“No, Really, Are You Okay?”

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Being desperate. Sad cheerless young man sitting and covering his face while thinking about his problems
13 Jun 2018

In the wake of two high-profile suicides in the last week or so, there’s been a lot of talk about how people might be suffering deeply and those around them – even those close to them – might never know. I see calls all over the place for more sensitivity, more awareness, more reaching out to people even when we think they’re okay.

That’s all good. It’s all crucial.

At the same time, though, I can’t help thinking that there’s only so much even the kindest-hearted person can do for another. I’m not just talking about depression – in fact, I’m afraid of seeming to talk about it, as if I were qualified to offer guidance on how to help someone who is depressed or thinking about suicide – but being sensitive and open to the existence of any type of hidden difficulty. One person might be struggling financially while another is longing to meet a life partner or have a child, and still another is experiencing an existential crisis – and then these individuals run into acquaintances who, oblivious to their pain, start complaining about how long the contractor is taking on that luxury kitchen upgrade, or gushing over wedding or baby pictures, or sharing a hashgacha story that only twists the knife of spiritual doubt deeper in the heart of the silent sufferer.

Everyone seems to be calling on everyone else to raise awareness of all kinds of problems people may be facing, to be more sensitive, to reach out to those who might be struggling – and it’s all good. It’s all crucial.

But – there’s only so much that even the kindest-hearted person can do for another, without a little guidance.

In thinking about how to be kind and sensitive to others’ needs and struggles, several paradigmatic models for kindness come to mind.

The first is Avraham. Known for his chesed, Avraham’s model is to proactively sit outside his tent, hoping for visitors that he can welcome and help. As soon as he sees strangers approaching, he runs to them, assesses what they might need, offers it, and does it – all before the guests have said a word. Are they thirsty? Are their feet dusty? Are they hungry? Avraham never asks; he reads their situation, deduces what they must need, and jumps to do it. (See beginning of Bereishit chapter 18, with Rashi on verse 1.)

A few perakim later (chapter 24), we find another paradigm for chesed in Rivka. Rivka’s chesed is very different from Avraham’s. Rivka isn’t looking to help anyone; she’s minding her business, going to the well for her own family’s water. She draws her water and starts to return – when Avraham’s servant intercepts her. The Torah’s description of him running to her is identical to the language used when Avraham ran to greet his prospective guests (וירץ לקראת); the difference is that there, it was the chesed-doer who took that initiative, while here the one who’s looking for help takes the first step.

Shouldn’t she have seen him, obviously tired and thirsty from travel, and immediately offered water, just like her future father-in-law would have done? Doesn’t the fact that the servant had to ask diminish Rivka’s chesed?

Actually, what she does – including what she doesn’t do – fits exactly the conditions laid out by the servant a few pesukim earlier. He didn’t say “G-d, the woman who offers me water – I’ll know she’s the one!” Instead, he said very specifically that “the young lady to whom I will say, Pour your pitcher please, and I will drink – and she says, Drink – she is the one You have indicated” (Bereishit 24:14).

Chesed, the middah that leads one person to help another, doesn’t demand reading minds. Rivka passes the test – but what’s the test? It’s not about reaching out; it’s about giving, generously and without hesitation, when somebody asks.

Not everyone is like Avraham, jumping to read people and their needs, giving them everything before they even open their mouths – and really, I’m not sure everyone in need of support even wants it that way. Friends say I think too much, but I always wondered about the people who could just drop off a casserole, without first finding out whether the person with supposed difficulties wants a casserole. On one hand, I was thrilled when people did it for me. But what if my dinners are already covered and my freezer is too full? What if I have an allergy? What if I just don’t like mushrooms? (I don’t, by the way. Just in case anyone ever wants to bring me a casserole.)

