This may sound like a strange question but as I incorporate more and more Jewish observance and ideas into my life, I find myself falling into occasional depression. Nothing serious, but I do occasionally feel useless and hopeless. Is this a contradiction? Is it possible to be so close to G‑d and still be sad?
Your question is not strange at all. Odd as it may seem, it is quite common for people who are actively trying to infuse their lives with G‑dly meaning to have bouts of sadness.
Particularly, becoming more conscious of Torah ideals makes one much more focused on the real and meaningful things in life. It's possible that in the past you more or less lived in the moment, without a strong focus on your spiritual goals and aspirations. While this is an unbelievable step in the right direction, it can also be depressing. Suddenly you realize how far away you are from where you want to be—a fact that you may have never really focused on before.
The issue of depression, and specifically depression stemming from spiritual causes, is addressed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his book, popularly called "The Tanya." The following is (my humble distillation of) the enlightening and empowering teaching that he presents in his classic work of soul psychology:
If the human experience were driven by a single personality with one set of views, impulses and emotions, then sadness could never dwell in a person engaged in the sweetness of Torah. But truth be told, we are each driven by two souls, two personalities, each with its own goals and aspirations. One soul is a divine soul, whose life's dream it is to come closer to G‑d to the point of being completely one with Him and His will. The other soul, called the animal soul, is intent on remaining exactly that: a life form whose whole being revolves around satisfying base instincts and animalistic desires. These two spend an entire lifetime fighting it out; their battleground is the gamut of human experience and behavior.
Now, tell me: What happens in a war when one side finds its army surrounded and in danger of imminent defeat? Knowing that it is fighting for its very life, it gathers up its last strength to break free and strike back at the enemy. The same is true of the battle of souls going on in the human being. When the divine soul starts finding expression in Torah, prayer, mitzvot and faith, and with that power is about to crush its opponent, the animal soul calls out all its reserves with a fierce and ruthless vengeance.
The most powerful tool in the animal soul's chest is sadness. Even if you are fueled up with a passion to do what is right, depression will drag you into lethargy and impotence. In turn, that state leads you to the exact things that the animal soul so much craves and lives for: Instant gratification in whatever form it can get it, to comfort its poor, pitiful self. Easy win, at least temporarily.
The main thing is to know that this is the enemy, and not to surrender. Know that this is not a real setback, but on the contrary, a sign of real progress—like the pull of inertia that tells you your vehicle is moving forward, or the wake behind your boat as you speed over the waters.
Of course, it is also important to balance your goals against all you've achieved to date. Yes, you have a long way to go – we all do... – but you've also come so far, which should gives you the confidence that you will keep on heading in the same direction.
For more strategies to deal with depression, how about reading for yourself: Tanya, chapters 26–28. You can find that here on our site
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson