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Moses in Despair: On Suicidality and Receiving Help

In the Book of Numbers, having defied Pharaoh, taken the people Israel out of Egypt, led them into the desert, spoken before God for them and before them for God, Moses cries:

I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me

Moses is trapped. He is commanded by God; he is needed by people. Both blame their translator when they cannot understand the other.

Moses never wanted this responsibility. He did not ask for it or seek it, and he tried to turn it away. He took on the leadership of Israel because he had to, because no one else could. And faced down a powerful ruler. And convinced a nation to leave their lives for him. And commanded an army. The people Israel take action, God sends help and comfort, but Moses is the one, the linchpin of everything.

And here Moses contemplates the ultimate solution:

If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!

Moses cannot leave his situation. Where would he go? How could he abandon his people, who need him? How could he walk away from the Creator of everything? He cannot leave. And so he thinks of the only way in which he could: to die.

These verses have sometimes been interpreted as stereotypical Jewish hyperbole: “This will kill me, you know!” Overdramatic. Not serious. Certainly not to be read literally.

Yet how many of us have been called overdramatic. Told we don’t mean what we are saying or doing. That we are not serious, can’t mean that, wouldn’t do that.

Reading Moses here against his literal words does everyone a disservice. Suicide is a tragedy caused by trauma and despair and a feeling that there is, ultimately, only one way out. We should be allowed to remember, we should be made to remember, that Moses once saw that exit sign, too.

And just as importantly, we should remember what happens next. God has Moses call respected elders to the Tent of Meeting, those in whom he has trust, to put into them some of the spirit that God initially gave only to Moses, saying:

They shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone

God does not call Moses overdramatic. God does not tell him to “snap out of it.” God does not doubt him, or shame him, or minimize his pain.

Instead, God takes the action Moses cannot, an action Moses perhaps could not even think of. Moses needs help, and Adonai immediately gives it. They take a burden from him, give him relief, and set him up in a way that this burden does not weigh him down like this again. Most important, God listens.

Moses says that he cannot carry the weight alone. Not that he cannot do it. And so God does not take the burden from him; they show Moses how to share it with people he trusts. God does not deny Moses’ agency in his life, rather they reassert Moses’ agency by listening to what he needs and showing him a way forward.

So I don’t read this as Moses overdramatizing. I take him seriously and I take him at his word: he wanted to die. And God saved him from that.

But if we want to read this as a metaphor, or as a story, then this is the story we should see: how suicidality comes about, and how it can be set aside. The Torah has given us a script, for those of us who sometimes feel as Moses did, for those of us who are called on to act in the place of God.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam
If we are in despair, grant us the strength to cry for help
If we hear the cries of others, grant us the wisdom to help them save themselves

photo of Clare Griffin Clare Griffin (she/her) is a historian, mental health advocate, and fiction author. She works as Assistant Professor for Russian History at Indiana University, Bloomington. She lives with OCD and a bipolar spectrum disorder.


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