need it in order to live our lives more productively, to find our joy. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States, 43.8 million people, experience mental illness in a given year. And only 41% of them received mental health services last year.
Now, math is not my forte, but 59% of 43.8 million people not receiving help, for reasons of money, for reasons of stigma, for whatever reason – that’s way too many people who are going without help. So what do we do? We can’t change the medical system on our own, but we can be compassionate, and not judge people based on what they need in order to survive. And we need to make that clear. Let’s stop talking about Ativan and Xanax and Trazadone in hush-hush tones, because it’s not a secret. When we treat it as such, we send a very clear, wrong, message that it’s not okay to be accepting help.
Something else we never address in polite company? Drug and alcohol addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a government-run organization, considers addiction to be a disease. It used to be believed that someone who is addicted simply lacked moral fiber, or principles, or willpower, and could stop their drug or alcohol use if they chose to, if they really wanted to stop. But we know better now. Quitting takes more than good intentions, because drug and alcohol use physically changes the brain, makes quitting hard to impossible, even if the person is willing.
But if someone we know, someone we love, is addicted, we don’t want others to know about it. We keep it quiet, telling only those we trust most, because like suicide, like mental illness, we attach shame, and guilt, and a plethora of negative emotions that bring us spiraling down the rabbit hole until we, ourselves are struggling. Only when we are able to break the silence will we be able to experience relief.
After the First Temple had been destroyed, and the people of Jerusalem were exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the truah of the shofar; I have heard the battle cry.”
This month of Elul, let the truah of the shofar be our battle cry. Let it enable us to speak about our pain, our agony. Suicide. Mental illness. Drug and alcohol addiction. Let us no longer keep silent about these and other individual pains that we experience, because for whatever reasons we choose not to share, silence keeps us stuck and alone and filled with shame.
It is my prayer that the blast of the shofar awaken us, and help us to recognize that if we are suffering, we need to bring these issues, our pain, into the open, so that we can begin the path toward healing, so we can love ourselves and those who are experiencing pain with us. Let the truah of the shofar this month break the silence of our hearts, and of our lips, so that truly, we may find support and peace.
 International Association for Suicide Prevention. https://www.iasp.info/wspd/
 Jeremiah 4:19