Rosh Hashanah II 5780
Rabbi Scott B. Roland
Congregation Shaarey Tikvah
I am going to talk to you about mental illness today. It is a serious subject and I pray it will not be triggering. I would like to share deeply, personally, and use a number of stories. I know you will listen closely and take my words as an opportunity to talk further. First, a reminder. I am a rabbi, not a mental health professional. If you take away one thing from my words this morning, let it be to remember that help is available. I can be a resource and a source of referrals. We all deserve the opportunity to learn, grow, change, and work toward living our best lives.
The Baal Shem Tov was a storyteller, a healer, and a mystic who lived in modern day Ukraine at the beginning of the 18th Century. He is considered the spiritual founder of what we call Hasidic Judaism today. Though the spiritual founder, that is not to say that there were not other sages who preceded him. It is well known that Rabbi Zev Kitzes, a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov, first opposed him. However, he eventually came around and accepted the Baal Shem Tov as his teacher. The two are buried side by side in the town of Medzhybizh.
Once, the Baal Shem Tov invited Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret mystical meanings behind the blasts of the shofar. Rabbi Kitzes was to be the one who would call out the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. It would happen that Rabbi Kitzes would say, “Tekiah! Shevarim! Teruah!” and the Baal Shem Tov would sound the relevant blasts. Rabbi Kitzes took this responsibility quite seriously. He learned the secret meanings and even wrote them down on a sort of cheat sheet, so that he could refer to them during the service. All of this was for the purpose of maintaining the proper kavanah, the proper intention, during these sacred moments. Rabbi Kitzes took this piece of paper and placed it in his shirt pocket, close to his heart, for safekeeping.
When the time came for the Baal Shem Tov to sound the shofar, Rabbi Kitzes reached into his pocket for the slip of paper. He had hoped to scan it and be sure he was in the proper mindset for this most auspicious moment. Alas, the paper was nowhere to be found. The Rabbi became flustered, warm, and found it difficult to concentrate. His breathing became shallow and a deep sadness overcame him. Brokenhearted, he wept bitter tears. Yet somehow, Rabbi Kitzes mustered enough strength to say the words, “Tekiah! Shevarim! Teruah!” As he had not been concentrating on their hidden mystical meanings, Rabbi Kitzes considered himself a failure.
After these events, Rabbi Kitzes related his emotional rollercoaster to his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov. His master replied, as he so often did, with a parable. “Lo, in the dwelling place of the King are to be found many rooms and apartments. There happen to be different keys for every lock. But the master key of all the locks is the axe, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So too it is with the shofar. The secret meanings are the keys. Every gate has another meaning. But the master key is a broken heart. When one truthfully breaks open their heart before God, they can enter into all the gates of all the apartments of the Sovereign above all sovereigns, the Holy One, blessed be God. (Based upon the story told in Days of Awe, Edited by S.Y. Agnon, p.74)
Not to make too many assumptions, but I imagine many of us have experienced moments when we have felt like Rabbi Kitzes. I know I certainly have. Perhaps we worked hard to achieve something, envisioned what success might look like, only to stumble and fall when the time came and things did not go as planned. Perhaps our brain’s chemistry began to play tricks on us and the confidence we once held firm, quickly slipped away. In those moments it can feel like the world is moving very fast around us, and yet we are standing still.
In the months preceding Aviva and my wedding. I spent many hours visiting doctors. This odd thing had happened where I felt dizzy all the time. It was often near paralyzing. I could be at work, at home, in the car, or running one of many pre-nuptial errands. Eventually, one of my doctors sent me to the hospital for testing. I can’t recall exactly what the test was called, but after a short search on the web, my best guess of the torture I endured was called videonystagmography. Though this might mean something to some of the medical professionals here today, I am pretty sure videonystagmography is Latin for, let’s see if we can make this guy vomit while we make a video of the whole thing. I somehow made my way home from the hospital alone. I recall stopping on the side of the road at one point and trying to compose myself. After arriving home, I spent many hours in bed, holding on for dear life in a spinning room. Eventually the results came back negative. Apparently, I was just fine.
