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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Kabbalat Shabbat - Mental Awareness Shabbat

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's Drash or read it below


I’ve started writing this Drash several times this week. Why? Because this Shabbat is mental health awareness Shabbat and it means that clergy around the country have been asked to talk about mental health from the bimah. It’s such an important initiative, and one that means a huge amount to me personally, so why has it been so hard?

I think in a large part it’s because i suppose I'm so aware from the daily conversations that I have with members of this community, with my own friends, that in so many ways at the moment people couldn't be more aware their own mental health, and aware of the fact that there are a lot of people, a lot of us, who are really not ok at the moment. 

Pandemic reality means people are painfully aware of how hard life is, and of how difficult it is to keep up with everyday expectations and responsibilities. And when things are hard, there’s so much guilt, frustration, sadness, despair, that comes alongside it. Old demons are creeping back up on people. 

These are the daily conversations in our community at the moment, but they’re not always open conversations. They’re phone calls made on the way to the shops or when out with the dog, text messages sent while children are playing in the next room, late night emails when the silence and dark at 2am don’t seem to have given your body the cue that it’s really time to sleep. And sometimes that makes it harder, lonelier, heavier. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have asked someone ‘have you spoken to someone about this?” and the answer has been something along the lines of ‘they've got so much on their plate right now’ or ‘I need to hold it together because everyone is relying on me’, or ‘I'm just not sure who to talk to, I feel very alone at the moment’. 

Mental health awareness Shabbat is this weekend because it is on Shabbat Bo that we read the story of the plague of darkness. The Torah tells that a thick darkness descended on the land of Egypt. People couldn’t see each other, and for three days nobody could get up from where he or she was. The darkness of the plague is different to everyday darkness, the one that falls each evening and is broken reliably in the morning by the sun. Torah describes it as a darkness that can be touched, it’s thick, and the things that usually shine through regular darkness, don’t penetrate it’s fog. 

It’s the language of the plague of darkness, but it’s also the language of many people’s reality. The darkness was lonely. It stopped people connecting, and it was paralysing. The things that usually worked to break it, stopped working. 

And then what? There are so many commentaries on this that refer to the ability of the Israelites to bring light and brighten those spaces that had been made dark. The Israelites could walk right into the darkness, and overcome it. Whenever I read these commentaries, I wonder if that must have been the worst bit for the Egyptians. These peppy Israelites walking happily through a world where they felt so overcome and trapped and being completely fine. I wonder if it’s the ancient equivalent to the ire inducing social media snaps of people living their best pandemic lives with their impeccable sour dough, regimented home school schedules, and apparently eternally dust-resistant homes. 

I can just imagine what they’d say. Oh come on, just snap out of it, look on the bright side, be positive, find the light, I can do it, you can too.

I keep returning to the isolation of the plague, the way that it separated people from each other, and from the world. It made everything hard to see, and hard to feel. And maybe this is why a Shabbat like this is important. Not so we can fill our synagogues with platitudes or toxic positivity, but so that we can name and acknowledge the nature of darkness, and bear witness to it together. So that we can say publicly that it is ok not to be ok, that it is not just you, that you are not faulty or a failure, that biology and circumstance can deal the cruelest of blows and that sometimes we need to be able to acknowledge just how much of a miracle it can feel like to be able to get from one day to the next. It’s no accident that so much of our liturgy, and especially our psalms, begin with the words ‘out of the depths I called to you’. 

I’m a big West Wing fan, and I think I mean that on multiple levels this inauguration week, and there’s a moment in the episode Noël when Josh, the president's deputy chief of staff has had a rough session with his therapist who he is seeing for PTSD. He meets his boss, Leo Mcgarry in the hallway, and Leo tells him a story:

This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, "Hey you, can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here." The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out." 

I don’t buy that our role as a religious community is to do what the priest did, but rather, collectively, that there’s a lot of life that’s been lived around here, and we’ve been down a fair few holes before. Community is about celebrating together, but it’s also about stumbling through together, trying to make sense of the moment, and carry each other forward. When conversations about our mental health are held in the open, we are in a much better place to be there for one another.  

So this Shabbat, we are not tossing prayers at you, in the naive assumption that like a magic spell they'll break the fog, but rather, the space we create when we sing and gather together is permission to bring the things you are carrying, and to see if the presence of others and the company of ancient wisdom and words can ease the burden.

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782