September 28, 2023 -
This sermon was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk during the Rosh Hashanah Sanctuary Service, Sep. 26, 2022.
When Your Heart is Burdened, Speak Up
Most years on Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis 22, when Abraham is commanded to bind his own son as a sacrifice. Though child sacrifice never occurs in Torah and it is in fact outlawed in this story, it is still unsettling to see him in the traditional portion. He does not object. He is acquiescent and emotionless.
So the editors of our new machzor (Mishkan Hanefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, New York: CCAR Press, 2015) added Genesis 18 as an alternative reading to shine a new light on Abraham. On p. 334 you will see Abraham protest, conveying aloud his fear that God will unjustly threaten the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. You could say Abraham is actualizing our High Holy Day liturgy. For he asks God to consider the goodness within the people of these cities, and attempts to avert the severity of a mortal decree.
In a close look at the text, Genesis 18:16 shows three of God’s messengers departing from Abraham and Sarah’s tent, standing where they can see Sodom ahead in the distance. But subject shifts now to God’s ambivalence. We read: Adonai Amar, “God said… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?”
A literal translation of Adonai Amar is “God said.” But our book interprets his concern about speaking to Abraham as inner dialogue. This distinction carries a big difference! For just a few verses later, the root of the same verb will convey Abraham openly expressing fear about whether God’s judgment is merciful. In an apparent panic, he asks: “Vayomer Ha’af Tispeh Tzadik Eem Rasha? Will you sweep away the righteous along with the guilty?” As I prepared for Rosh Hashanah, I began to wonder if Abraham’s question might also be more his conflicted internal thoughts than any actual words uttered.
For I truly empathize with Abraham, who barely even knew the God for whom he gave up everything to participate in a covenant! I see his fears escalating as he wonders whether to trust an unconstrained almighty force wouldn’t destroy decent people just for dwelling near the indecent? His questions are legitimate. If you saw people in harm’s way and felt complicit in their predicament, wouldn’t you reach a breaking point?
This is my 13th Rosh Hashanah at Fairmount Temple. You know by now that I readily speak up for those who are unjustly punished. I could give that sermon. One day I will again. But not today. Today l ask you to travel with me into unfamiliar territory. Lech lachem! Go forth to a place I will show you, a place where we decide to speak openly and without shame about Abraham’s struggling mental health. This Rosh Hashanah let’s explore how Judaism addresses painful episodes of anxiety and mental anguish.
On the surface of this text, Abraham courageously intervenes for the well-being of others. But another way to see this narrative is that Abraham is fearfully spiraling over his perception of an immanent catastrophe. That’s the essence of anxiety. The people around you are disturbed as you run every base on the field toward disaster. It is difficult to know how to best respond. But I encourage us to take our cue from how the Torah describes God.
Look at Gen. 18:26, where you see God patiently taking each of Abraham’s fears seriously. God encounters a fragile human being doubting his faith and neither escalates nor diminishes what is spooking Abraham. His partner in covenant reveals upsetting premonitions. God addresses them and lets these fears be witnessed. Surely Abraham’s angst went beyond words as well. I imagine him trembling. God’s response lets Abraham know he is seen. It is beautiful to see him receive rachum v’chanun, God’s compassion and grace.
He desperately needed such gifts. On a physically arduous trek with no control over the destination, he must have obsessed over what happens if you disappoint God. He might’ve wanted to know the limit of God’s mercy. Abraham urgently seeks an answer about how much mercy God holds. Listen to his accusatory tone in pressing God for answers. Honestly, I see him spiraling. I am not even sure if Sodom and Gomorrah were threatened. Perhaps this was only Abraham perception, as he began to doubt having bet his life on Adonai.
Who knows if I am right? I’m no clinician. But what counseling training I do possess alerts me to Abraham exhibiting potential signs of an anxiety disorder. My attention is especially drawn to the urgency of his plea for the strangers in these cities who never sought his help. He is demonstrating what psychotherapists call hypervigilance. This is where you are in a near-constant state of alert.