In a more extreme example, I’ve seen several suggestions in the past week that we should all check up on people who seem fine, just in case. How does that look, exactly? I can just imagine it:

Hi, how are you? … Oh, that’s great; you sound really fulfilled and happy with life. But you know, that actually makes me nervous, because, well, with all those cases we keep hearing about of people who seemed happy and made other people happy but then it turned out that they were dealing with really dark demons… Are you also only happy on the outside? Any demons to you want to talk about? Don’t be shy!

Kind of an absurd scenario, isn’t it? Clearly, there are limits to how far out on a limb one person can go in trying to guess the needs of another.

We might not have the first idea how to reach out.

We might reach out till we’re blue in the face, but be rebuffed with a bland “sure, I’m great, everything’s fine” – and then how will we be able to help?

We might reach out in the wrong way. Just one example I’ve worried about on occasion: If I know a couple who’s been married for more years than typical with no children, do I invite them so they won’t feel isolated, demonstrating they’re welcome in the community whether or not they fit the mold, or not invite them because maybe they’re struggling and it might be painful to sit with my children at our Shabbos table?

Maybe I should ask… maybe they could tell.

Even Avraham, assessing and providing for needs that probably seemed fairly obvious, didn’t necessarily guess right. Sure, his guests ate what he offered, but Midrashic traditions tell us they were angels and didn’t actually need to. They’d come for something else.

Sometimes, acts of kindness – including sensitivity and support for those who are struggling in any area of life – need to be requested. We can’t always guess what others need; sometimes we have to be told, to be asked.

Of course, we have to make ourselves available for those in need to reach out to us.

That’s also part of Rivka’s chesed-test. What does it tell us about Rivka’s great middos, if she had to be asked for water? Maybe it tells us that she was someone one could ask. “The young woman to whom I will say…” – maybe the fact that he could say that, that she seemed approachable, was part of the test. Rivka didn’t have to guess that he was thirsty, or jump to offer him water, to be considered a kind person. But she had to exude an openness to being asked, and respond to the best of her ability – even beyond what he actually said – when he did ask.

So maybe that’s what we need to do, too. For those who really can read people and dig behind the façade, guess at the problem, and reach out with the right support – that’s amazing and I’m in awe of you. But the rest of us, who might just not have the foggiest, can be sensitive and supportive too. We can make ourselves known as the sort of people who are open to the existence of struggles, and maybe even – if we’re comfortable – be open about our own struggles too.

We can work together to build a community in which it’s known that it’s okay to have struggles, that we all have them, and that we all want to help. That we want to know what would help you.

More and more organizations seem to be sprouting in recent years to offer support for all sorts of challenges, and I think the mere existence of these initiatives is crucial. Creating, supporting, and publicizing them offers reassurance that challenges are real, that they are more common than anyone thinks, and that there are places to turn. There are people to ask, from the friendly individual next door to the domestic abuse hotline number posted in the mikva to those who help address poverty, infertility, illnesss…and yes, depression and thoughts of suicide. By building a community in which these problems are all acknowledged and addressed, we remove stigmas and let those in trouble know it’s okay to ask. That others want to be asked. Like Rivka, we’re ready to drop everything and help, if only we know what’s needed.

There’s a third biblical paradigm of chesed to consider, too. What did Rut do for her mother-in-law that earned her a reputation as a baalat chesed? It’s simple: she didn’t leave.

Naomi was miserable. She wasn’t silent about it, either, putting on a cheerful façade while slowly falling apart inside; no, Naomi told her daughters-in-law to stay away from her because “I’m excessively bitter” (1:13), and when recognized as “Naomi” (pleasant), she said she should instead be called “Bitter!” (v. 19-20) She couldn’t have been the best company – yet Rut stuck with her. When they needed food, Rut got food, and she stayed. She stayed, and eventually, Naomi was able to start looking towards the future with hope, making plans and encouraging Rut to improve both of their lives.

Maybe, sometimes, we can help just by being there. By refusing to leave. By seeing another through the day-to-day needs of life until they’re ready to ask for help or even to pull themselves out of whatever the trouble is. Maybe our presence, openness, and willingness can even support them enough that one day they’ll be ready, like Naomi, to help us in turn.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.