The psychologist laughed, and replied, “I've always wanted a bridge from Hawaii to California."
The genie grimaced. "I can't do that! Think of all the construction materials! That's too much to ask."
“OK," she said. "I'm a psychologist. Help me understand my patients. Why are they so complicated? What makes them tick?”
The genie sighed, "Did you want two lanes in each direction, or four?”
The truth - of course - is that our mental health is no laughing matter.
Tonight: we confront mental illness, and the ways we might more meaningfully support one another through it.
Our national attention was captured earlier this year when Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain took their own lives within days of each other. Their suicides remind us that wealth and professional stature are inconsequential in the face of mental illness.
Their deaths also shed light on an upsetting reality. 41,000 Americans commit suicide annually, double the number of homicides. And suicide is now the second leading cause of death among teenagers, particularly those struggling with their sexuality or gender identity.
There are too many in our congregation who have been touched directly by suicide.
The more I speak with families who grieve these losses, the more I realize that suicide is a kind of doubled loss. First and foremost: the unimaginable shock of losing someone we love, under the most upsetting and confusing circumstances. But there’s also a secondary phenomenon: the sense that we’re not supposed to talk about suicide. People think it’s a stain inflicted on surviving family and close friends. And as a result: deafening silence.
Tonight: we’ll begin to try to change that.
Tonight, we extend a hand to every family hurting from suicide. We say to you: you are in our thoughts and prayers. We cannot know the depth of your pain. We cannot make it go away. But we can walk with you. We can listen. We can hold you. And we can try to honor the truth of your loved one’s story, no matter how much it hurts.
But tonight is not just about suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 43.8 million adults in this country, 18.5% of us, experience mental illness annually.
Look around. One in five of us suffers today.
We have cancer survivors who grapple with depression in its wake. We have members young and old so overwhelmed with anxiety that they struggle to get to school or work regularly. We have bipolar congregants who have been hospitalized. We have congregants beset by grief, which never lets up. We have congregants whose lives have been turned upside down by drug or alcohol addiction. And, we have temple families whose relatives are homeless because of mental illness.
Uneh Taneh Tokef, which we recite on this heart-wrenching day, wonders who will be serene, and who tormented.
The reality is that all of us are touched by torment. All of us are impacted by mental illness. On Yom Kippur we stop trying to convince the rest of the world that we’re perfect. Today: we focus on the reality of our lives: challenges and all.
Jewish law tells us we should be unconcerned about our physical appearance today - in order to channel this value. Today isn’t just a day of Atonement. It’s a Day of Acceptance. Instead of pretending that mental illness doesn’t exist, on Yom Kippur we open our eyes to reality.
We learn this from tomorrow morning’s Haftarah reading. The prophet Isaiah proclaims that on Yom Kippur, God desires for us to more clearly see one another, so that we can better support each other.
“It is to share your bread with the hungry, […] When you
see the naked, clothe him…[…]and your fellow human
beings, do not hide yourselves from them.”
Metzudat David, an early 16th century commentary from Northern Africa, suggests that we read the final clause as: do not cover your eyes in fear of those closest to you.
How have our eyes been closed this last year? Have our eyes been shut because of our own suffering, blind to the support we need: out of fear of the expense of it, or out of fear of our reputations?
Have our eyes been shut because we’re overwhelmed as caregivers?
Or have our eyes been closed because it’s easier to pretend that these challenges don’t exist, rather than confront them head on?
But mental illness does exist. Even if it’s not affecting your child, it’s affecting others in your child’s classroom. Or others that your partner works with daily. Or the other people we pray with, right here.
Tonight, let’s open our eyes so that we might not hide from ourselves and those around us. We do this not out of the pollyanna belief that accepting reality will lead to a cure. Oh - how we wish it were that simple.
Mental illness does not always have a cure.
But there is hope.
The very first word of the Book of Leviticus is vayikra. God called out (to Moses). The last letter of vayikra is an alef, written noticeably smaller in Torah scrolls.
Our Hasidic tradition teaches us that although we tend to think of God as an enormous cosmic entity, there’s a miniature essence of God that we all carry within. Every day. Wherever we go. So: however much pain we are in - we are never alone. We find hope when we turn to God for strength and support.
And we find hope, when we encounter support offered by others.
For three millenia, Jews have been searching for a response to mental illness. Our ancestors struggled with a primitive understanding of these matters.
Several archaic Torah verses suggest that mental health disorders are a punishment for failing to observe the commandments. Thankfully, we know better. Later in the Bible, we meet David before he becomes King. The text introduces him as a mental health care provider…offering comfort to King Saul, who was afflicted with anxiety. This narrative helped to re-direct our Tradition’s early stigma of mental illness towards the compassionate stance we seek today.
We see this affirmed in the 6th century, in the Talmud, where the rabbis explore the legal minutia of a pregnant woman’s labor and delivery on Shabbat. There: they expand the legal definition of pikuach nefesh (the obligation to save a life) to encompass not only the physical health of the expectant mother, but her mental health too.
By the 13th century, the highly regarded Spanish authority, Nachmanides, extends this principle to all aspects of health, establishing how we approach this subject today. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff explains:
Judaism sees “mental illness as illness and not […] as moral fault. Judaism therefore does not treat mental illness as something for which one should repent or be punished, but rather as something that one should seek to prevent or cure as part of the general Jewish obligations to take care of ourselves and to heal.”
My own extended family in the last two decades has grappled with anxiety and eating disorders. And from those experiences, I’ve learned that there are no simple cures and quick fixes.
But we do have the capacity to get better. We can’t always do that on our own. But by leaning on support, we can get better.
Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll read from Torah: lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa. You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds, or suffers.
According to our tradition, the obligation to heal isn’t just one that falls to trained professionals. It falls to all of us. If we witness another’s suffering, we are called to involve ourselves.
That sense of obligation is at the heart of our synagogue’s essence. We build shared lives and real relationships by “sharing our stories, dreams and challenges. […] We recognize the holiness in each one of us as we celebrate our differences. We are committed to supporting each other, teaching tolerance and performing acts of loving-kindness.”
In our synagogue, that support begins with Cantor Becker, Rabbi Glickman, and me. We aspire to serve our community with listening hearts free of judgment. We welcome everyone seeking comfort and strength into our congregation. Beyond the formal learning we each did as part of our Seminary training, we bring to the table a combined 47 years of experience offering pastoral care as clergypeople.
Even more importantly: we have each made this work a priority in our ongoing professional development. For Cantor Becker, it’s focused on her ongoing Mussar training. For Rabbi Glickman, it’s a speciality in caring for young people and teens. And for me, a return to the classroom over the next few years for an advanced degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling. Each of us is available, should you be moved to seek our counsel and guidance.
To be clear: we are not licensed psychotherapists or psychiatrists. But we refer to those professionals regularly, primarily via our collaboration with Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS). Thanks to this partnership, we provide “one stop assistance” for most families’ needs.
As just one example of WJCS’s wider work, I want to invite you to the program they’re running on Wednesday evening November 7th. It will be an open forum on mental health challenges facing our Westchester community with speakers, reflection sessions, and an introduction to support resources. I’ll be attending with some of our teens, and hope you’ll join us.
Ultimately, the responsibility to create an inclusive and supportive community is one that rests with all of us.
Get involved by taking a copy of the handout that will be available in the sanctuary lobby on your way out tonight, with important information about suicide prevention and general mental health support.
Get involved by seeking support for yourself, or by referring your loved one.
You can get involved by sharing a loved one’s name, and the nature of their struggle, out loud the next time we pray for healing on Shabbat.
Get involved by way of Civic engagement and political advocacy. We’ll be sending an email in the next few days about how you can connect with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to take their “stigma-free” pledge, and have your name added to their advocacy email list.
Last but not least, I want to invite you to join us for an important listening session being planned for later this year. I’ll be co-facilitating the gathering with several temple members who are trained mental health professionals. We’ll be coming to hear from you - about the topics and support mechanisms that would be most supportive for you and your family in the year ahead.
From our Torah reading tomorrow morning: See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, [or] death and adversity.
The Biblical Author reminds us that our people are hurting. Some are hurting so badly that they’re thinking about committing suicide. How we respond to the mental health challenges in our midst have life and death consequences.
This work will not be easy. Supporting loved ones through mental illness is hard. It requires us to love differently, and with endless patience. It requires us to have the strength to know that there will be ups and downs and ups again.
As the poet Judy Brown puts it:
There is a trough in waves,
a low spot
where horizon disappears
and only sky
are our company.
And there we lose our way
we rest, knowing the wave will bring us
to its crest again.
There we may drown
if we let fear
hold us within its grip and shake us
side to side
and lead us flailing, torn, disoriented.
But if we rest there
in the trough,
the low part of the wave,
keeping our energy and
noticing the shape of things,
then time alone
will bring us to another
where we can see
horizon, see the land again,
regain our sense
and when we need to swim.
This is the work we are called to do. As the genie mentioned: it is not easy by any means. It will require courage, patience, faith, and hope.
May this be the year when we open our eyes to the suffering around us. May this be the year that the compassion of our synagogue is bold enough to encompass all forms of suffering, especially the whole array of mental illnesses that for far too long have been swept under the rug. May this be the year that we fulfill the essence of our congregation, opening our eyes and becoming a truly caring community…of every person, and every family. Keyn Yhi Ratzon - May this be God’s will.