Friday, April 27, 2018

Kedoshim - Mental Health Awareness

Shabbat Shalom. Tonight we count the 28th day, that is four weeks, of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Malkhut sh’b’Netzach, or Majesty in Endurance. The Omer Calendar for Biblical Women attributes this day to Ritzpeh, a concubine of King Saul whose sons are killed off by King David in the transition of power. They are impaled, and Ritzpeh stays with their bodies day and night, refusing to allow birds of prey to land on them and further their destruction and humiliation. When David hears about this, he has the bodies removed from their posts and buried properly in Saul’s ancestral tomb. Ritzpeh embodies the strength of spirit, the grace and majesty on endurance, of one who refuses to be treated as less than human, overcoming great odds and forcing people in power to recognize her suffering.
Earlier this week, I wrote a d'var Torah about the ethical business laws given in this week's parasha and the fact that tomorrow is Clara Lemlich's birthday (a leader in the early Labor Movement) and Tuesday is May Day/International Worker's Day. The summary is, the Torah gives us laws to work fairly by, and it seems they inspired the many Jewish women you can thank for having a weekend. You can find the rest of it on the previous post on this blog.  

But some other things have happened in my orbit this week that cause me to turn back to a teaching I hold near and dear to my heart. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Acherei-Kedoshim gives us the oft-quoted, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Ten verses later, it tells us, "You shall not make marks in your flesh." A very difficult piece of Torah for some of us is to recognize that in order to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to love ourselves. It is possible to learn to do this through our love for others. To think of those who would do anything to protect us from harm, who would defend us from others, can be a strong reminder to not inflict self-harm and to hear their voices in our heads as they might say to a third party to leave their friend/sibling/child/etc. alone. While many may struggle with self-harm, maladaptive coping mechanisms, or may not have really anything to help shield them from themselves, those same people would still never dream of harming someone else. 

I don’t know of any other rabbis with this commentary, but to me it seems clear that if we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must treat ourselves as we would our neighbors and not inflict harm on ourselves we would not do to others. This is of course easier said than done, as the urge to self-harm is already not a healthy one for so many other reasons and is compulsive and complicated and deeply ingrained. Overcoming the depths of depression and learning to manage mental illness in healthy ways takes so much more than two verses of Torah. It is a lot of just gritting teeth and waiting for the therapy and the meds to kick in, it takes waiting for the initial hurt that catalyzed the episode to fade, it takes so much that is out of anyone’s control. 

But gritting teeth and gripping tightly this Torah teaching, and allowing time for the interventions to work, can bring on such freedom and knowledge of strength. Please know, it is so worth pushing through and holding on to see the next day. Getting out of rock bottom means you can do literally anything, because you already beat your own brain, and you will overcome each new episode after that with increasing strength. I know this piece of Torah can't save everyone who struggles with self-harm or suicidal ideation. But I know how important it has been to me in the past I hope by spreading it, we can all inspire one more faithful person in pain to stay with us at least a little longer. When we are honest about these difficult topics, we can share Ritzpeh’s grace and majesty of endurance, and we create space for healthy processing of suffering. 

May these verses inspire those in their depths to share with themselves the love and restraint they would share with others, and may all with a cloudy outlook look forward to the day the clouds part and they can feel the sun on their faces again, and when that happens, I know that they will see how amazing and strong and whole they are for overcoming this episode, and every hard moment to come.

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