Kol Nidre 2019
Rabbi Benjamin David
The Talmud teaches that in the days of ancient Israel, when our ancestors spotted a tree that looked unwell, they would paint its trunk red. The rabbis go back and forth as to why on earth we would do this. It feels like a desecration.
One rabbi wonders if the red paint doesn’t embarrass the tree. It’s already dealing with illness; now it must also deal with shame, the rabbi argues. Another rabbi says that the red paint was practical. Maybe there was something wrong with the soil or the climate right in that area, so the paint serves as a warning to others who might be tempted to plant there.
To this another rabbi says, so you now assure that this lone, struggling tree will also not have any neighbors.
A final sage chimes in and says, my dear teachers, the red paint exists so that we know that this tree is hurting and we passers-by will be encouraged to provide some care for it and include its well-being in our prayers, for we might have never known.
I believe that we too are the tree, quietly hurting, often downright incapable of speaking our pain.
We share everything with everyone these days, so why are we so afraid to acknowledge that we are all, in some way, broken?
It’s not a rhetorical question. One answer might go like this: We live in a society that values perfection and image and every Instagram post must depict the ideal family with the ideal kids making the ideal decisions while wearing the ideal outfit and headed to the ideal school where they will get the ideal grades.
We live in a society where weakness is seen as a weakness. Where vulnerability is untenable. We live in a society that too frequently puts the most attractive and most able-bodied and most emotionally strong personas as the lead in movies and TV shows and as the main characters in dramas and as the would-be idol of every one of us.
Thus it makes sense that we wouldn’t break out the paint to announce to the world that we are indeed carrying a burden. But we are. We all are.
Some of us are hurting in a way that’s public. People see our tears, our scars. They see our cast or our cane. They can’t help but notice our wheelchair.
But so many of us are hurting quite privately. Our pain is within. It’s the pain of loss. It’s the pain that comes with challenging life transitions. It’s the pain of disappointment. It’s the pain of relationships that have taken a difficult turn. The pain is emotional or psychological.
Maybe you can’t sleep. Maybe you don’t eat. Maybe you secretly live with addiction. Maybe you’ve been victimized by abuse. Maybe your pain is the pain of unbearable stress. Maybe you’re worried to reveal to the world that you’re not as rich or as content or as anything at all actually as the world thinks you are.
Maybe you’re sad, deep deep deep down inside, you are just sad.
This is a sermon on wellbeing and, more than that, this is a sermon on mental health. It’s time we talk about it. We have to talk about it.
The numbers tell me so:
Over 40 million American adults live with an anxiety disorder.
15% of Americans will deal with depression at some point in their lifetime.
The adults with the highest rate of depression are aged 18-25.
The percentage of adults who seek treatment for their depression: 35%
In the last fifteen years suicide rates in the U.S have gone up 30%
44,000 Americans die of suicide each year.
But to be honest I don’t need those numbers. And neither do you. Our kids are anxious. We are anxious. We know that depression is widespread as are eating disorders, self-esteem issues, and yes suicidal tendencies.
I don’t need the numbers because I spend my days with you, parents and teens. You come to me and talk to me with the door closed, in hushed tones, about the pressures inherent in just existing in 2019, against the backdrop of a world that can be so totally unforgiving at best and downright horrifying more often than not.
You tell me that you don’t know what to do. That nothing prepared you for all of this. And I understand.
Maybe we don’t bring up our challenges with our loved ones and our friends because we just don’t know how. We think it will come off as threatening or strange. We think that bringing up our imperfections will scare them away or even have them love us less. Once we refused to talk about cancer or AIDS because we might invite it into our home. Once we didn’t talk about racism or anti-Semitism because we wanted to pretend it wasn’t there.
Well it’s all there. Of course it’s there. And it deserves our attention more than ever.
In fact there may be reasons we Jews specifically have been reluctant to discuss our mental wellbeing with our spouse or kids or friends. That becomes especially clear if you do a close reading of early rabbinic texts that equate instability with transgression.
The Talmud will argue that the shoteh, loosely translated as someone who is ‘deranged,’ is ineligible to serve as a witness or get married. In their effort to equate absolutely everything with one’s faithfulness to the laws of the Torah, they believed that such behavior could only be punishment for a life of sin.
To put it simply, if you were somehow atypical, you must have done something wrong. After all this approach was so much easier than admitting that mental sickness is often very random, caring little of age or gender or choices or socio-economic status.
