Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Shabbat

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav, the great teacher and story-teller to whose grave in Uman thousands make the pilgrimage every New Year, used to say: ‘Asur Lehitya’esh – It is forbidden to despair.’ To this was added, by him or by subsequent folklore the rhyme: ‘Rak Lismoach Yesh – Only and always be happy’. It won’t come as a surprise that he was reputed to suffer periodically from severe mental anxiety.

This Shabbat is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. JAMI which supports mental health in the Jewish Community is focussing on its Head On campaign:

Head On aims to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish Community. It is an opportunity to encourage people of all ages to be more in touch with their own mental health and wellbeing, and to raise awareness in the local and wider community. Head On falls annually on the Shabbat when the weekly Torah portion of “Bo” is read, which tells of the Plague of Darkness. The description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness.

Vayameish choshech, God instructs Moses before sending the penultimate plague: ‘Let there be palpable darkness’. There then descended over Egypt a darkness so thick that ‘no one could see his brother or get up from his place for three days.’ (Exodus 10:23)

The plain meaning is that it was utterly and impenetrably dark. But the verse put me painfully in mind of something different. Lo kamu ish tachtav, are the exact words in the Torah: literally, ‘no one could raise himself up from his low place’. We have them, inside us, such spaces. …. If we’ve been spared ever visiting those bleak internal realms we’re blessed. I know this from listening to people and from the rare dreadful hour – which few of us never experience. It’s been described to me as follows:

One can descend inside oneself to places where one’s terrors and persecutions are seemingly one’s only reality; down to the basement of the basement of some internal prison, den, horror-film mental ward; down below the sign at the entrance to Dante’s hell: ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here’. There one may sit, mentally banging one’s head against the dirty concrete wall, sometimes thinking that there’s only one way out…

One may know it’s absurd. People one loves may be in the next room, the same room, talking to one. But some seemingly impenetrable membrane separates them off. They belong to another universe. One knows they exist, but how to get back to them…

Kumu, kumu – get up, rise up,’ one says, holding out one’s hand to a mourner at the end of the seven days of the shivah, helping them up from the traditional low chair. Similarly, we hope that the hand held out to us in our hours of darkness, the hands we hold out to others, the heartfelt intention in the gaps between our inadequate words, will reach, make contact, and we will manage to help each other up.

Hopefully we return with relief and gratitude back from dark places into the daylight. Just as God, after hovering over the void where ‘darkness covered the deep’ calls out ‘Let there be light’, so the spirit of God inside us calls out in blessing and appreciation to the wonder of light.

We don’t know the inner reality of other people’s lives. We can never understand in full the brightness of their light or the depth of their – sometimes – darkness.

But we do know that we can be aware of one another, younger or older; show solidarity to each other; open the doors of our community, and, if we can our homes; acknowledge the hours of darkness and help each other find the right support and understanding. Depression and mental illness can make not just the sufferer but everyone around feel helpless and worthless. But often just being there, with patience and thoughtfulness, makes more difference than we can imagine.

We must keep faith that we will one day together once again bless the wonder of life and light.

 

A deeper EU, living in union with the earth

Our family were lucky enough to spend the last week in a cottage in South Wales. Outside the front door, below a lawn, was a shallow, fast-flowing river. Behind the house stood the oaks and beeches of a thin ridge of forest, above which stretched the stony, heath-covered hills of the Brecon Beacons.

I like to pray outside, even when the frost makes the grass crunch underfoot. It gives my prayers roots; I feel I’m praying not apart from, but with, the earth and the life it sustains.

Praying outdoors is an acknowledgement, too, that nature supports me, and that everything living around me, from the trees and birds to the people who live in these valleys, is my companion and fellow creature.

Yesterday I watched a dipper, a small black bird with a white front, diving for food off rocks in the middle of the stream. I know we’re not supposed to alter the matbe’a berachot, the ‘stamp’ or form of the blessings bequeathed us by our sages. But when I pray silently I often add just one word to the prayer for the land, asking God also to bless haberiyot, the creatures who live on it. Though the daily service refers in several places to all life, I don’t think there’s anywhere else that we pray for the plants and animals with whom we share our world and on which we depend.

Such a request is also a commitment. As Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote, many prayers are boomerangs. How can we ask God to look after the sick, if we can’t be bothered ourselves? How can we ask God to care for nature, if we ourselves treat it at best with neglect and at worst with contempt? (The first hundred yards of the road past the cottage and out of the town was littered with every kind of rubbish, at the rate of at least one plastic bag, bottle, or can every foot.)

Tomorrow we begin to read in the Torah about the Ten Plagues. I think of them as the ‘anti-ten’, in contrast to the Ten Commandments which legislate for the presence of God in society and the Ten Utterances (the ten times God says ‘let there be’ in the story of creation) which speak of the presence of God in all living things.

The ten plagues are what happens when tyranny, in the archetypal figure of a wicked Pharaoh, shows contempt for human dignity. Injustice and exploitation first destroy human society, then the earth itself, until ‘the very land stinks.’

So, in this calendar year when we are likely to leave the European Union, I want to make a commitment to a different, deeper EU, a union with the earth: with life, with people, especially people in illness or anguish, with the animals, with forests, with the water, the air and the soil. We live as if they belong to us; whereas in truth we belong to them.

Monday brings the month of Shevat, with the New Year for Trees on its full moon. May this be a year of planting, a year of respect for the birch, the beech, the oak and the pine, a year of connection with who we truly are, before each other, before nature and before God.

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