Weekly Sermon




Did You Ever Feel Like You Can’t Go On?

Did you ever feel like you wanted to die—like you had enough of this world and just can’t go on? Unfortunately, more and more people are feeling that way—especially in our world with the profound stresses of Covid. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in America. Every day, approximately 125 Americans die by suicide and over a million attempt suicide every year. But for every person that wants to die, how many just can’t do it? Would it surprise you to learn that one of our greatest prophets felt that way?

Before we answer that, let me ask you something else. In the Bible, there were only 2 people who didn’t die. The 1st was Enoch. He was the great, great…grandson of Adam—a righteous man who lived in an increasingly immoral world. So, the Torah (5:24) tells us, in order to spare him those temptations after 365 years and keep his soul pure: “Enoch walked with Gd; then he was no more for Gd had taken him.” It was unfortunate that after only 365 years on this earth he died prematurely!

The other was the prophet Elijah we read about in the Haftorah for parshat Pinchas. Elijah, the Bible (II Kings 2:11) tells us, ascended to heaven alive in a chariot of fire. That this should happen to Elijah is truly ironic—because at one point in his life he wanted so desperately to die. Elijah had run away from the wrath of the idolatrous Queen Jezebel who had vowed to kill him. On Mt. Carmel, Elijah embarrassed her and her false priests of Baal, with a grand challenge. 2 alters were built. The priests of Baal brought a sacrifice on their altar, prayed to Baal to take it, but nothing happened. While a fire descended from heaven and consumed the sacrifice of Elijah. When the people saw this, the Bible tells us (I Kings 18:39): “They fell on their faces saying, ‘Hashem hu haElokim (Hashem, He is the Gd)!’” With this, Elijah had succeeded in bringing the people back to Hashem—but only for a brief while. Meanwhile embarrassed Jezebel was filled with rage—determined to take revenge.

In the Haftorah we find Elijah running for his life to the wilderness of Beer-Sheba disappointed—convinced of the failure of his mission to bring back the Jewish people to Gd. As he tells Gd (I Kings 19:10): “I have been very zealous for Hashem, the Gd of hosts; for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant…and slain Your prophets with the sword, so that I alone am left; and they seek to take away my life.”

Elijah, hiding under a rotem bush, was in a dark mood. He felt defeated, abandoned, and cornered. We can sympathize with his soul-wrenching plea to Gd (19:4): “It is enough! Now, Hashem, now Kach nafshi take away my life.” Elijah had had it. Life had crushed him. He felt couldn’t go on thinking, “Now Gd, just one last favor please for Your prophet, Kach nafshi (Take away my life)! Have you ever felt that way?

Yes, this is the same Elijah who, the Bible tells us, never died. Yes, he had begged for death, but somehow he came back from the abyss of despair to live a life that was never to taste the sting of death.

There’s a powerful message here to all of us when we feel like Elijah felt, when we find ourselves so overwhelmed by sorrow, heartbreak or disappointment that we’re tempted to utter the ultimate heresy: “I can’t go on!” But Elijah’s life responds: “O yes, you can!” You see, when we pray out of the depths: Kach nafshi (Take away my life), Elijah’s triumph over surrender commands us: “Take your own life and use it!”

I speak about this today because I’m still upset and moved from a funeral I officiated at on Thursday—a funeral I knew was coming. I won’t tell you the deceased secular name because some of you may have known her. Instead, I’ll use her Jewish name—Shulamit.

         I knew Shulamit for 26 years. She died at age 54. She had a tragic life from the beginning. Her parents separated when she was a baby, and she was raised by her grandparents till her mother took her back when she remarried. But she was never made to feel at home.

         One could say from this and what followed, that her life was a tragedy. But she would have none of that. Despite the heavy burdens of her life, her human spirit always shined forth radiantly—ever hoping for a brighter tomorrow. She was vibrant, effervescent, a flaming red head—a beautiful woman whose smile lit up the world. Despite her challenges, she was positive and loving.

         Her challenges somehow gave her—even at an early age —a strong desire to help others with their challenges. This continued throughout her life. But with all the light she brought into the world, her life was never easy. On the day after her 25th birthday, she was hit by a drunk driver—suffering horrendous injuries and almost died. Her physical therapist said she would never walk again. So, Shulamit got a new physical therapist—and not only did she walk again, she danced!

         Her hand was injured in the accident, so she learned to write with her other hand—and went on to earn 2 master’s degrees. She worked at CDC for many years as an expert on tobacco 2nd-hand smoke. She lectured all over and appeared on CNN.

         She was always happy, upbeat, enjoyed life, was outgoing, kind and friendly to everyone. She had a strong spiritual side. She not only loved Jewish life, but practiced it.

         She had one bad relationship after another and I was with her through many of them. Then 15 years ago she went to Ireland with her fiancé to get married—a destination wedding. Here was her chance for happiness. But it was not to be. On her honeymoon in Ireland she fell into a swampy bog, was bit by a tick and contracted Lyme disease.

         When she came back to Atlanta, she slowly started to get ill. She went for help but was misdiagnosed for 5 years with everything from Rheumatoid Arthritis to Lupus to ALS. You see, Lyme disease is not recognized by the CDC and the State of Georgia. It’s as if it never existed! Without a proper diagnosis and treatment, she became sicker and sicker.

         She pushed through, but eventually went in and out of institutions. I visited her often and I can tell you that she did not have a good experience in any of them—sometimes mistreated and even abused.

         After a somewhat successful Lyme treatment from a Lyme specialist in Tennessee, she remarried 3 years ago. But soon, she got worse again and recently, like Elijah, she had enough! It’s not that she wanted to die. It’s that she wanted to have a life! In the end, she had trouble speaking, couldn’t walk, or even hold the phone. That’s the life she didn’t want. Nevertheless, she held on till Gd mercifully took her.

I don’t know why she had such a difficult life—a life where so many things went so wrong. But I do know that because she continued to push through and always tried to make life better for others, she is an inspiration and will continue to inspire so many not to give in to despair—to find the beauty in life despite its challenges.

         In Hebrew the word shachor means “black.” With the slightest change of vowels, those same letters spell shachar, which means “dawn.” Shachor (black) and shachar (dawn), the blackness of night and the light of the dawn are 2 sides of the same coin. Gd sends each of our souls unique challenges so our souls in the process may have the opportunity for a tikkun (a correction) and learn the lessons they were put in this world to learn. And as we face these challenges the shachor (the blackness, the darkness) turns into shachar (the dawn).

So, my friends, whenever you feel like you can’t go on, and want to beg Gd to take you…may Elijah and Shulamit inspire you to never give in to despair. Amen!



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