When hypervigilant, you separate from the present moment. All you see is what you fear. You warn others of looming disaster. You speak like Abraham, who almost manically presses the question of what happens to Sodom and Gomorrah if in these cities are 50 righteous people, or 45, 40, 30, 20 or finally 10 righteous souls. I feel for Abraham. He is in crisis as he realizes the God with whom he has made a long-term contract might not even be moved to act with mercy by 10 decent human souls.
The disruptive anxiety felt by Abraham over what disaster may be looming is so clearly present in our hearts today. Modern world events frighten us. The volume and pace of bad news shouting at us makes it difficult to breathe. Think about the moment you internally realized that COVID-19 was going to lock you away from friends for an undetermined amount of time. Remember absorbing the knowledge that a visit to the grocery store might kill one of your parents. What about the time you first watched the footage of that police officer’s knee cruelly pressed on the neck of George Floyd, choking an already subdued man to death? Or just a few months ago on the fearful day that the Supreme Court turned over Roe v. Wade…didn’t you wonder then how our justices could not find a way to rule with greater compassion in terms of abortion and reproductive care? Or in the late winter, weren’t you stunned by the violent incursion of Russia into Ukraine? It made me wonder: If there is a God, how could God not restrain Putin’s craving to conquer Ukraine and make hundreds of thousands flee for their lives?
Each of these world events have gripped us with fright and concern. Yet as your rabbi, I’ve seen, long before the pandemic, evidence in the homes of our community members of anxiety or depression that have become manifest with no obvious trigger.
I worry when I see people neglect mental health conditions. I fear the permanent damage that denial of such pain causes. When people are spiraling with fear about the lives they’ve chosen, I see them make decisions that carried steep consequences. People afraid of looming disaster often leave their spouses or abandon their commitment to be loyal to them. I see people under tremendous pressure in their jobs who are suddenly setting aside business ethics in favor of a quick financial score. I see people who like Abraham wonder if God has any mercy on flawed human beings. Many don’t speak up as Abraham did. Instead they swallow whole bottles of pain-killers or cut themselves to death slowly to somehow grab back control at a time when they believe God will blow everything over regardless of what they do.
These aren’t just disasters my eyes see. Look around. You will see a growing consensus among public leaders that there is a dangerous mental health crisis occurring. Just since last Rosh Hashanah, respected leaders have raised their voices, each like a shofar, demanding attention.
Major General Litynski says he is combating not just mental illness, but an attitude of “shame if you show weakness” further pressuring those who experienced trauma to keep it to themselves. I think he is onto something critical. Sources suggest to me that 1/3 of the people in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder in their lives. But I think this must be an underestimate! For while many confide how their anxiety and hopelessness burdens them daily, others never do because of what Major General Litynski described, our culture’s overriding “shame if you show weakness.” We use such suppression and denial in response to such upsetting situations in our mental health at our own peril!
It seems to me, one of the best ways to track our fluctuating mental health is to build ties to community and ask help from people we trust to tell us what they see and hear. When we are actually in panic over a foreboding concern, it is a blessing for caring friends to pay attention to what you present to the world. That’s how I see God in our text! As Abraham’s partner in covenant, God is acknowledging to Abraham that what he fears matters to God. Acting in forbearance, God does not take the bait when Abraham errantly accuses God of unthinkable acts of injustice.
What is most moving to me in this text is how God is depicted seeing the bigger picture. God sees the Abraham before him as more than a present bundle of nerves. He is also the Abraham who, just a couple of Torah chapters ago, committed to the physical sign of an eternal covenant, circumcising himself and the males in his household. God sees Abraham’s worthiness as a human partner. Instead of being reactive, God realizes that the Abraham he is encountering is essentially still recovering from surgery. He is also reacting to a visit from three messengers who arrived at his tent and soon announced that he and Sarah would be parents after a traumatic period of infertility. Of course Abraham was grateful for this news. But it is just as likely it escalated his anxiety over the world in which he’d raise a child. No wonder Abraham outwardly demonstrates and speaks of his fears.
