In today’s world, we know a lot about different kinds of sickness and disease in the body. Many of us forget though, that the brain is also a part of the body that can get sick.
Mental illness is a term used for groups of disorders causing disturbances in thinking, feeling and relating. And while we might not talk about it often, mental illness affects many people we know.
I’m certain that our congregants, and their friends and loved ones all know people silently struggling with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders or any number of other mental health challenges.
While speaking with a congregant this past week about their ongoing work to identify harmful thoughts and to work to replace them with positive ones, I was inspired by their strength and reminded that struggling with happiness and choosing life is a battle at all ages and stages, for many people.
While this is a hard reality, it’s not a new one. Biblical characters, like King Saul, also fought and ultimately lost the battle with depression. Maimonidies, the great Jewish theologian and physician of the middle ages, referred to depression as his ‘Marah Shechorah,’ or ‘dark bitterness.’ And in this week’s Torah portion, we read Deuteronomy Chapter 14, verse 1 declare: “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves…”
Rabbi Alden Solovy explains that “In ancient days, the practice was to gash oneself as a sign of mourning.” To wound oneself intentionally and repeatedly is not only a symptom of depression but a unique mental health disorder affecting nearly two million Americans.
And in the commentary on this verse, our rabbis get into discussions about the importance of being able to cry, to mourn completely, and to physically show signs of sadness. They also talk about the limits of indulging in your sadness, noting that the dark bitterness that is depression can lead to emotional self-harm – as many individuals slash and incinerate their own heart and well-being through painful inner dialogues. And as a rabbi, I’ve come to learn that this behavior of emotional self-harm goes far beyond those struggling with mental illness.
Rabbi Jordie Gerson writes about this phenomenon that “Too often, our standards for ourselves … are simply unrealistic; we aspire to be what we see in magazines and on TV, on Instagram, and in our Facebook feeds. And so many of us, when we look in the mirror, focus on our imperfections, our extra pounds, and flaws, our wrinkles, and sags, our bald spots and age spots. Too often, we speak to ourselves with cruelty we would never use with the ones we love.”
I’m not just talking about those who suffer from mental illness now – I’m talking about every single one of us. This dissonance between our reflection and the unattainable perfection we are constantly striving for causes great pain and anguish. We must stop comparing ourselves to others.
The Torah tells us (in Deuteronomy 34:10) that “no one will ever be as great as Moses!” and yet the Talmud instructs us that: “Everyone is supposed to be as great as Moses.” How is this possible? What are we supposed to do? Should we strive to be like great leaders? Should we just desist from trying to be great? Of course not, but this impossible paradigm is set up to illustrate one of the poignant lessons taught by one of my favorite rabbis, Reb Zusya. One day Zusya’s students found him crying. It seems that in a dream Zusya spoke with an angel and had just learned that when he died, God would ask him about his life.
His students didn’t understand why Zusya of all people would be nervous. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?” Zusya replied; “I have learned that God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?”‘ Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you fully Zusya?'”
This lesson is one of the most profound lessons in Judaism. Every one of us was meant to be exactly who we are! Healthy or sick, happy or troubled, we are all beautiful. The hard part is being contented with ourselves. But what if we were able to embrace our imperfections?
Dan Nichols a Jewish songwriter and teacher who visited Sinai last year wrote a beautiful version of Asher Yatzar, our morning blessing thanking God for our body and soul, with all our flaws. It states: “I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too.” This idea that we’re already perfect, even with our brokenness, doesn’t mean we stop working on ourselves. On the contrary, we are always striving to be our best selves. Judaism supports us utilizing therapy, medicine, study, meditation – anything and everything we can – in order to do this. It is our job to take advantage of all of the resources we have to help ourselves, but we focus on being ourselves – not someone else.
What if we all tried it, looked in a mirror and said yes, I’m a little broken, and I am also perfect the way I am.
What if, when looking in the mirror – instead of seeing our faults, we saw ourselves in all our beauty. Looking into the reflection, What if we saw eyes that have seen great art, and the faces of our beloveds, eyes that, even if they may need reading glasses now, have seen mountains, and vineyards, beaches, and forests. Our ears that have heard our children or grandchildren’s voices, the crescendo of an orchestra, the tenderness of a loved one, or the sound of a steady rainfall? What if in our mouths, we saw every kind word we have said, every delicious glass of wine we have tasted, all the delicacies we have savored? What if we saw our crow’s feet as belly laughs, our wrinkled hands as a map of the flowers we have planted, the books we have read, the generations we have inspired, the meals we have cooked, the hugs we have given? What if we saw our forehead lines as worry for those we love, our eyebrows raised in awe? We would see ourselves as so beautiful we could not look away.
Then we would never think to hurt or cut our bodies or to internally tare ourselves down, we would instead celebrate all we are, perfections and brokenness side by side.
This Shabbat, may we all be able to see ourselves as perfect – just the way we are.
Ken Yihi Razon – May this be God’s will.