By Rabbi Sandra Cohen
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed:
how many will pass on and how many will be born;
who will live and who will die;
who in his fullness of time and who not in her full time;
who will be at peace and who will be troubled;
who will be serene and who will be disturbed.
As we prepare, for the new year, the words and melody of the U’ne’taneh Tokef ring in our hearts. Each year, some who are present with us at Rosh Hashanah will not live until the next year. And some who are present (or not able to be present) will experience a kind of death in life: not fullness of time, but a life that is troubled, disturbed. For some, life will not feel worth living.
As rabbis, we want to reach out to these people (and their families, who are hurting as well). How do we do so? What can we accomplish?
The first step is to know our limits. We will not cure mental illness by mentioning the topic from the bima. Literature in our lobby will not prevent every suicide, and opening our study doors to those who want to talk will not convince every vulnerable person to come in.
But that does not mean these steps are not powerful. When, during our Mi Sheberach (or healing service), we call out the need for healing for those suffering from mental illnesses, from depression to schizophrenia, from addiction and eating disorders to obsessive compulsive disorder, we let our congregants know we see them – and are not afraid. We pray for a re’fu’ah shleimah, after all, a complete healing: nefesh and guf, body, mind and soul.
When we put literature in our lobby about the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), AA and the Trevor Project (crisis and suicide intervention and education for LGBTQ youth), we proclaim: We see you. Folks with mental health issues, you are welcome here.
When we post the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) and text line (741741) in our bathrooms, we say: Help is available. Use this number. Or… call the rabbi. (Some congregations are creating business cards with such information as well as links to websites with mental health resources to put in their lobbies and bathrooms. This way, people in need can take the information home easily and discretely.)
When we preach about the Jewish value of bikkur holim – of seeing the ill among us and caring for them – we reduce stigma. We remind our community that mental illness is just that – an illness – and not a choice. And those who are sick, and their families, need the same support as those struggling with any chronic illness. Mental illness is, for most, not a one-time event but a journey, with times of peace and times of struggles, with remissions and recurrence. But the person with the mental illness is always there, under the surface, beneath the symptoms. As rabbis, we must call out the need to see each person, whether he is well or struggling, when she is serene and when she is disturbed.
We have no power over who will live and who will die. But for the rest: Much lies in our hands. Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: these help temper the harshness of the decree.
Teshuvah: Let us call for a welcome, a return home, if you will, of all our congregants. When rabbis mention mental illness from the bima, congregants will flood forward with their stories, their experiences, their pain. Let us make known our shuls are open to them this High Holy Day season and always.
Tefillah: Let us make space before G-d for those who are hurting, whether with an illness of their own or a family member’s. Help our congregants know G-d cares about their suffering, that our synagogues can be places to find space with the Holy One, and even those who rage against the Creator belong in our midst. Coming before the Holy One of Blessing to tell our story, whether it is a song of praise, a yearning for answers or an angry tirade, is always sacred experience.
Tzedakah: Let us act with righteousness. Each morning, during Birkot HaShachar, we remember the middot that help us create a more just, and a kinder, world. Included among these are welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, acting with loving kindness … and making peace among people. Help us to inspire our congregants to act with care and compassion toward one another.
Together, we may help those who are troubled find serenity, if only for a time, in our communities. We will not cure those who are disturbed and hurting, but we can acknowledge their presence, welcome them as part of our kehillah ke’doshah, our holy community, and thus help them to find renewal, rejuvenation and return during this High Holy Day season.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches, offers pastoral care and works in mental health outreach in the Jewish community. She is a contributor for The Blue Dove Foundation, whose mission is to raise awareness of, end the stigma of and educate people about mental health and substance abuse in the Jewish community. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and substance abuse, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness or visit The Blue Dove Foundation’s resources page. Rabbi Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org