Experts say it is good and healthy to admit when we feel vulnerable. Calling it out with no shame is seen as constructive and healing. This is addressed in author Dr. Lisa Damour’s book, Under Pressure, where she reframes anxiety especially in young women. She calls it “a gift handed down by evolution to keep humans safe.” She adds: “Every one of us comes equipped with a sophisticated alarm system programmed deep in our brains. When we sense a threat, that alarm triggers anxiety. And the discomfort of anxiety compels us to take steps to reduce or avoid the threat.” (https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/under-pressure-lisa-damour/1128745405)
I am grateful to my dear friend and teacher Rabbi Stacy Schlein for pointing me to Dr. Damour’s reframing of anxiety. She applied Dr. Damour’s guidance to Abraham as well as teachings about fear by 19th century Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Schlein concluded: “There are things in this world to fear…many of us deal with real and painful issues of fear and anxiety. There are things that cause us to fight, flight or freeze…Fear is a part of our reality and fear is or can be a path to God too. The key is to not make ourselves afraid. By making ourselves afraid, we put an obstacle in our path.” (“Walking the Bridge Between Fear and Faith,” Rabbi Stacy L. Schlein, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, 2019.)
Rabbi Schlein’s astute commentary issues us a tough challenge. She directs us to manage our instinct to escalate fears and “make ourselves afraid.” But it is hard. It’s hard not to escalate fear when our disclosures of mental health challenges sometimes receive upsetting responses. Some people tell us to “just move on” from past traumas, or to shut down judgments of poor self-worth.
But anxiety doesn’t work that way! No…anxiety is the Pharaoh. It’s heart is hard. It could care less about the pain we feel yoked to its power. Anxiety is as cruel as the Pharaoh of Exodus. We think we are free from its grip. But it chases us down. So how can we ever feel safe? I say we start right in this synagogue. We must create safe environments in places of faith for people to be seen and heard when they are struggling physically or emotionally.
Just imagine with me what an effect such a commitment would have on our synagogue! What would our schools and adult learning and caring community programs look like if were sure to assert our love, compassion and acceptance in this way? The commitments we make to social action might change as well, if we dedicated our work across interfaith lines to the eradication of shame and stigma of all kinds, including against those challenged in terms of mental health! I know you might imagine such a community would be an invention of modernity! But it would not. In truth, it would be a fulfillment of how our Torah depicts our ancestors when their mental health was disrupted and their faith had taken a beating.
In Genesis 23 we see intense grief afflicting Abraham and Isaac after Sarah dies. We are told that he mourned and bewailed her. The text doesn’t have to tell us the intensity of such feelings. But thank goodness it does! It reminds us how unresolved grief might otherwise cause lasting wounds if not addressed after a loss. It also helps us see the blessing for Abraham of having his servant Eliezer to assist him in assuring Isaac finds a spouse who was generous and kind. We also see in this moment of Torah the foundations of our powerful structure marking time in Jewish ritual for mourning observed during the first three days, then the first seven, then the first thirty, and finally during the first year after a loss, each stage offering grief a mentally healthy outlet.
In Genesis 25, we read of how deeply overwrought Abraham’s daughter-in-law Rebecca became during what was a very difficult pregnancy. The Torah even acknowledges her suicidal ideation. She openly asks: “if I am going to experience such pain, why should I even exist?” The narrative doesn’t have to reveal her crippling anxiety. But thank goodness it does! For no sooner does the text reveal Rebecca’s upsetting question than we read: Vayomer Adonai Lah– which means God responded to her, soothing and salving her wounds.
Later in Genesis 41, Torah depicts the Pharaoh plagued by terrifying nightmares. The Hebrew describes him as Nifemet Rucho, “his soul is troubled.” But with Pharaoh that seems oversimplified. For here is a previously self-possessed confident Egyptian leader now at an utter loss to take a next step. Medieval sage Rashi digs deeper into the expression Nifemet Rucho. In his commentary, Rashi describes Pharaoh’s spirit as “rung like a bell,” a humanizing depiction of the way anxious fears reverberate like a bell continues to ring long after being struck. This is consistent with descriptions of post-traumatic stress.
