The recent suicides of two prominent people have shaken many of us as we realize that material wealth does not buy happiness and contentment. We are reminded that so many people endure intense personal struggle with few, if any, knowing of their inner pain.
Studies show that some 34,000 people take their own lives each year, more than those who die by car accidents. And two surprising revelations: The highest suicide rates are among people aged 45 to 64, and teenagers are the least likely to take their own lives.
What does Judaism say about suicide? The Talmud states that “for him who takes his own life with full knowledge of his action no rites are to be observed…there is to be no rending of clothes and no eulogy.” Suicide is viewed as a “sin” against God as we regard life as a gift that is to be cherished and preserved.
But our tradition sets forth a category of suicide that is especially relevant to our times. Jewish law speaks of an individual being an annus, meaning “a person under compulsion.” Such a person is regarded as not responsible for his actions, and all burial and mourning rites are to be observed for him. This is the person who is in intense pain, either emotional or physical, and who is regarded as “compromised” in their full knowledge. That is to say that our tradition is sensitive to those who endure intense suffering and who take their lives because life is too painful to live. As such, they are not regarded as responsible for their actions and are to be accorded the same honor and respect granted the average Jew who has met a natural death.
Clearly, we have a major problem in our society. So many people who live secret lives of agony, and who see no other way out of that pain. They most often feel isolated and ashamed to speak of their inner struggle.
To the people of my congregation I can only say that there is always hope, and that my door is always open to you. Do not suffer in silence or in isolation. And for all of us, let us be more sensitive to those whom we know to be in pain. And kinder and more understanding in general, remembering that we do not know what others may be feeling or struggling through. Judaism has always affirmed that “to take one life is to destroy an entire world, while to save one life is to save an entire world.”
Yes, life, with its pains and challenges is a sacred gift. May we cherish that gift and never feel that we have no place to turn. Let our hearts be open to those unfortunate people who live in constant pain, and may we provide comfort, hope and help to each of them.