(First delivered as a sermon on the morning of Yom Kippur at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA on September 19, 2018 and published here.)
A couple of years ago, I started noticing a tremendous upsurge in ads for many different products that had comfort as their common theme. It started with new kinds of mattresses that would stream across my Facebook feed – each one more organic, more comfortable, more orthopedically sound, than the last. Each one with a 100 day love-it-or-leave-it guarantee (which always leads me to wonder – if I order one of these mattresses, am I buying one that has been slept on by many different strangers, each for up to 100 days??). Then pillows, then specialty blankets, some weighted (which are wonderful for people with sensory challenges), some providing deep pressure stimulation, pop-up tents to surround your bed….even Bob Ross, the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, which aired from 1983 to 1994, has come back into vogue, with his sleep-inducing voice and incredibly calming presence. YouTube videos of him painting “happy little trees” are sought by millions (and things like a “Bob Ross Bar Crawl” have taken root among millennials), and Calm, one of dozens of meditation and sleep aid apps, even features his voice and the sounds of his show (the palette scraping, the brush sweeping across the canvas) as one of its sleep aids!
Mister Rogers, may his memory be for a blessing, who is not only soothing to watch and listen to, has found eternal life, thank goodness, in streaming television, and dozens of episodes of the 31 seasons of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are available on various streaming TV services. When the documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was released this year, I couldn’t help but think that this timing wasn’t a fluke. We are living in a time in which the need for soothing and the variety of media and products available to provide comfort, are greater than ever.
This desire for comfort, it seems, bespeaks a rise in anxiety and depression in our culture, a growing unease that is afflicting our society at large. And indeed, the statistics bear this out. There is a mental health crisis sweeping the globe, and it is getting worse. In a news release published in March 2017, the World Health Organization declared: “Depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. Lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives.”1
America is not exempt from this worldwide phenomenon. Over the past 20 years, the suicide rate has increased by 25%. Nearly 25% of Americans are personally affected by mental illness or addiction every day, and one-third of all U.S. hospital stays involve these diseases. Over 16 million American adults per year deal with depression, and fewer than half of those who struggle seek treatment. (This averages to one in every thirteen adults2.) One in five young adults struggle with depression. And 40 million Americans deal with anxiety.
With mental illness on the rise, and the stakes so high, this question seems crucial: How does Jewish tradition understand mental health, and what is our obligation, as Jews, towards it?
First, our tradition teaches us that mental illness is every bit as real as physical illness, and should be dealt with as openly and sympathetically as physical illness. The Mishebeirach l’cholim (Mishebeirach means “the one who blessed” and can apply to lots of different prayers for well-being of all kinds, but we tend to use the word “Mishebeirach” alone to refer to our traditional blessing for healing), is a blessing for refuah shleima, complete healing, and specifies two types of healing: “refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf,” healing of the soul and healing of the body. Not only is “healing of the soul” recognized as an essential part of refuah shleima, complete healing, but it also precedes the “healing of the body,” perhaps to emphasize its importance.
And Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and legal authority, also a physician, wrote: “there is health and illness to the soul, just as there is health and illness for the body.” (Shemoneh Perakim 3).
The Hebrew bible is open about the emotional anguish of some of our tradition’s greatest heroes.
Saul, the first king of Israel, suffers tremendous emotional pain. The ancient Israelites, like other ancient peoples, understood emotional pain as sometimes coming from an external source–an evil spirit. As King Saul begins to feel threatened by the young and charismatic David, he becomes paranoid and depressed. After the young general David wins another victory over the Philistines, the Bible tells us: “The next day an evil spirit of God gripped Saul, and he began to rave in the house, while David was playing the lyre.” The Hebrew Bible paints a stark picture of the deterioration of Saul’s mental health, as he slips further into paranoia and depression. Our holy text does not obscure or sanitize Saul’s struggles. It presents them in all their painful details. The Psalms too, (traditionally attributed to David,) sometimes express deep emotional anguish. Psalm 38 reads: “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.” And in Psalm 42 we read: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”
Even Moses endures periods of deep despair, even hopelessness. In the Book of Numbers, as the Israelites incessantly complain, and even demand to return to Egypt, Moses cries out to God: “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
What is described in these verses is not normal, everyday sadness or anxiety. It is deep existential despair. And there are many other examples: Jeremiah, Job, Jonah, Elijah and others all express despair and anguish to a degree that would qualify as depression in our current context.
