This Shabbat, when we read of the plague of darkness, has been designated Mental Health Shabbat by Jami, the mental health service for the Jewish community.
I often think of Dr Maurice Gaba, who was good to us at a difficult time for my family when my brother and I were small boys in Glasgow. Much later, when I was in my twenties, I would visit him and his wife in Jerusalem, after they made Aliyah. We even planted a rose garden together. ‘Suffering is unequally distributed in the world,’ he used to say then; ‘I saw too much of it during the war.’
It’s as true of mental as it is of physical suffering. Each of us feels life differently; what’s easy for some is painful for others. There’s a moving midrash on the words of Psalm 29 ‘The voice of God is ba’koach, ‘with the strength.’ Why ‘the’, the midrash asks; why not just ‘with strength’? Because, it answers, God addresses all of us personally, and is experienced by each of us individually, according to our varying sensitivities and mental state.
We ourselves are not the same from day to day or even hour to hour. Sometimes life sings in the head. Sometimes it gets you in the heart. Sometimes some of us want to hide in a place where the light can’t find us, because just walking down the street feels raw and exposing and we don’t feel safe even in our own footsteps.
When something hurts in our body, we can sometimes use our consciousness to contain the pain, put it aside, focus on other matters. We’re lucky to live in a country where medication for physical injuries is often, though not always, accessible and effective.
But when it’s our consciousness itself which hurts, where do we go then? Sometimes even the voices of those we know we love, and whom we know love us, bounce off some invisible membrane which seems to enclose our mind and trap us in our thoughts.
What can we do, for ourselves and each other? Sometimes we need the help of people with professional training, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrist, psychotherapists, to guide and help us heal from inside our own minds. During lockdown, when many of us have faced profound challenges of resilience and spiritual wellbeing they, like other health professionals, have been hugely challenged. I’m grateful to them for being there and keeping going.
But often what we need is a more understanding community, society, indeed world. When Pharaoh, in a moment of reprieve, asks Moses, ‘Who’re you planning to take with you out of Egypt?’ the answer is instant: ‘Everyone; we’re leaving nobody behind.’
In today’s harshly competitive, often brash world, focussed on success, which usually means work and financial success, we do sometimes leave people behind. It’s especially hard for young people to see how they’re going to pass all the exams, jump all the hurdles and make it through.
So, on this Shabbat dedicated to mental health, I want to appeal for kindness, patience, listening and imagination. This starts with how we treat ourselves and extends to our community, in fact to everyone we meet.
Imagination may sound like ‘the odd one out’ among these qualities. But I believe we need to re-imagine what qualities, and whom, we value. Perhaps it’s a phantasy, but some traditional societies were more generous and patient than our rushed world today. If this wasn’t true in the past, maybe we can make it so now.
Can we validate different sensitivities and needs, – the gift of really meaning a warm greeting, of simply listening, of being in touch with our child-soul, of relating to animals and nature, of doing a daily chore with care and pride, of seeing time as opportunity for kindness?
Maybe such attentiveness and openness would, at least in small ways, help to re-centre us and bring healing to our minds and souls.