The WORD – 5/3/12. Yesterday, retired NFL star Junior Seau was found dead in his apartment. Police believe that he committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. If so, that would be the latest in a long line of suicides by former professional football players. We clearly have a lot to learn about the long-lasting effects of brain injuries from contact sports. At least twelve former NFL players have taken their own lives in recent years – among the more prominent names on the list besides Seau are Dave Duerson of the Bears and Andre Waters of the Eagles.
It’s amazing to think that these men who projected such strength and power on the field could not fight off the mental illness that pushed them toward suicide. It is a reminder to us all that suicide is the result of a diseased brain just as a heart attack is the result of a diseased heart.
There are two major stories of suicide in our tradition. The first is the story of King Saul as recorded in First Samuel 31:4. Saul fell on his sword when he realized that he was beaten. When we take into account his paranoia about David and other irrational behaviors described in the Book of Samuel, it is easy to imagine that his suicide was also the result of mental illness.
The second example of suicide, of course, took place during the siege of Masada as described to us by Josephus. We cannot possibly understand the sense of desperation that could lead to a mass suicide. It must have been the same kind of desperation that has led to self-immolation among Tibetan priests and Arab protesters.
The Masada story sticks in our heads in part because we all go visit Masada when we travel to Israel, but also because it is so unusual. It seems to go against the basic principles of the Torah. The truth is that our tradition – both implicitly and explicitly – rejects suicide as a political act or statement.
We have a number of teachings such as the one in this week’s Torah portion: “You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which humanity SHALL LIVE; I am Adonai (Lev. 18:5).” I added the emphasis on the words “shall live” because the ancient rabbis focused on those words in their commentaries. This verse comes to teach us that one should not die in pursuit of the laws and rules, but rather enhance our lives by living according them. By taking our lives, we obviously eliminate the possibility of further serving God and doing mitzvot. By choosing to live, those possibilities remain open to us.
There are many other teachings from our tradition which support this principle. For example, later in our portion, we read the famous verse, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Lev. 19:16).” Without this basic commitment to one another, there is no such thing as community. We as Jews choose life; and reject the devaluation of life. I hope that this is no surprise to anyone.
As a result, there was a time when individuals who committed suicide could not be buried in Jewish cemeteries. The rabbis believed that if people did not honor their own lives, there was no obligation to honor them in death. Fortunately, we have moved beyond that misperception. We now understand that healthy people with healthy brains do not commit suicide. And just as we bury people who die of other diseases in Jewish cemeteries, we must bury people who die of mental illness in Jewish cemeteries as well.
Ideally, we would all be on the lookout for signs of mental illness and help stave off a suicide before it occurs. In the aftermath of a suicide, though, let us remember that it is not a sign of weakness or a rejection of the gift of life. It is the result of an illness that takes over the brain and the victims of that illness should be honored in death – the same as anyone else.