Going Down, Down, Down

Now is the season of our depression. This is true both of the wintertime blues and of the corresponding Torah reading when Joseph’s family goes down to Egypt. Literally, the Torah refers to travel to Egypt as going down. As we equate depression with feeling down, there is a link between the descent of the psyche with the Torah reading of these weeks.

For anyone who has experienced the wintertime blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD” syndrome) the sense of feeling down rings true. I have long been one of those people. The limited amount of daylight can sap me of energy or impede clear thinking. On the cloudiest of days in December, I want to hide myself away. I feel down.

The Joseph saga reminds us that a descent can be for the sake of ascent. Joseph’s brothers stripped Joseph of his coat, tossed him into a pit and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Years later when reunited with his brothers Joseph explains that although his brothers sent him on this downward path, it was all for the sake of an ascent. Joseph perceives God as divine conductor, orchestrating a descent for a higher purpose. That is to say, God engineered Joseph’s trauma that ultimately led to Joseph’s elevation as a viceroy for Pharaoh and as a savior for his starving family. Feeling an outsider to Joseph’s story, and in the throes of real life sadness, God’s providence can be hard for me to perceive. With the deepening December gloom, at best God strikes me as puppet master, moving actors down and up. 

For those with the SAD syndrome, the ascent comes as the days lengthen and the sun rises in the sky. The descent turns into an ascent. The seasonal depression turns and lifts.  What often comforts the SAD syndrome sufferer is to acknowledge the syndrome as a condition that will depart. The quest is to find something beneficial in the SAD experience. Torah stories of descent and ascent are a reminder that the well may be deep but from its depth can come the water we need. The scary part for those in the depths is wondering when and if the uplift will arrive.

Joseph’s story and its Rabbinic commentators, say the key to ascent is having faith in God. The Chasidic masters, many of whom were great psychologists in their own way, would have us practice being purposefully joyful even as we feel dejected. Their advice: sing to God, dance for God, pray to God. I know the advice works for me as a joyous Shabbat service and meal is the highlight of an otherwise dreary week.

Feeling down in these dark days of December, I ask myself to learn a lesson from the depression. Can I make a note to better appreciate the long warmer days to come? Can I discover new patience and compassion for others suffering from similar psychological challenges? Perhaps I will emerge stronger or better able to assist others. Focusing on what might be a positive outcome from this seasonal descent, I can begin to rise in anticipation of brighter days.

R’ Evan J. Krame