If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help right away.
You can call or text 988 to connect with the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Support is also available via live chat. Call 911 for emergency services.
If you are a teen in our community who needs someone to talk to, or a parent concerned about a teen, reach out to any of our clergy members or Ariel Glueck, Director of Teen and Youth Programs, at email@example.com.
This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a book that, in the minds of many, is the most important theological tract of the twentieth century – of any faith tradition. The title of the book encapsulates the theology of dialogue for which Buber is most famous. In brief, a person can stand in relationship to another in one of two ways: I-It or I-Thou. In the German original: Ich-Sie or Ich-Du, Sie being the formal German second person pronoun, and du the pronoun reserved for an intimate. Most of our relationships are of the former, I-It, kind: transactional, guarded, and with limitations. We can, however, establish I-Thou bonds, those elemental relationships where we bring the fullness of our authentic selves into dialogue with another – be it a person, nature, or God – connections of openness, directness, mutuality, and presence. Buber contended that sanctity is found not just in the vertical, the relationship between heaven and earth, but in the horizontal – the living relationship between two people. There, too, if not especially there, God’s presence can be made manifest. Given the anniversary, I encourage you to put the book on your summer reading list, though I warn you it is not easy stuff. At the very least, you will impress your friends as you doze on the beach with a copy of I and Thou splayed on your chest.
This morning, it is not Buber’s book that I want to discuss, but the story of how he got to it. Buber was born in 1878, and by the nineteen-teens he was already a public figure of considerable renown. He had written on eastern mysticism, established himself as a formidable philosophical voice, assumed leadership positions in the nascent Zionist movement, and brought Hasidism to a public audience by way of popular translations such as the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And then, in the summer of 1914, he experienced a tragic and life-changing incident. A young man sought him out, as did many, for counsel. A kind man, Buber greeted the youth, entertained his questions, and ended the meeting cordially without incident. In the following weeks, Buber learned that the young man’s visit had been anything but casual. He had come to Buber in despair – in Buber’s words, “not for a chat, but for a decision.” Buber discovered that soon after their meeting, the young man had taken his own life – committed suicide. Buber was shaken to the core, chastising himself for not having seen the young man’s loneliness, for having failed to recognize the condition of the anxious soul before him. Buber underwent what he would later call a “conversion.” No longer was the religious experience to be defined by extraction, exaltation, and ecstasy. Buber understood that the greatest religious deed one can perform is to open oneself to another in true dialogue. A tragedy, a young person’s suicide, gave life to one of the greatest theological meditations of all time.
This month of May is National Mental Health Month. Mental health a subject which we would do well to speak about every month, and this morning, I want to focus specifically on youth. A recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that one in six youth in our country experience a mental health disorder each year, and less than half of them receive treatment. Recent data from the Center for Disease Control found that suicide rates among youth have increased by more than sixty percent between 2007 and 2018. Emergency room visits by adolescents for anxiety disorders and self-harm are rising sharply – numbers that are that much higher for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens; numbers that continue to climb for all youth since Covid. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately nine percent of high school students in grades 9 through 12 have attempted suicide, and up to twenty percent have thought about it. Sobering as the statistics are, the tragedy of a single teen harming themselves is the only data point that really matters. As a rabbi, I feel like no week, and sometimes, no day, goes by that I am not made aware of a teen in our community seeking care or being hospitalized. As a parent, a father to four young adults, it all cuts close to the bone: There, but for the grace of God, go I. That young person standing before Buber stands before us all today. No family, no school, no community – certainly not the Jewish community – is immune.
Whatever my pastoral training, I know my limits: I am not a sociologist or psychotherapist. But as I have sought advice from professionals to make sense of what we is going on, I have come to understand that we are living through a perfect storm of events giving rise to our present crisis in teen mental health. Anxiety and depression are not new, certainly not among teens. Nor, for that matter, is impulsivity; it is a normal part of adolescence. The brain is still developing, and young adults don’t always have the cognitive capacity to be future-oriented, to think about the long-term consequences of their choices. I am told that there are some medical trends that are being studied – a precipitous rise in ADHD, a decline in the age of puberty. Binge drinking and smoking may be down, but access to amphetamines and guns are up, and there is a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options. The inner working of the human mind is the final frontier; much as researchers may know, there is far more that we do not.
What we do know is that to be a young person today is much more complicated than it was when I was a teen. There once was a time when, if someone wanted to be mean to you, they would call you a nasty name or pass a note that hurt your feelings – a hurt to be sure, but a sting that could dissolve by the time you were on the playground. In our internet era, nastiness is not only instantaneous, but also public and permanent. A cruel photo or video, a text or comment about someone’s sexuality or body spreads beyond retrieval. The object of the cruelty becomes hostage to it, left to read it over and over again, obsessing. Mean kids are not new; it is the vehicles for disseminating meanness that are new and toxic.
