Today is May 24, 2019 -
By Rabbi Steven Abraham
A man went to see his physician because he wasn’t feeling well. “Doctor,”hesaid,“I am suffering from a dark and unshakable depression. Nothing I do gives me any relief. I am overwhelmed with pain and most days, I can’t even make it out of bed. Doctor, what should I do?” The doctor thought for a moment then offered the following treatment plan. “This is what you need to do. Tonight, go to the theatre where the Great Carlini is performing. He is the funniest man in the world and everybody who sees him finds him hysterical. By all means, go see Carlini. He is guaranteed to make you laugh and drive away your depression.” Upon hearing these words, the man burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. “But doctor,” he said, “I am Carlini.”
I am speaking about mental illness because I have seen parents desperately worried about their depressed teens. I have seen so many individuals who suffer from mental illness alone and isolated, looking for away to connect. Most tragic are the families in our community whose lives have been permanently marred by the suicide of a son or daughter, a parent or sibling.
This is not an easy topic to discuss, but easy topics are not how we grow; we only grow with open eyes and an open heart. Mental illness is not something that people often talk about; it is not something that is always self-evident. When a congregant comes into the synagogue in a wheelchair, we are clued in to offer help. We know how to ask that person what they might need, we ask if they are in pain, and we are understanding of their limitations. What we do not do well is care for those who are internally suffering from a different type of pain, yet no less real. We often do not know to offer assistance, we often do not see their struggle, and unfortunately, we often do not know of their pain.
One in four Americans — one out of every four of us — will be affected by some form of mental illness during our lifetime. That can include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it serves to illustrate how rampant this issue is.It is something that affects our Jewish community, and I wanted to share with you what I believe our tradition tells us about mental illness.
For centuries, Judaism has understood depression to be a part of life. Moses leading the Israelites in the dessert had doubts about his ability to lead the nation and cried out to God, “I can no longer bear the burden of this people alone…it is too heavy for me…Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:14-15)
King Saul was said to have been overcome by a ruach ra-ah, a “bad spirit.” His melancholia was not constant, rather it is cited in the text “whenever the evil spirit comes over you” (1 Samuel 16: 16, 23). This has led biblical historians and many doctors to believe that King Saul suffered from what we see as bipolar illness today.
Our history is not devoid of mental illness; our biblical ancestors faced horrific darkness. We look to them to be role models in good times, so too when life is tough.
It is the most tragic of cases that we see today, when that horrific darkness leads to self-harm. The fact is, suicide is very difficult to understand. It is the tragic result of a complicated mix of “factors such as hopelessness, impulsivity, and traumatic life circumstances” (Harpel).1
I want to be clear, and this is probably the most important thing of all, I want to say to anyone who has had these thoughts, that your family and friends — and we, your community — are not better off without you. If you hear echoes of yourself or someone you know in these descriptions, help is available. We love you. We accept you. We are here for you.
There are four mitzvot, four Jewish calls to action, that can help guide our understanding of and response to mental illness: Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life), Nichum Aveilim (comforting mourners), and Halvayat HaMet (accompanying the dead). The first two speak to the kind of community we should strive to create to make it easier for those struggling with mental illness to find relief and healing. The second pair speaks to the way we should respond as a community when the tragedy of suicide occurs.
Moses, as stated above, cried out to God that the burden was too much to bear, to kill him. What was God’s response? To gather 70 elders of the community, “bring them to the tent of the meeting that they may stand there with thee” (Numbers 11:16). How did King Saul find relief from ruach ra-ah, his “bad spirit”? David consoled him and played his harp (1 Samuel 16:24). It was the people around them that were the answer. We are the answer.
We need to make it safer for more people to come out from behind the shadows and find the support and care they need to continue to go on with their lives, both those living with mental illness and their family and friends who care for them. We need to start talking more openly about the “secret” illness that nobody wants to talk about. It wasn’t so long ago that people only spoke in whispers about cancer. And while today we can speak about cancer and other diseases of the body freely, mental illness still carries with it a stigma and prejudice that prevents so many from seeking the help we need. But Judaism understands that emotional and spiritual pain are as real and serious as that of the body. Just look at the Mi Shebeirach prayer, the prayer for healing we recite every Shabbat and holiday – refuat he-nefesh uh-refuat ha goof, we pray for healing of spirit, the soul, and the body. And so many of us are in need of healing for both.
To those who struggle with mental illness and those who care for those who struggle, I want you to know that while we can never fully understand the depths of your pain or the complexities of your life, you must know that you are not alone. We, your clergy and your community, are here for you. We will sit with you in your darkness, we will cry alongside you, and we will take your hand and lead you to the light of day when you feel ready. Continue to be brave and strong, and may this year help you to find compassion and contentment. And for those of you whose loved ones suffer from mental illness – mothers and fathers and children and siblings and partners – your heart is so full with both love and pain. I stand in awe of you and all that you carry every day.
May God continue to strengthen you and lift you as you care for the ones you love. May God speedily heal us all in body and soul – refuat he-nefesh uh- refuat ha goof. And let us say, Amen.