Having exhausted all of his resources, my ENT sent me to talk to a neurologist. One does not have to stretch one’s imagination too far to imagine how terrified my poor mother was at this point. I sincerely think she doubted that I was going to make it to my own wedding. My consult with the neurologist began with small talk. The doctor and I quickly made the connection that he graduated High School with some of my High School wrestling coaches. For some reason, that was comforting. Then, he simply asked, “How are you, Scott? What is going on in your life?” Boy, did he open a can of worms. I told him that I was getting married in a few weeks. That I would be moving to Massachusetts two days after my wedding, and that I was starting a six-year graduate program to become a rabbi. This conversation led to a diagnosis. Though the diagnosis did not lead to a cure, the diagnosis itself was life changing.
Somehow, I had reached adulthood without having a name for this feeling that had been creeping in and out of my chest for as long as I could remember. As an adult with a recently diagnosed anxiety disorder, I began scanning my memory as far back as it could go and recalled many, many, moments in which I felt panic and anxiety, but did not have the vocabulary to describe them. There was that time in Boy Scout Camp when I snuck into the staff lounge to call my parents from a pay phone because of an overwhelming sense of dread. Or the day of my High School graduation when I was nearly late to line up for the processional because I couldn’t decide what to wear under my cap and gown. There were so many more. The truth is that anxiety has been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. When ignored, it becomes destructive. Suddenly I am like Rabbi Kitzes struggling to find a piece of paper that I know I stowed safely in my own pocket. However, when acknowledged, it empowers me with the freedom to break down doors.
I have spent the past dozen years banging at doors with axes. There have been moments when the axe seemed too heavy to lift, and others when I wielded it with strength and precision. The results have opened many doors for me. I have made connections, I have learned how my brain works, I have discovered, in some instances, what works best for me. The work is ongoing and I expect it will never end. However, I know that I am not alone.
There are some facts we should all know about mental illness. Today we know that 1 in 5 Americans struggles with some form of mental illness. Many factors can lead to mental illness, including genetics, physical illness or injury, and traumatic life experiences. Sadly, many people do not seek treatment for mental illness due to the associated stigma. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment. Suicide accounts for over 800,000 deaths globally each year, with over 41,000 in the U.S. alone. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide for 15-29 year olds. Treatment for mental health problems does not only consist of prescribed or OTC medications. Therapy, yoga, meditation and holistic treatments can all help to assuage symptoms. Twenty percent of youth have a mental health condition, with one in 10 young people having experienced a period of major depression. 70-90% of people who seek proper treatment for mental health disorders witness a significant reduction in symptoms. Last but not least: most people living with mental illness lead productive lives despite their challenges. It must be said, lest anyone attempt to rely on this old excuse, these statistics are just as true within the Jewish community as they are outside of it.
The Torah and Rabbinic literature have very little to add to the conversation on mental illness today. We can only suspect if and which of our biblical personalities may or may not have been plagued with mental illness. Even so, questions surrounding the authorship of those texts make them even less relevant to our discussion. For example, it is assumed that King David suffered from mental illness. In many of the Psalms, he writes of his anguish, loneliness, fear of his enemies, his heart-cry over sin, and the guilt he struggled with because of it. However, though we traditionally see David as the author of the Book of Psalms, biblical scholars beg to differ. Similarly, we might think of the Book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on Sukkot, and question the mental health of its supposed author, King Solomon who repeats the refrain, “Everything is vanity.” And, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” However, biblical scholars have long rejected this traditional myth. Our Talmudic sages were much more interested in whether or not someone with a mental illness could or should fulfill their obligation to certain mitzvot. They spill ink on the value of suffering or the lack thereof. Rather than spending time reading solutions into our traditional texts, let us be grateful that we know more about the brain and emotional health today than ever before in history. As a Jewish community, we have a responsibility to act upon this knowledge.
