January 19, 2019

A Jewish response to ‘13 Reasons Why’

“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”

— Hannah Baker, “13 Reasons Why”

The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” is about Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes for her peers, explaining the reasons why.

Over the past month, this show has gone viral, and in turn it has brought the issues of suicidal ideation, rape, mental illness and, especially, bullying — which are central to her reasons for ending her life — to the forefront of our community.

Some feel the show glorifies suicide by giving it an element of revenge and that it inaccurately portrays mental illness. Others feel validated by it and are grateful it is finally giving a real and raw voice to what have been taboo issues. Regardless of where you fall, the truth is that the success of the show merits a response. And when we as Jews face what certainly are the most serious social issues in the lives of our preteens, teens and young professionals (though not limited to them), we need a Jewish way to respond.

The Gemara relates that one day Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi were debating a verse from Proverbs 12:25, “Anxiety in the heart of a man weighs him down.” One of them said the word ישחנה should be read not as “weighs him down” but as “he should push it down from his mind,” and the other disagreed and said it means “he should talk about it with others.” Their disagreement was around the root of the word ישחנה — is it derived from the word “to push down” or “remove,” or from the word “to discuss”?

But Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s disagreement is not just linguistics. It is fundamentally about how we respond to worries, anxieties and problems in our lives. Is it best to push them down and move on or do we actually need to talk about them with another person?

This debate raises the same concern that “13 Reasons Why” has challenged us with: How can we constructively respond to our own struggles and the struggles of others? What do we do when we are feeling depressed and hopeless or when we are perhaps filled with dread for the well-being of our child who is being bullied at school?

Certainly when it comes to personal coping, it is true that Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s two answers resonate equally with different people. Some of us cope by doing deep introspection alone, by pushing it down to move on, others by talking it through with another person. But when it comes to suicide and bullying, the interpretation can be applied only one way: When we are faced with hurt and hopelessness, we must talk about it with others.

When I spoke with seniors at Shalhevet High School and YULA Girls High School about “13 Reasons Why,” I heard two powerful reactions over and over again. First, frustration with the lack of communication both from the girl who killed herself and from her peers and teachers who either failed to notice warning signs or who actively contributed to her hurt and isolation. And second, acknowledgement that the show was prompting us to talk about issues that until now we were not discussing — or that, for some, were being lived alone in silence without any support.

It is clear that communication (ישחנה לאחרים) is the response that can literally save a life in the face of suicidal ideation and any self-harm or self-injury. The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health underscores this in its training programs “Mental Health First Aid” and “Suicide Prevention,” both of which we have held at B’nai David, and from which we have resources available to our shul. Practically, we learned that if we suspect a person may have suicidal thoughts, our communication should follow three steps, known as QPR, which stands for Question-Persuade-Refer — Question a person about suicide; Persuade the person to get help; and Refer the person to the appropriate resource.

We cannot shy away from asking, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” or “Do you have a plan?” Using the word “suicide” will not put the idea into the person’s mind but instead will express empathy, respond to the plea for help and join the person in identifying an issue that is almost always already known to them.

If just one person had done QPR in “13 Reasons Why,” the show and the book it was based on may have had a very different ending.

Preferably, of course, we don’t want a person to get to the stage of suicidal ideation. For someone who is being bullied, safety and communication must begin before the crisis. We need to decide as a community — as students, as parents of teens, and as Jews obligated to love our fellow as ourself — that we have zero tolerance for bullying. This means establishing the expectation that lashon harah (idle gossip) and harmful and exclusive social media are just not part of how we function. Instead, we love each other as we are and look for what is holy in each other. I cannot tell you how many kids or parents have told me about the devastation that has happened on a Snapchat. The solution does not require the elimination of social media, but it does require a refocusing on the Jewish ethics of communication and the separation between self-worth and an online profile.

Our Torah, our moral and ethical code, is very straightforward. As we just read in Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, “Do not cut your flesh or self-harm,” “Do not oppress your fellow,” “Do not stand on the blood of your friend.” Suicide is about destroying one’s own life in order to end pain, while bullying is about destroying another’s life so that the bully can avoid his or her own pain. Our holiness is contingent on how we treat ourselves and one another, especially in the midst of human vulnerability, for the life God has given us is precious.

And so, our job as a community committed to cultivating holiness is to respond to hurt and hopelessness with holy conversation. When we ask a friend about possible suicidal thoughts, we must be calm and speak without preconceived judgments. To provide just one such example of holy conversation, students at a high school in Michigan recently made a list of “13 Reasons Why Not,” which included public thank you’s at school to peers who were there for their friends in times of hurt and hopelessness, and reasons why suicide cannot be an option.

I have lost two friends to suicide and have cared for countless others in moments of suicidal ideation, including my brother. This past week, my best friend was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. I felt crippling helplessness, heart-wrenching anger, and unresolvable fear and guilt. I felt terror. I wanted to protect her, to watch her every move and make sure she was safe. I wanted to get rid of her depression and anxiety and yell at her colleagues who had been bullying her at work.

I wanted to fix it all. But I couldn’t. All I could do was talk to her, hear and hold her pain, and sit in silence when that was what she needed.

I reminded myself of Rebbe Ami and Rebbe Asi’s profound conversation and the Jewish response that HaShem has given us through them: ישחנה לאחרים — talk to each other, be there for each other no matter what, because your words and your listening ears can save a life.

RABBANIT ALISSA THOMAS-NEWBORN is a clergy member at B’nai David-Judea
Congregation in Los Angeles.