Going further, the rabbis struggled with those who were mentally or emotionally wounded in large part because they didn’t know what to do with them. They couldn’t easily categorize them, in a faith tradition that categorizes absolutely everything: Foods we eat and foods we don’t, this is Shabbat, this is the rest of the week, these days we work and these days we don’t.
They didn’t know what to do with someone who generally looked happy and seemed so adjusted on the outside but was in fact manic or constantly sad or prone to outbursts or more than that.
In an ironic way it might have fed into our collective pursuit of mental health professions, this penchant to explore that which the rabbis told us was so taboo.
Maybe it explains why, according to one study, a shocking 29% of psychiatrists in the United States are Jewish. Freud was Jewish…obviously…as were Maslow, Fromm and Adler, all among the pioneers of psychoanalysis.
And some of our people in this very sanctuary are leading the charge today and encouraging us to open up about our struggles. Among that proud group of doctors and therapists and social workers and advocates is one Sami Sorid. If you haven’t heard of her let me tell you a bit about her.
Sami is the oldest of three sisters. She grew up right here in Mt Laurel. Her family have been longtime members of our congregation. Sami is not shy about the fact that she has struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – OCD – since she was very young.
Actually she decided that she would not only share her story, but encourage others to do the same and raise funds for those who grapple now with OCD and other psychological ailments. She organized the Movement for Mental Health, a bike ride across South Jersey for mental health awareness. You can check it out by following Move for Mental Health One on Instagram.
Sami has done the seemingly impossible, realizing that it’s ok, in the words of Todd Parr, to need some help. It’s ok to talk about your feelings. It’s ok to be different.
And in the process she’s given all of us permission to go there too.
So if you are one of the people struggling, whether quietly or not-so-quietly, on your own or among others, whether your struggle began recently or has plagued you for years, I hope you know that there is help available to you. If you need a recommendation for a good therapist, you can come to me and I can help guide you.
And that goes for every one of us. Parents, if you have a teen in your house, someone who is burdened, and which teens aren’t, it might be worth thinking about it for them.
If you’d rather not ask me about it, then ask your doctor the next time you go for a check-up.
Help also comes in the form of community. It’s been proven that community is indeed great medicine, maybe not a cure, but a balm to the loneliness that emotional pain often brings.
As Brad Stulberg notes in his latest book, The Passion Paradox, many trees reach not down into the ground but out, yes in search of light and water, but also in search of other roots to help them stay upright.
If we are all a red-painted tree in the end, then indeed we would do well to bind our roots to the roots of the those around us, people who love us and accept us precisely because of who we are. To be part of this congregation is to know that you are part of this tree, and that together we are indeed an Eitz Chaim, a Tree of Life as we give each other life and, with that, the sustenance and strength we do need these days.
Now, some will remember when, a number of years ago, I challenged you to think about your six-word memoir. Do you remember that? You filled close to a thousand post-its with the most memorable and meaningful and in some cases absolutely hilarious responses.
I know because Robin Liebman and I collected as many of these as possible so that she could make a fabulous mosaic with them. It hangs in my office to this very day.
You said things like: Still striving for a better me. Life is a mirror so smile.
You said things like: Stronger than I thought I was. Life is short, live it now.
And this one: Never place ketchup on hot dogs.
Or this one: Thank God, I am an atheist.
And from one of our younger congregants: My life is very, very fun.
Well it’s a new year and I have a new challenge for you, maybe a sign of our times. This challenge will have us also take a post-it. They’ll be set up in the library tonight and throughout the coming days. On your post-it I invite you to write the following and we’re going to do it as an affirmation of the fact that not a single one of us is perfect and that everyone of us is grappling with something or maybe much more than something.
Your prompt for your post-it is: I need help with…
I need help with…
From there you can use as many words as you want. Or at least as many that will fit on a post-it.
You’ll leave it anonymous of course. Maybe your post-it is just a chance to vent. Or maybe you’ll see it against the backdrop of a sea of other post-its and find reassurance that you are not alone and that we all need help with something and that we as a community are indeed resilient and beautiful in our entirely vulnerable and less-than-perfect, perfectly perfect selves.
Is this not community after all? Only you will know which one is yours.
And going forward into this year, as we brace for more news and more homework and more college applications and more and more and more, know that it’s ok to need help and it’s ok to ask for help. Know that there is help out there for you, specifically you.
And please also know this: You are loved and you are sacred and precious. You are the only you that ever has been and ever will be and this planet needs you and me and all of us and all of our red paint now and always. Amen.