Missing the message
As a mental health worker for 25 years, and as a Jew, it still continues to stymie me when people are shocked or “disturbed” that a contingent of corrupt rabbis were involved in Solomon Dwek’s Ponzi scheme (“‘Jersey Sting’ authors said this one felt personal,” April 14).
Why are we shocked? Why is that we cannot fathom that a man, no matter what title he holds, can at a moment make decisions that are not only poor ones for himself but that hurt other people — especially people whose trust he holds?
One of the most important things I have learned as a therapist is that people — no matter how educated they are, how much money they have, or what titles and distinctions they hold — do not generally make good decisions and choices for themselves when they’re unhappy. It seems simplistic but it is true. In fact, it is a very deep principle. When people are unhappy with a spouse/partner or unhappy in their professional life, or struggling with their religious and spiritual lives and choices, they are not clear-headed. They tend to engage in thrill-seeking behavior to move them out of the fog of a depression or the general lethargy they experience in their day-to-day lives.
A recent parsha, Acharei Mot, speaks about keeping God’s commandments. God advises His much loved people that if we keep the laws and decrees, and “by which if a person does, he shall live in them.” A contemporary commentary by Yehuda Buxbaum states that there is another aspect of this verse. “[I]f you do God’s commandments you’ll live by them. If you are truly religious you should feel more alive and happy. Take this as a sign, then: if you see that you are not enlivened by your religiosity, you have gone astray; you have somehow misunderstood what God wanted.”
Clearly, these rabbis and other Jewish individuals in this debacle did not get what God wanted of them. And I would venture to guess, that they were not very happy people.
Jewish communities have always been good at “looking” like everything is fine, even in this seemingly enlightened day and age. How often were we told not to air our dirty laundry to the neighbors? Extend this to the larger world in which we live, and you will find that we have always tried to look as though addiction, mental illness, sexual and domestic abuse, and other criminal behavior did not exist in our world. Ask any Jewish victim of one of these conditions and crimes how comfortable they felt making their plight public or known. Or how often families of these people were able to go for help to their neighbors. I can’t tell you how many times I worked with fervently Orthodox families who traveled from Brooklyn and Monsey to have their young men and women hospitalized for psychiatric reasons in New Jersey so that their marriage prospects (and those of their younger siblings) could be protected.
Then there is the pain of individuals who were asked to keep their abuse to themselves to essentially protect the perpetrators. Or those with addictions who out of shame have hidden key parts of their lives, even in the positive light of their recovery. As long as we continue to maintain appearances then we will continue to be shocked at those images of the rabbis in handcuffs. But if we own our problems and challenges in the realm of the larger community and band together to really help one another in our times of greatest need, then we will become stronger.
And we will become happier. It is not a sin to want aliveness and happiness. God wants us to be happy and fulfilled in order to be of service to Him. We have to have the strength, conviction, and support from those around us to sometimes make hard choices that would lead us to our inner joy. A life lived merely out of obligation is a life that lacks integrity and dignity. “[I] you want to make your religiosity joyful, fulfilling and alive,” writes Yehuda Buxbaum, “you have to bring in the spirit, not just go through the motions.”
I pray that the shock of the “Jersey sting” becomes an opportunity for each of us individually to take responsibility for our wellbeing. We owe it to ourselves and to our community to become happier and more fulfilled people. I pray that during this season of redemption and freedom, we untie our own chains and shackles of obligation and bondage and find true inner joy and happiness. No matter who we are. Even rabbis.
Betty Jampel, LCSW