One gift of Judaism is that our heroes are not portrayed as always happy and stable. As I spoke about last night and on Rosh Hashanah, our tradition does not shy away from messiness, pain and anguish. It is open and honest about the pain and soul-sickness of many of its heroes.
In western society, however, so much of this is swept under the rug, whispered about behind closed doors. Why do we find it so difficult to talk about mental illness? Why is there so much shame, so much secrecy? How can we make this something that is spoken about as directly as cancer or diabetes, which also once were discussed in hushed tones? This year, two high profile celebrities, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade, took their own lives three days apart, and there was a noticeable increase in the volume of this conversation, ever so slowly. An article from the Forward in 2016 argues that Jews must take mental illness out of the shadows. But despite some encouraging first steps, the article concludes: “so far this has all seemed like a litany of well-meaning, and even occasionally well-funded, first steps. It has proved nearly impossible to get most communities — or, frankly, most families — to view mental illness and addiction as daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, lifelong realities and medical illnesses. It is stunningly difficult.”3
It is difficult. And it is necessary. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah, we must be vulnerable and honest with each other, for this is how we build community and heal the world. I am not suggesting that we, “overshare,” or cross boundaries that are important to us. I am also not suggesting that we can or should be the sole source of support for others struggling with mental illness, or that we who are not trained professionals should do the work of professional therapists. It is important for us to learn how we can as friends, acquaintances, fellow community members, colleagues, support the many around us who are in need in this way. An initiative called Mental Health First Aid was created in 2001, and provides “first aid” training for all, to know how to identify mental health and substance abuse problems and engage in open conversation. I was surprised to learn that pop star Lady Gaga, who opened up to her fan base about her own struggles with depression and anxiety, has been at the forefront, along with her mother, in increasing awareness of and destigmatizing mental health issues. “I openly admit to having battled depression and anxiety, and I think a lot of people do,” the star said. “I think it’s better when we all say: ‘Cheers!’ And ‘fess up to it.”
Lady Gaga’s foundation, called Born This Way, joined with the National Council for Behavioral Health to spread Mental Health First Aid across the country in conjunction with Lady Gaga’s Joanne World Tour. Together, they trained 150,000 Americans, teaching them how to recognize and respond to people who are experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis.
I am committed to bringing this training to our community, and have spoken with one of our members who is certified to run these trainings, about offering this opportunity as soon as possible.
My friend Jamie Bornstein started a blog a few years ago called Mental Health Safe Space, which is informed by his Judaism and his own struggles.
Mental Health Safe Space is a forum where personal stories about mental illness are told free from judgment or stigma, where good reads about mental health issues are reviewed, and where drashot related to mental health are shared. It is a meeting ground for those who need help, those who have been helped, and their respective supporters.
Mental Health Safe Space was established on the belief that many people struggle with painful mental health issues and if these people knew the too-often untold stories of those around them, friends and colleagues fighting their own mental health battles, they would be more likely to seek out potentially life-changing treatments.
In addition to making ourselves and others aware of such resources, it is very important to know what professional resources exist to support mental health. However, as we know, access to resources that support mental health are terribly limited for millions of people. Overall, needless to say, our health care system in America is not functioning well, to keep people well. Including in the realm of mental health. Mental health care is, I believe, a human right, and yet it is accessible to such a small percentage of the population. I believe that every individual who has the ability to access psychotherapy should do so regularly at some point in their lives. If I ruled the world, it would be a requirement for every human being. We have a long way to go to destigmatizing mental health challenges, but I hope that one day, the idea of going for mental health counseling will be as common as regular visits to our primary care physicians and others who support our physical well-being, and that everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status, will have access to this preventative care for the nefesh, the soul, as well as the guf, the body.
A growing body of research suggests that spirituality and religious community provide just that kind of preventative care for our souls–that participation in religious community has profoundly positive effects on our emotional well-being. An abstract from the website of the National Center for Biotechnology Information tells us: “Participation in religious services is associated with numerous aspects of human flourishing, including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.”
