When your rabbi is also your therapist

Rabbi Meir Dubrawsky, wife Nechama and their children . (Supplied)

I first heard of Rabbi Meir Dubrawsky one morning around three years ago. I had just had a very difficult, unproductive “conversation” with my ex, and was in a mood. My boyfriend tried to help me out  by paraphrasing what the Orthodox rabbi had said about setbacks in a recent sermon, applying the metaphor of a flat tire—sure, a busted tire is a pain, but sometimes stuff happens. It’s just a little setback, and we must move forward. Listening to that advice, my emotions settled, my frustration and anger dissipated. There was no need for an “as-needed” Ativan. The rabbi was right. I moved forward. 

Little did I know back then that I would form my own personal relationship with Rabbi Dubrawsky, especially over these last 15 months, during which I have reached out, at all sorts of hours, to learn what Judaism says about recreational cannabis use, forgiveness after someone betrays you, mental health, and how kindness works after you’ve been overly generous. 

Trust me, I’m all for professional therapy. But, frankly, spending $225 an hour on my therapist during this pandemic was not a priority.

Like many rabbis, Rabbi Dubrawsky told me, he has been “inundated” with calls during this pandemic—for advice, therapy, counselling. He believes that the main difference between therapists and rabbis is that rabbis have thousands of years of wisdom that’s “invaluable and incomparable.” Much of his day, over these months, has been spent with “people literally just needing someone to voice their frustrations, fears and anxieties.”

So, it seems, I’m far from alone.

I reached out via Facebook Messenger a few months ago, when a friend betrayed my trust (who hasn’t ditched a friend or two during this last year?). I wanted to forgive, but the behaviour was… so unforgivable. My therapist, I knew well enough, would say, “Stop caring what they think about you.” But I wasn’t looking for permission not to forgive.

“Judaism does notsay that if someone wrongs you, you are required to forgive—that is unless the apology is sincere, then you should forgive,” Rabbi Dubrawsky responded. “It also says you should voice your frustrations to the person who wronged you with the hope that they will realize what they’ve done wrong, and according to Judaism you should grant them forgiveness if you feel it’s sincere.” That helped. A lot.

“When people ask about forgiving others, I practice what I preach,” he told me in a voice note. “I choose to forgive, because when you hold a grudge, you’re carrying the weight—you’re granting someone free rent in your head and it’s not going to hurt them as much as you. But when you forgive, you’re ridding yourself of that. 

“It might not feel like they are deserving, but in forgiving, you’re granting yourself a freer life. It doesn’t matter if they deserve it, it’s not even about them.” So I forgave, and that weight went away.

I also reached out, after someone I barely knew but had given money to a few months ago, asked me for more money. I felt she needed medical help, not money. I told her so, kindly, adding I would be happy to talk. But I felt guilty. 

“First, you’re Jewish. You’ll have guilt. No matter how much good you do or how much goodness you continue to do on a daily basis, you’re always going to have Jewish guilt. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it,” his voice message started, giving me a much needed giggle. 

He explained that in kindness there needs to be the balance of strength. There are times to be kind and times to resist kindness. “In Judaism, having unlimited kindness you would think is a great thing,” he said in a message. “But it’s actually not. Unlimited kindness is a parent giving their child a knife because he asked for it and you’re a nice parent. But by giving that child a knife, you could potentially cause grave harm to the child. There needs to be the ying and the yang.”

I still had a lot on my mind, especially after having so many conversations with friends and acquaintances during COVID about their mental health and daily battles with depression. I heard of too many suicides, and I needed to believe that those who chose that path were at peace. I didn’t want a therapist to tell me that time heals. I needed some deeper understanding to help my broken heart. 

Again, I reached out to Rabbi Dubrawsky. “Judaism’s perspective on suicide is, on the face of it, very much a no-no, and the reason is because we believe our bodies are given to us by God on loan. It is ours to take care of,” Rabbi Dubrawsky responded to me in the first of four two-minute messages. “If someone lends you something, you have to take care of it, to the best of your ability. It’s not for you to destroy or to tamper with or to end. 

“That being said, in Judaism we are of the belief the person you knew and loved did not do this—in the last moment, we believe they had regret, but it was too late. So in that moment, they didn’t die of suicide. We definitely bury them in a Jewish cemetery, we sit shivah, we feel for them immensely.” His words made me feel immediately lighter.

I will continue seeing my therapist. But if you are in pain, don’t quite understand what’s going on, or are looking for a more spiritual answer based on years of invaluable wisdom and tradition? Talking to a rabbi is not only an option, it’s a good one. 

Rebecca Eckler is the publisher of the re:books weekly newsletter, celebrating Canadian female authors, with tips for aspiring writers at rebooks.ca.

ANOTHER VIEW: I might be your rabbi… but I can’t also be your therapist by Avi Finegold