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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

In just a few nights, Jews around the world will welcome Eliyahu (Elijah) to their respective Seder tables. For many of us, it’s often one of the most moving parts of the evening. Eliyahu is often associated with protection and redemption, two themes that are paramount and ubiquitous throughout the chag.

However, in Melachim Aleph, Chapter 19, we see another side of Eliyahu—a side to which many of us can relate. Distraught and disillusioned, Eliyahu struggles with personal feelings of worthlessness. In verse four, he calls out to God, “Rav atah Hashem, kach nafshi ki lo tov anochi meavotai. / Hashem I’ve had enough, take my life because I am no better than my ancestors.”

Eliyahu’s cry is neither unique to the Tanach nor to modern society. In B’midbar 11:15, Moshe pleads “Hargeni na harog, im matzati chen beinecha, val ereh braati. / Please take my life, if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I will not see any more of my bad fate.” Likewise, in Yonah Chapter four, the book’s namesake asks God to take his life, not once but twice (verses 3 and 8)!

Unfortunately, the descendants of Moshe, Eliyahu, and Yonah are struggling every bit as much as their ancestors. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that there are more than 1 million domestic suicide attempts each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that there are nearly 37,000 confirmed suicides annually in America (the unreported estimate is likely closer to 50,000). To put that in context, not only do reported suicides outnumber annual motor vehicle deaths, but they also outnumber homicides by a ratio of 2:1 (with the unreported suicide estimate outnumbering homicides by a ratio of nearly 3:1)! It is clear that we still have a lot of work in our quest to improve the world for Klal Yisrael V’Kol Yoshvei Tevel.

On Seder night, many have taken on the custom, initially attributed to Rabbi Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz, of having Kos Eliyahu (Elijah’s Cup) filled by passing it around the table. The contribution of each participant at the seder in filling the cup appropriately symbolizes that Geulah—Redemption—will come through our own communal, collective efforts.

To that end, we can start this year by welcoming Eliyahu to our seder. Yes, most of us already do open the door for Eliyahu and fill his cup, but how many of us take time to welcome the Eliyahu of Melachim Alef, Chapter 19? The Eliyahu who is alone. The Eliyahu who is emotionally scarred. The Eliyahu who is in such distress that he wishes his life to end that instant.

Depression and suicide are not fun topics; it’s understandable that one might wish to avoid thinking, let alone discussing them, on what should be one of the most festive nights of the year. At the same time, one major theme of the seder is welcoming those less fortunate to join us at our table. In the middle of Maggid, we read the four verses of Devarim 26, which begin with “Arami oved avi.” While the Haggadah cuts off that section after verse 8, the Chumash carries on that theme through verse 11: “V’samachta b’chal hatov asher natan l’cha Adoshem Elokecha ulveitecha, atah v’halevi v’hager asher b’kirbecha. / And you shall be happy with all that Hashem gave to you and your household, you and the Levi and the stranger in your midst.”

As we open the door for Eliyahu this Seder Night, let us pledge to open the door to all in our communities who are struggling emotionally. We may not be able to determine who they are, but they are certainly there. They might be sitting right next to you in shul. They may even be struggling silently at your own seder table. If we want to bring Geulah, we must channel Rabbi Naftali and open that door to all of the Eliyahus in our midst.

This Seder Night let us be happy, but let us also take on the obligation to make others happy. Some may need a smile, some may need a word of encouragement, and some may just need to know that you are listening. Together, we can fill up Kos Eliyahu, both literally and symbolically, and take one step closer to Geulah. Chag Sameach!

Efrem Epstein is founder of Elijah’s Journey, which is a Jewish response to the issues of suicide awareness and prevention. Dena Croog Cohen is founder of Refa’enu, which is dedicated to increasing awareness in the Jewish community about depression and related disorders and their management. Both are non-profit organizations.

by Efrem Epstein (Elijah’s Journey, Founder) and Dena Croog Cohen (Refa’enu, Founder)