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.