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Yom Chamishi, 26 Kislev 5778

There is a story in our Tanakh that catches my attention – it’s from First Samuel:

“Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord began to terrify him.” Saul’s courtiers told him if he wanted, they would find him “someone who is skilled at playing the lyre; whenever the evil spirit of God comes over you, he will play it and you will feel better.” They found Jesse’s son, David. And his music making worked. [I Samuel 16:14-23]

This story makes me stop and pause. Now, I believe in music with religious fervor. And I want to nod my head as our scripture says David’s playing sent the evil spirit away from Saul. But……would that it were so easy! We could send Cantor, or Jerry, or anyone from our choir, not to mention Rabbi, and cure everyone’s mental distress! [Sigh]

Without dismissing music as balm and refreshment for anyone living with mental illness, I’m looking further. I’m thinking about how this treatment regime for Saul came about. At the suggestion of his courtiers, Saul sent for Jesse’s son, David, to make music for him. Saul liked David and took him permanently into his service as a warrior, not only as a musician.

So there was a relationship aspect to this, and I am reminded of the court jesters of old Europe, how they provided comic relief from the difficulties of ruling and warring, and how they were always quietly there at the king’s side when the king needed a non-judgmental ear, a sounding board, or some gentle advice. No doubt, young David provided such an ear for Saul, someone there for him.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone always there for us? But we’re not King Saul or Louis X of France. We can’t command anyone’s presence, though often people offer themselves as listeners and gentle advisors, and each one of us can do that for our friends or family.

So, in our world, who provides music and a little laughter for us, and that is always available? Our smart phones? Maybe TV? Actually, sometimes, I think our phones have become our indispensible companions. But how lifeless! Disembodied flickering images and sounds can lighten us up, no doubt – but somewhere inside us all, we need warm flesh, eyes that look back. Maybe an occasional pant or whine or tiny bark. Someone at our side, who listens, who cuddles up, and seems to understand our emotions.

I’m thinking of a dog – a therapy dog, or a service dog. The neurological science shows clearly that soothing, positive chemicals are released in our human brains when we stroke dogs, or other pet animals. So the effect of someone playing a lyre and that of a comforting dog may not be that different. Some dogs do house calls with their human partners – some dogs live with us and go everywhere with us.

Here’s a list of benefits that pet therapy can provide, according to ‘PAWS for People,’ a non-profit that sends human-dog teams into peoples’ homes in Delaware. The visit:

  • lifts spirits and lessens depression
  • decreases feelings of isolation and alienation
  • encourages communication
  • provides comfort
  • increases socialization and sense of community
  • reduces boredom
  • decreases anxiety
  • helps children overcome speech and emotional disorders
  • creates motivation for the client to recover faster
  • reduces loneliness

Not bad, eh? And that’s just for regular visits. How about someone welcoming us  each time we come home, hanging out with us no matter what we’re doing, letting us know when things are OK or when there might be a danger…..well, you probably know all the doggy ways. If we’ve ever had a dog, we’ve seen what devotion is.

And music……I recently had a conversation with a music educator who often focuses her private lessons on kids with mental disorders. By tailoring her teaching to the strengths and weaknesses of each of her pupils, by being respectful of the pain each child may feel, she helps them get in touch with something deeply primal in each of us, and deeply joyful. 

Lyres and dogs. Not a cure. Not enough if someone needs medication and other therapies, but love, respect, attention, human or more than human, can go a long way. What can we do?

Nancy N. Sidhu

4 May 2017