Granted, I have some skin in the game here, as the leader of a religious community and of religious services; however, I believe in the power of religious community in so many ways beyond attending religious services. While I believe that ritual and communal prayer can be important anchors for us, it is the coming together with other people, in the service of something greater than ourselves (the community itself, God, tradition, history…) that is most important. In addition to the study I just cited, many other studies and anecdotal evidence show that a sense of belonging to something larger than yourself provides a sense of meaning, and is a major predictor of mental health.
In a June 2018 article in the New York Times, behavior scientist Clay Routledge notes the 25% increase in suicides over the past 20 years, and writes: “I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaninglessness.” Routledge continues:
We are a species that strives not just for survival, but also for significance. We want lives that matter. It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.
Empirical studies bear this out. A felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and — yes — suicide. And when people experience loss, stress or trauma, it is those who believe that their lives have a purpose who are best able to cope with and recover from distress.
I recently listened to a TED talk called “There is More to Life than Being Happy,” by Emily Esfahani Smith, based on her book, “The Power of Meaning.” She said:
Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but I came to see that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path. And the studies show that people who have meaning in life, they’re more resilient, they do better in school and at work, and they even live longer. So this all made me wonder: How can we each live more meaningfully? To find out, I spent five years interviewing hundreds of people and reading through thousands of pages of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.
Esfahani’s research convinced her that a life of meaning is built on four pillars. The pillars she identified are: Belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. Here in this community and in others, you can find all of these things. We are here for you and by being a part of us, you are here for others – you are doing nothing less than partnering with God in tikkun olam – picking up the broken shards – participating in the healing of the world.
So, although the deck is stacked against us for mental health in the way our world is set up and operates in so many ways (isolation, virtual connection, etc), it is not far-fetched to say that living a life of meaning, purpose and compassion, and cultivating such a life for our children, could begin right here at Ohabei Shalom. We can provide each other with the sense of meaning, and with the caring community, that can act to powerfully preserve mental health and promote each of our flourishing. Connection to community is imperative, and has been lost in recent decades. We are a very individualistic society and increasingly, we can isolate ourselves while thinking we are actually connected, because so much connection (and community too) can happen virtually. Just look around you today – how does it feel to be sitting with so many others – it is almost magical. It is fundamentally different to come together in person.
And, as a synagogue community, we come together throughout the year in so many ways. This is my sincere invitation to those of you who only come on the High Holy Days, or who are relatively uninvolved, to find your way in, to join us. We are not just a place to come for religious services. Since I started in here in July 2017, I have been committed to our being a place from which to take communal action in a world that needs our voices: After the KKK marched in Charlottesville, I invited the community to come together to reflect, pray, mourn, and strengthen ourselves to resist a new wave of hatred and bigotry that had clearly begun. Here, we had a place to cry and worry, together. In March, we participated in the March for Our Lives against gun violence (which, incidentally, brought to light the need for better and more accessible mental health care in our country, with many signs at the rally reflecting that need). Aside from coming together to act, we also come together to celebrate, to mourn, to honor our tradition by learning about it together (see our lifelong learning brochure!), and to lift each other up in ways large and small. I, Rabbi Schaefer, and the rest of the staff, and our members who have taken on leadership roles in many ways, are here to help you find your way in. If you want to connect in a way that we don’t already offer, find some others who share your interests (share your stories, as I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah!), and we will make it happen. I believe in the power of community, and in the power of this community. We need each other more than ever.
This matters to every one of us, whether or not mental illness has touched our lives personally (though, statistically speaking, that’s improbable). It matters to us because we are all interconnected, arevim zeh lazeh4 (interwoven and responsible for each other) and the suffering of one of us impacts the whole.
While I hope to develop Temple Ohabei Shalom into a community that is more mindful and supportive of mental health challenges, the truth is that everything we do to increase the strength and vibrancy of this congregation ultimately serves to support mental health. Because then we are a place where we can come together in authentic honest human connection. In 1980, 20% of adults reported feeling lonely. Today, that number has doubled.
On these yamim noraim – these days of awe – we are raw and open and honest – and we need to bring that with us into the new year; in this way, mental illness can come out of the shadows and into the light, and we can bring tikkun and refuah, healing and repair, to heal ourselves, one another, and our world.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, Massachusetts.
4 Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 39a