Rabbi Nachman and Mental Illness – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

On the cusp of the 19th century, in a shtetl in Western Ukraine, Feiga and Simcha were celebrating the birth of their son, Nachman.  Nachman was named after his grandfather, a great rabbi and a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism.

At his bris, Feiga turned to her brother, Rabbi Baruch, one of the wisest men of the generation, and requested that he bless her son that there should never be any strife surrounding him. He replied, “That is not something that can be done.”

Rabbi Baruch’s response was more true than even he may have predicted.  Throughout his tumultuous life, Nachman would see the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

He became one of the greatest rabbis in history,  However, he also faced immense controversy in his rabbinic career – constantly at odds with other rabbis due to his eccentric ways.  He raised a loving family but four of his eight children died in infancy and his wife Sasha died young of tuberculosis on the eve of Shavuot.  This threw Rabbi Nachman into a deep state of depression.

He taught thousands of students yet he never seemed to be satisfied with himself, going so far as to burn his own manuscripts before his death.  He made aliyah to Israel and travelled the world, meeting thousands of people – yet he was incredibly lonely, preferring the company of nature to that of other people.

From Rabbi Nachman’s teachings and his autobiography, many scholars have postulated that he suffered from mental illness.  Although undiagnosed at the time, Nachman most likely had bipolar disorder.  Originally called manic-depressive illness, it is a mental disorder characterized by periods of elevated mood and periods of depression.

Rabbi Nachman is a symbol of one of many in our world who suffer quietly with mental illness.  Like many of you, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news this summer of Robin Williams’ suicide.  I grew up on “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Good Will Hunting.”  I found a simple joy in watching Robin Williams portray both silly and serious characters – giving us a window into the human condition.  I also struggled recently with why, a man who appeared to be so happy, and seemed to have it all – fame, money, a loving family – would take his own life.

In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner, like any good rabbi, does not give us the answer we are looking for, but rather another way of approaching the question.  Kushner writes, “We need to get over the questions that focus on the past and on the pain – ‘why did this happen?’ – and ask instead the question which opens doors to the future: ‘Now that this has happened, what shall I do about it?’”

In this vein, Robin Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider, recently wrote, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.”

“So they may feel less afraid…”

Rabbi Nachman taught, “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a very narrow bridge, v’ha’ikar lo lifached klal – and the most important part is not to be afraid.”

As we enter this New Year tonight and begin the process of t’shuvah – of turning inward – to examine our community and ourselves, let us lift up the often taboo topic of mental illness.  If the whole world is a very narrow bridge for so many, how we can be the handrail, their source of support and strength?

To repair this brokenness within our community, we need to first recognize that mental illness exists and bring it out into the light.  Mental illness is not talked about enough in the community at large and it is even more stigmatized within the Jewish community.

I was out having a meal with some friends when one friend at the table starting telling us about her diabetes.  Soon enough the conversation turned to another friend talking about his IBS and another began telling us the intimate details of his ulcers and colitis.

We seem to have no problem sharing the most personal details about our physical health with a room full of strangers but when confronting the topic of mental health, we suddenly go silent.

This is ironic considering that recent studies have shown that mutations of certain genes make Ashkenazi Jews 40% more likely to develop schizophrenia and similar diseases than the general population.  We are a community more likely to suffer from mental illness and less likely to talk about it.  It is commendable that we are talking about other genetic diseases prevalent within the Jewish community, like the BRCA gene which causes breast cancer, yet it is unfortunate that this is not the same for mental illness.

Maybe this is because of the abstract nature of mental illness.  Blogger, Chloe Day writes, “One of the hardest and most frustrating things about depression is that you cannot see it. You cannot put a pin in it, do a test, take an x-ray and say, ‘Yes! You have depression!’ Even to myself, I often wondered if I was truly ill or not.”

In order to create a community of understanding, we need remember that mental illness is a disease.  In Judaism, we believe the body and soul are intrinsically connected and our sages did not arbitrarily separate physical and mental health.

The Rambam, writing in the 12th century, talks about depression, referring to it as ‘marah shechorah’, which literally means “black bile.” In his time, it was thought that there were four types of body fluids, and when these were not in proper balance, disease results. Depression, Rambam says, is due to an excess of the black bile.

There used to be a time, I’m told, when people didn’t talk about cancer.  When speaking about someone afflicted with this horrible disease, they said with hushed voices, “She’s got cancer…” Or maybe they even called it the c-word.  Something changed in our society over the past half century that made it ok to talk about cancer – mental illness can be next.