Thank goodness, the Torah introduces a young Hebrew named Joseph supporting Pharaoh at this time. I have heard some describe him as a magical dream decipherer. But I don’t see Joseph doing anything supernatural. Joseph has tools we all possess when we encounter a person whose mental health is telling them their nightmare is about to become true. Joseph carefully listens to Pharaoh and is willing to empathize with Pharaoh’s fears. I see him acting as humanely as any of us by granting Pharaoh the blessings of rachum v’chanun, compassion and grace.
Let’s be clear. Nurturing and paying attention to mental health is not something with which most of us grew up. I know I internalized that therapy was for the weak or the puny or for people who were in trouble. I didn’t learn as a kid that Torah could help me address mental health and neither did you.
But we are no longer kids. Today we can see maturely see what Torah ultimately refused to hide: which is that our ancestors struggled with distressed mental health.
Now that I see this Torah… I refuse to “un-see” it! For I cannot convey in strong enough terms. No matter the happy tunes being whistled, we are not ok. Our spirits have been shaken like a bell. Our military, first responders, medical professionals, educators and students, these groups and so many others are struggling to emerge from a terrifying and isolating era.
Admitting that is hard. Just saying words like “terrifying” and “isolating” prompt an escalation of our fears. So I make this pledge to you. I will not let another generation be raised in this temple without conveying to them the tenderness of our Torah and heritage when human beings are hurting or afraid inside. When anxiety afflicts us and unresolved grief is damaging, when post-traumatic stress makes loved ones hide in the basement and contemplate ending their lives, in all these situations and more, we must normalize attending to one’s mental health and convey the critical value of asking for help.
Asking for help and offering help – there is a Biblical Proverb our sages applied to this important value in terms of Judaism and mental health! In Proverbs 12 we read: D’agah V’lev-Eesh Yashchena…When anguish burdens your heart, you must vanquish it.
In Tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud, one rabbi explains the Proverb is telling us to forcefully push away our pain. He believes banishing your feelings brings about relief. But another rabbi sees it differently, saying: when anguish burdens your heart, speak about it. Speak of what afflicts you and this will be what relieves your burden.
We’ve all seen both of these strategies are employed in painful situations. There are times when forcefully banishing our pain seems best. For instance, many of us have an instinct that prioritizes the pain of others before addressing our own. But most of the time, banishing your feelings is a fool’s errand. It just doesn’t work.
This holiday of Rosh Hashanah carries so many meanings to us. It is certainly a time to commence a review of what we’ve been through and how we’ve arrived at this station in life. But also this Rosh Hashanah let us each look ahead and allow this New Year to be a time to fulfill a new commitment. For God’s sake, for the health of our souls and bodies, when we fear spiraling…when we look in the mirror and see there someone with lessening hope…in those moments, we will speak up. Also in the coming year, when we are sought out for help as a caregiver, a friend, or community member, we will listen and pay attention.
I know as a rabbi sometimes people tell me they never spoke about their mental health with me because they just didn’t know where to start. So if you are suffering mentally, what I encourage you to do is to start by telling someone you trust where it hurts. That is the meaning of our Jewish heritage. We are about soothing the place where it hurts. In a troubled modernity it sometimes feels like it hurts everywhere. We sometimes want to echo Abraham’s terror when he considers that perhaps no force in the universe cares if people are punished unjustly. But remember that instead of rebuking him, God instead gave Abraham rachum v’chanun, compassion and grace.
Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum V’Chanun, O God, Adonai, we beg of you to be compassionate and gracious. May there be peace in the New Year for all humanity. But God we also pray for peace to be found by individual human beings whose mental health is in a state of disrepair. They are seated among us at temple and at home.
Help us to listen and stay attentive to them. Adonai, help us wrap our arms around one another and be a force to be reckoned with in the world, a force filled with compassion, grace, one that is slow to anger, abundant in kindness, truthful and generous, Amen.
Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk