I sat at one of the long tables in the dining room, idly munching on potato chips while I listened to the bearded man at the front of the room. It was motzei Shabbos, and like every week when Shabbos ended early enough, the yeshiva had a melave malka after night seder. The man at the front of the room was a guest speaker, a rebbe at one of the other high schools in the city.
I’ve long since forgotten most of his drasha, but one story that he told stuck with me. A couple had bought a house and discovered that part of the floor in the attic was broken. They called a contractor, he came the next day, and after a few hours of work it was repaired. A few days later, they went up to the attic to put some boxes away and found that the floor was broken again in the same spot. They called the contractor back. This time he spent an entire day reinforcing the floor. A week later it was broken again.
A few days later the couple was discussing the problem with a neighbor. “I’m surprised you bought the house at all.” he said. “After that boy hung himself in the attic, the house was vacant for years.”
“That was why the floor was breaking.” The rebbe declared. “The neshama of this boy was barred from gan eden, and even from gehenom. With no place to go, he kept returning to the place where he had killed himself. And every time his neshama visited, the floor broke. If he had only known what would happen, he would never have killed himself!”
In retrospect, it sounds like the kind of ghost story ten year olds tell around a campfire to scare each other. For some reason, though, it brought the afterlife into sharp focus for me. This boy, who had killed himself hoping to end it all, was instead living on and suffering for his misdeed. I, too, would live on after I died in this world. I too would be judged. I no longer saw Olam Haboh as a fairytale, but as a real place that I would one day go to. I, not a character in a story called “my neshama.” For years, I would periodically have dreams in which I stood before the Heavenly court.
It’s the association with that sudden insight, rather than any inherent quality of the story, which made me remember it.
When I took Abnormal Psychology in college and learned about major depression and suicide I was reminded of the story. This time, instead of bringing a religious concept into focus, it raised some disturbing questions. Nearly everyone who commits suicide does so because they are clinically depressed. The only exceptions are terminally ill patients who wish to end their pain and religiously-motivated people such as suicide bombers or the Jonestown Massacre. A clinically depressed person who dies by suicide was killed by his illness no less than someone who dies of cancer. Could a person be held morally responsible for dying of an illness, condemned because of it to exist in limbo for all eternity?
It turns out that the rabbonim today agree that a clinically depressed person is not responsible for committing suicide. The family sits shiva for them, and they may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But what, then, of all of the suicide victims of the millennia between matan Torah and advent of modern psychology? How many families of clinically depressed suicide victims were denied the opportunity to mourn their loss and to give their loved ones a Jewish burial (something that I assume would have caused them pain). And why would Hashem dictate a halachah that He knew would be improperly applied until the modern rise of psychology?
It would be a long time before I came to the obvious answer: He didn’t. The severe condemnation of suicide reflects a time when there was no recognition of mental illness. Perhaps it was a way of punishing someone who murdered himself: after all, he couldn’t be executed for his crime, so denying him a proper burial and condemning him in the afterlife was the next best thing. Perhaps the knowledge that they would be denied mourning and burial in a Jewish cemetery served to dissuade some people from committing suicide. But the divine mandate of an all-knowing God it was not.
[Inspired by this post from Onionsoupmix]
The title, of course, comes from this: