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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Judaism and Mental Illness

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This sermon was delivered at Sinai Temple on June 16. 

There is a ritual that occurs during the Torah service, usually in between the third and fourth Aliyah. You might notice that the rabbis recite a misheberach, a special prayer for those in need of healing. The list contains many names, adults and children, those terminally ill, others facing surgery. Sometimes the names are in Hebrew and sometimes in English.

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And each week, we pray the following words: May God bring blessing and healing to all who suffer illness within our congregational family. May God restore them to health and vigor, granting them physical and spiritual well-being. So here’s the question: How does a name get on the list?

You might think that’s a simple question, but in reality, the process of getting on that list is deeper and more impactful than you might realize. When someone is hospitalized or homebound or recently diagnosed with an illness, whatever it might be, a friend or family member calls the rabbis and cantors to say, “I want you to know that someone I love, someone I care about is suffering or in trouble. Will you please pray for them? And when that happens, I certainly keep that person in my prayers, but there is also a sense of relief, because I know the person calling me will check in, keep tabs on the person who is ill and continue to give me updates on their well-being.

But it is pretty rare when a person calls and asks to include someone on that list who has depression or mental illness. When a mother goes through postpartum depression after childbirth, or when someone is diagnosed as bipolar, I don’t get many calls or requests to visit or reach out to that person who is desperately in need. I would safely bet that the long list we read on Shabbat contains very few souls affected by mental illness — there may not even be one.

So why is that? Why do we feel so comfortable praying for and reaching out to someone who is diagnosed with a disease that affects the body, but when it comes to mental illness, alcoholism, depression — ailments that are scientifically proven to be diseases, illnesses that are no one’s fault, there is stigma, there is embarrassment, there is shame.

But as one of your faith leaders, I am asking that we train ourselves to think and behave differently. Jessica Evans, a blogger for the Jerusalem Post, writes, “Regarding those with mental illness — there are no cards or brisket or challah sent over. No phone calls just checking in or encouraging one to keep going.”

To sit by someone’s side, hold their hand and assure them that they are not alone nor forgotten — it might be just enough to get that person through to see another day.

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And I am just as guilty as anyone else. Why am I speaking about mental illness this Shabbat? It’s no secret: Two major celebrities took their lives allegedly because they suffered from demons within. And because of their status — one a fashion icon and the other a celebrity chef-TV personality — we are rattled. The media say what we are thinking: But they looked happy; they must have been incredibly wealthy; they own empires; they have families.

But none of those bandages matters when someone is sick within their core. When someone is truly ill, money, fame, success — none of that matters when because of your illness, you can’t get out of bed in the morning. When you look in a mirror seeing defeat, a withering star, a spark consumed by the darkness because you have a disease.

I shouldn’t speak about mental illness only during a week in which celebrities adorn the news and social media. But their stature brings a gift to the world and sheds light on this topic that seems so taboo within our surrounding culture and certainly our faith. It is my responsibility and our responsibility to remember that depression is something rampant throughout the Tanakh. Yes, our biblical and prophetic leaders — the characters in whom we seek guidance and counsel — they, too, suffered with chronic loneliness, grief and isolation, and stumbled through life because of their condition.

Think of Hannah: She’s unable to have a child. Year after year, she struggles with infertility, and falls into a deep depression. Her husband looks at her lament and says to her, “Hannah, why are you crying? Why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad?” She would think about other women bearing children and would weep and would not eat.

And do you know when we read these verses about Hannah? About her struggles, her inability to engage with the world because she is so sick with pain? On Rosh Hashanah. On a day which we hear the broken notes of the shofar. In sounding that ram’s horn, we vow to look for the shattered, to hear their cries and bring them close. A day on which we read a story about a woman who begins to feel better after a priest, after a member of the clergy listens to her cries. We may not be able to prevent mental illness or cure it; but to sit by someone’s side, hold their hand and assure them that they are not alone or forgotten — it might be just enough to get that person through to see another day. Or it might be the conversation that alerts a friend or family member that this person needs help and the ill person can’t make the journey alone.

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There’s the prophet Elijah. The Israelites worship a forbidden idol, and Elijah causes all of the prophets of that idol to be killed by God. Queen Jezebel gets angry and threatens to come after Elijah. This is what the book of Kings says about our famous prophet: He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” Then he laid down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” All Elijah wanted to do was succumb to his depression, his fear, live alone, stop eating, and go to sleep … perhaps, forever. To sleep it all away. But an angel of God wouldn’t allow it — and told him to get back up.

When do we speak about Elijah? At every brit milah, when a baby boy is eight days old, it is Elijah who is welcomed in to remind us that this is the child who might bring the coming of the Messiah. Elijah — a broken soul — returns to us every Passover seder to declare that one day we will all experience redemption together. The lesson: Even the broken among us can pray for and experience hope, but here’s the catch: They need an angel urging them to experience life yet again.

We speak about Hannah, a depressed woman, on our Jewish New Year. We usher in Elijah to our most celebrated moments, a man who asked God to take his life. Our faith is urging us to stop hiding the names of those we love, the people in our lives suffering every day. We must be their angels, lifting them over and over again, reminding them there is much to live for. That they are not alone when the journey feels impossible.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a rabbinic figure known for both his wisdom and depression, said, “Struggle with your sadness. Struggle with your soul … the point is not to rid oneself of struggle, but to accept it as a condition of being human” — meaning that we might not be able to lift someone else entirely out of their sorrow or cure them of their disease. But to let someone know that we see their struggle, that their pain is valid and real, and that mental illness belongs on that misheberach list, it is then, perhaps, that we fulfill the words of the Psalmist, “The Lord hears when I call to him.” Our loved ones are calling out, and God is asking us to listen.

Let those suffering within this congregation and beyond hear my prayer:

Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, may those paralyzed with mental illness know they are not alone. There is no shame in being diagnosed with a disease. God, remind us that as we pray for healing, we pray for body, spirit and mind. Let those whose minds give them trouble and pain understand that their faith has not abandoned them. May we be continuous beacons of hope, comfort and light to those who feel trapped within the darkness. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

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