If we were to attempt to analyze a figure in Jewish history, there is perhaps no better Jewish figure who lends himself to psychological analysis than the great Hasidic Master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. Those who pore over the writings of Rebbe Nahman know that his own moods were central to his teachings. My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, wrote a biography of Rebbe Nahman in 1979. Though he stops short of attempting a diagnosis, (other biographers have assumed the rebbe to be bipolar) the biography emphasizes the persistent guilt, self-doubt, and depression that recur in his teachings and his famous stories.
One of Rebbe Nahman’s most famous stories is that of the Turkey-Prince. As a somewhat humorous aside, since we Jews can’t do much of anything without debate, there is disagreement if Rebbe Nahman intended his original Yiddish to be translated as “turkey” or “rooster”. Thankfully, the species of bird does not much affect the story. So here it goes:
Once a king’s son went mad. He thought he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit under the table without any clothes on, pulling at bits of bread and bones like a turkey. None of the doctors could do anything to help him or cure him, and they gave up in despair. The king became very sad…
Until a Wise Man came and said, “I can cure him.” What did the Wise Man do? He took off all of his clothes and sat down naked under the table next to the king’s son. He also pulled at crumbs and bones.
The Prince asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“And what are you doing here?” the Wise Man replied.
“I am a turkey,” said the Prince.
“Well, I’m also a turkey, said the Wise Man.
The two of them sat there together like this for some time, until they were used to one another.
Then the Wise Man gave a sign, and they threw them shirts. The Wise Man-Turkey said to the king’s son, “Do you think a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” The two of them put on shirts.
After a while, the Wise Man gave another sign and they threw them some trousers. Again, the Wise man said, “Do you think if you wear trousers you can’t be a turkey?” They put on the trousers. One by one, they put on the rest of their clothes in the same way.
Afterwards, the Wise Man gave a sign and they put down human food from the table. The Wise Man said to the Prince, “Do you think if you eat good food you can’t be a turkey anymore? You can eat this food and still be a turkey.” They ate.
Then he said to him, “Do you think a turkey has to sit under the table? You can be a turkey and sit up at the table.” This was how the Wise Man dealt with the Prince, until in the end he cured him completely.”
Should anyone be interested, Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum has written a nearly 300 page self-help book based upon this story in which he analyzes every single detail of Rebbe Nahman’s words. I’m not going to do that this morning. To be honest, I do not agree with all of Rabbi Greenbaum’s conclusions. However, there is something to be said for analyzing a story as if it were a piece of Talmud as there is much we can learn.
When I first heard this story, the Wise Man was presented to me as the hero. It became a story about empathy. Surely, there is wisdom here. What was the first move of the Wise Man? He brought himself to the level of the afflicted prince. He gave the prince the simple opportunity to get used to his presence. We have a lot to learn about how we interact with people struggling with mental illness. Good for the king who sought help for his ailing child. Good for the Wise Man who knew that the first step was simply to be with the troubled young man.
However, What I have learned over time is that the Turkey Prince himself is the true hero of the story. Because, at some point in our lives we are all the Turkey Prince. You see, each of us has two sides. We have all felt like the Turkey. We can only see our stubbornness, our shortcomings, our failures, and resolve to lower ourselves to the ground and be afflicted. We have all sought to live up to our highest ideals, but come to the conclusion that we may never succeed. We have retreated under the table. Likewise, most of us have been able to experience a glimmer of our best selves. We have been clothed in our princely, or princess-ly, glory and dined on the most nourishing foods God’s universe has to offer. No matter which of these personae we relate more closely to, we are all under God’s table trying to sort out our upside down world. Why is the Turkey Prince the hero? Because he recognizes both his Turkey side and his Princely side. With the right support, he goes through a process, step by step, toward a more reasonable standard of living. This takes an immense amount of courage.
