As a rabbi, I’m often tasked with helping others find meaning in suffering and hope in times of despair. Drawing from the wellspring of biblical and rabbinic wisdom, I frequently find support for a wide range of broken hearts, and I typically have a comforting text to point to. Existential loneliness? Turn to Psalms 23:4:“Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You [God] are with me ()”. Overwhelmed by constant failure? “Always remember, says Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, that “You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome” (). Lacking self-worth? Do not despair, says Rabbi Simcha Bunam: “The world was created for your sake.”
What happens, though, when the caregiver becomes immune to the very soul medicine they share with others and the walls of faith that they’ve built begin to crumble?
I first started asking myself these questions a year ago when I found myself in the emergency room with an IV in my arm. I could hardly move — exhausted from the loss of fluids and the debilitating nausea, I was stuck pondering all the worst case scenarios in my hospital bed. After all, this was the second time within the month that I found myself in this position. “Do I have cancer? Am I dying? How could this be happening —I’m not even thirty.” I lamented.
After weeks of ongoing blood work and body scans, I was finally cleared, as my tests came back negative. “Are you sure?” I asked my doctor. “Yes — but I encourage you to talk to someone. I think you may be struggling with depression.” “Depression? What does a gastroenterologist know about mental health?” I asked myself. Little did I know, the stomach acts as our second brain, unconsciously processing our emotions and inner worlds.
Starting therapy, prioritizing my mental health and confronting my depression has not only been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made but a profoundly religious experience. How can you begin to know God if you don’t even really know yourself? As Rambam teaches, “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God — for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill…”
How can we love thy neighbor as thyself if we don’t learn to first love of ourselves? “Serve God through happiness” proclaimed the Psalmist — how can one serve God through happiness if they’re clinically depressed?
Self-care is not a new age idea — it’s a religious imperative. The Baal Shem Tov teaches, “The main rule in serving God is that you should keep yourself from sadness and depression to the very best of your ability…Without joy, it is impossible to be attached constantly to God.” Yet seeing a therapist and taking medication remains heavily stigmatized within many portions of the Jewish community. Instilling shame around mental illness is antithetical to Jewish values and is increasingly extremely dangerous for those suffering.
Rabbis and community leaders have a responsibility to build communities that support those dealing with depression and other mental illnesses — the first step is speaking openly about it and encouraging those who need help to get help. Thankfully, members of my community have started opening up to me about their suffering after I shared my own battles. In addition to offering pastoral care, we now offer other programming that specifically deals with mental health like support space — an hour long open session for individuals to discuss life’s challenges and pains with others. If we’re serious about creating vibrant communities, we need to get creative and even vulnerable in establishing mental health awareness.
Afterall, sanctifying brokenness is foundational to Judaism: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; those crushed in spirit He delivers,” taught King David. The mystics explain that God created the world through brokenness by using shattered vessels of previous worlds. We even collected the broken shards of the first tablets that Moses smashed and carried them along with the second tablets in the holy ark. At the Passover Seder, we attempt to hear the fractured world by breaking the middle matzah.
In just a few short days, we will bless and listen to the ancient cries of the shofar. Challenging our emotional capacity, the shofar wonders whether we’re capable of hearing not just the pain of others but the wails of our own hearts. In the days of Joshua its wail brought down the walls of Jericho — today, it does so for the barriers surrounding our soul. On these days of awe, we all stand exposed and vulnerable as the shofar reminds us that brokenness can also be holy and God can also be found there. Parker Palmer says it best: “I understand that to move close to God is to move close to everything that human beings have ever experienced. And that, of course, includes a lot of suffering, as well as a lot of joy.”