And the harmful effects of the internet come in other forms as well. In a world where we post the vacations we take, the parties we attend, and the colleges to which we get accepted, those left out of that carefully curated life are left emotionally bereft. Over the last few months, high school seniors went through the grinding process of college admissions, a journey so unpleasant that it is the norm, not the exception, that a child needs psychosocial support to get through it. And while one might be dismissive saying that these are the champagne problems that come with privilege, try telling that to the parent of the kid who turns to drugs or self-harm, develops an eating disorder, or attempts suicide in the face of disappointment. It doesn’t matter how you see the world. What matters is how the world appears to that teen – a youth who, in the face of failure, shame, or heartache, not only cannot see a path forward, but also believes that they are the only ones ever to have felt this way. And now throw into the mix the cumulative effects of two years of Covid, with its isolation and delayed socialization, and you begin to understand what our teens face. Today’s Haftarah offers two competing psychological portraits. First, a tree planted by the water: rooted, resplendent, and well able to withstand the elements. Second, and our youth are akin to this second image: withered, unrooted, unable to see the good, and incapable of fending off the slings and arrows of our unforgiving world.
And it is at this moment, when that brittle and bruised youth stands at the crossroads of despair and decision, eyeing the option of doing harm to themselves or others, and concluding that leaving this world is better than staying in it, that we – as individuals and as a community – must be present. First and foremost, we need to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness. Hopefully this morning is a step in that direction. Last week, I sat with a couple in the community whose friends have no idea what their son is going through, and they will not tell, for fear of the cascade of social repercussions for their child and themselves. That is why, in our conversations, in our extension of hesed, our Bikur Holim efforts, in all that we do, we must reject any differentiation between physical and mental health. It is why, at Cantor Davis’s counsel, we now mention mental illness and addiction in our prayers for healing. It is why I am so deeply proud that our fabulous youth director, Ariel Glueck, is also an LMSW. It is why we are presently looking for a social worker to supplement our clergy on this front and others. It is why, if you are a teen or the parent of a teen in crisis listening to me right now, I want you to know that you can call me at any time of night or day, and my colleagues and I will be there for you. In word, in deed, in budget, and in staff, we will be a community that signals to all that Park Avenue Synagogue will embrace you in your imperfections. We are here for the saints and sinners, the losers and the winners – a place to bring your broken hallelujahs and sing them aloud with other lost souls. It is not in the mission statement of the synagogue, but maybe it should be. In a world of isolation, this synagogue offers community. In a world focused on the short term, this synagogue looks long. And in a world of judgment and cancellation – this synagogue offers forgiveness, grace, embrace, and refuge. No different than our Torah reading teaches, our community must be one where renewal and release are always within reach.
And lest you think the responsibility falls only on the shoulders of the synagogue and its clergy, you are wrong – it falls on all of us. Martin Buber, as noted, translated many Hasidic stories, some by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. My favorite and perhaps yours too, is “The Rooster Prince” a story I have told many times, but only now think I understand what it is all about.
There once was a royal prince, who fell ill, mentally ill, and was convinced he was a rooster. He sat under the royal table naked, picking at bones and crumbs. His father, the king, called on all the royal physicians to treat his son, with medicines, incantations, and miracle cures, but nothing they did made any difference.
One day a sage volunteered to cure the prince. “Where are your medicines?” asked the king. “I have my own ways, Your Majesty,” responded the sage. “Allow me seven days with the prince.” Reluctantly, the king agreed. He had no other hope.
When the sage was brought to the prince, he immediately undressed and sat under the table with him. “Who are you?” asked the prince, “And what are you doing here?”
The sage answered, “I am a rooster. And you, what are you doing here?”
“I am a rooster too,” said the prince, happy to have a friend. So they sat together for quite a while.
After a couple of days, the sage signaled the king’s servants to throw him two shirts. The sage put on his shirt, and before the prince could object, he said, “What makes you think that a rooster can’t wear a shirt?” So the prince put on a shirt. And so it was with the pants. “What makes you think that a rooster can’t wear pants?” The prince emulated the sage until they both were completely dressed.
Next the sage stopped eating the off the floor and ordered that a meal be brought to the table. He asked the prince, “What makes you think a rooster can’t sit at a table?” So, the prince sat at the table. This went on and on, until eventually the sage left the prince acting, well, positively princely. The king rejoiced at seeing the prince return to his former self. When, in time, the prince became a great king ruling over the entire realm, no one other than he knew that he was still a rooster.
Our youth are living through a mental health emergency, a systemic crisis whose remedy is as complex as it is elusive. Each one of us, nevertheless, plays a role. No matter what our station in life, all of us can think of a young adult, who, when the going gets rough – which it will – will need someone to whom they can turn for affirmation, counsel, forgiveness, and refuge. So, I ask you: Have you done everything in your power to make sure that when that young person arrives at your doorstep, they will know you are there for them, that you will embrace them warmly and that you will be fully present in an I-Thou relationship? When that time comes, are you prepared to get down on the floor and validate their struggles in hope of bringing them back to the table? The answer to that question is up to you. The stakes could not be higher; it could be a matter of life and death. Lest we forget, we are all just deeply imperfect birds of a feather trying our level best to get through this world. If we are to do so successfully, then we must do so together.