As Turkey Princes ourselves, how do we do this? After all, today is Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation. How can we recreate ourselves so that we can serve the best parts of ourselves and lift up one another? We know from Bereshit that creation happens in sevens. The National Council for Behavioral Health offers these seven skills for helping another with their mental health:
First, we can remain calm. The Wise Man does not slide under the table and begin yelling clichés at the Turkey Prince. Emotions are contagious. Your calm can offer extreme comfort in times of need. Second, we must be honest. This not only means building a relationship based upon trust, but also being honest with yourself about the limits of your ability to help. There is no room for armchair psychoanalysis here. This is an extremely dangerous game to play. Know your limits as a friend. Third, maintain a non-judgmental attitude. Work on creating a safe space for you and yours to share. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a “stigmafree” pledge that one can take with the goal of creating more safe spaces for individuals struggling with mental illness. Fourth, be a resource. Know where your friends and loved ones can go for help. To assist with this, you can find resources from our own Jewish Family Services Association of Cleveland in the back of our sanctuary, in our restrooms, in my office, and elsewhere around the building. Fifth, practice empathy. Remember, understanding does not really mean understanding. Just because we may experience something ourselves, or know someone who has experienced the same illness, does not mean we necessarily know how mental illness manifests in another person’s mind. Rather, acknowledge what your friend or family member is saying, offer support, and try to make sure they know your relationship is stable and your attitude toward them has not changed. Sixth, encourage your loved one to do what they need to do to get help and support. Be sincere cheerleaders for their journey, but avoid condescension. Lastly, reassure your friend that things will be okay. In all likelihood, they will be. This is even more likely if you can encourage your loved one to seek out professionals who can help.
Sometimes, we can feel like we are trapped and it is just too much. We can be the Rabbi Kitzes, or the Turkey Prince. My friends, each of us can be a Baal Shem Tov, offering friendship and lifting up Rabbi Kitzes when he feels most overwhelmed. Each of us can be a wise sage who helps a Turkey Prince who feels trapped by his own insecurities.
Soon we will enter into the Musaf service and once again prepare to hear the blast of the shofar. What were those mystical intentions that the Baal Shem Tov taught the brave Rabbi Kitzes? Our mystical tradition spilled much ink on this topic, but I will share one possibility in conclusion. In Psalm 47, King David (or not King David) wrote, “עָלָ֣ה אֱ֭לֹקים בִּתְרוּעָ֑ה יְ֝קוָ֗ק בְּק֣וֹל שׁוֹפָֽר׃.” Or, “God ascends amidst the teruah, Hashem with the voice of the shofar.” My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Lehman, shares Nahmanides’ interpretation of this verse:
Nahmanides, the great medieval sage, points out that two different names of God are used in this one verse. The first one mentioned is the name Elohim, which denotes the attribute of judgment. The second half of the verse uses the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, which is associated with the attribute of mercy. According to Nachmanides, the attribute of judgment is connected to the teruah blast in the first part of the verse, and the attribute of mercy with the tekiah sound of the shofar, which is blown before and after the teruah. It is as if the attribute of judgment is enveloped in mercy, the sound of crying sandwiched between shouts of joy.
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we pray that God will arise from the throne of judgement and return comfortably in the thrown of mercy. This is the very essence of the Teshuvah, the returning we all hope to engage with during these High Holy Days. We are here because we believe in our God-given ability to change. We believe that, no matter how stuck we feel, we can rely on our relationship with one another and with the Holy One of Blessing, and imagine standing with a more solid footing in the future. In the Mishnah, this type of change is included in a list of things that came to be even before God began creating the world. May the sound of the Shofar these High Holy Days arouse we and the Holy One toward mercy. May it connect us to path of teshuvah rooted deeply at the core of the very existence of the universe. May the sound of the shofar inspire us, move us, and uplift us. And we say, Amen.