Rabbi Nachman taught, “Sometimes, people are terribly distressed but have no one to whom they can unburden themselves. If you come along with a listening heart, you uplift them and help them find new life.”

According to mental health professionals, talking with a trusted loved-one is one of the best ways to begin treating mental illness.  To foster a community that takes mental illness seriously, we all need to create safe spaces.  We need to be open to listening to others who are ready to come forward with their illness.    We need to feel comfortable enough to come forward with our own fears.

In the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, there is a song called, “Turn It Off.”  In the song, the missionaries, one-by-one, list all the troubles that are causing them mental anguish – an abusive father, a sister dying of cancer, closeted homosexual feelings.  The answer according to the song:

“When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t feel right

Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light

and turn em off,”

This is not the answer to depression or other mental illnesses.  One can’t just turn it off like a light switch, and we can’t fix our loved ones by telling them to just not be so mopey.

Blogger Chloe Day says friends would often ask, “why can’t you just get on with it?”  She explains:

It’s only when you have suffered from it yourself that you understand: with depression, you just can’t. You can’t “just get on with it.” There are days when you are against an invisible wall, and all you can do is stare blankly into space. Or cry. Or cocoon yourself in a blanket. Many days at work it was all I could do not to curl up under the desk in a ball. You are filled with a total, immovable weight, sunk deep into your stomach, dragging your head down to your chest.

Rabbi Nachman wrote, “Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid – It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time.”

Unfortunately, that is not possible.  I think this teaching was Nachman’s way of coping.  Maybe he thought that by preaching this idea, he could eventually believe it, he could eventually will himself to no longer be ill, to no longer be sad.  It doesn’t work that way.  You can’t just tell someone to be happy – not even yourself.

So what can we do?  We can listen to people, we can just sit and be with others.  We can have empathy.

Rabbi Nachman tells a story about a prince who became mentally ill and thought that he was a turkey.  He felt compelled to sit naked under the table, pecking at bones and pieces of bread.  All the royal physicians gave up hope of curing him.  The king grieved tremendously.

A sage arrived and said, “I will undertake to cure him.” The sage undressed and sat naked under the table, next to the prince, pecking at crumbs and bones.

“Who are you?” asked the prince. “What are you doing here?”

“And you?” replied the sage. “What are you doing here?”

“I am a turkey,” said the prince.

“I’m also a turkey,” answered the sage.

They sat together like this for some time, until they became good friends. One day, the sage signaled the king’s servants to throw him shirts. He said to the prince, “What makes you think that a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” With that, the two of them put on shirts.

After a while, the sage again signaled and they threw him pants. As before, he asked, “What makes you think that you can’t be a turkey if you wear pants?”

The sage continued in this manner until they were both completely dressed. Then he signaled for regular food, from the table. The sage then asked the prince, “What makes you think that you will stop being a turkey if you eat good food? You can eat whatever you want and still be a turkey!” They both ate the food.

Finally, the sage said, “What makes you think a turkey must sit under the table? Even a turkey can sit at the table.” The sage continued in this manner until the prince was completely cured.

Rabbi Nachman is teaching us about empathy.  With empathy, we can all be the sage who sits naked under the table acting like a turkey.  We can all be there for our loved ones, seeking to understand them and sometimes just sitting with them.  Eventually, we can be the ones to help pull them out from under the table, little by little.  As Rabbi Nachman says, we can all be, “a listening heart, [to] uplift them and help them find new life.”

Sadly, sometimes just being there for others is not always enough.  If someone is mentally ill, he or she should seek professional help.  Judaism believes that our health is paramount and therapy and medication are encouraged according to both ancient and modern sources.  If you are suffering, talk to someone, get therapy, take your medication.

Judaism also offers one last way to help treat mental illness – prayer.  Rabbi Nachman taught, “It is very good to pour out your heart to God as you would to a true, good friend.”

In addition to talking with our community, friends, and health professionals, we can also speak to God about our mental illness.  Regardless of your view on God, prayer can be a powerful answer for those suffering.  I do not believe that if you pray to God to end your depression, suddenly you will miraculously be cured.  But I do believe that prayer gives us a unique opportunity to put our lives into perspective, to come to terms with who we truly are… to do the important act of t’shuvah – of inward soul searching.

The next ten days, the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, give us a unique opportunity to examine our personal and communal psyche.  Let us commit to making the most of this time.

It is interesting that Simcha and Feiga named their son, Nachman.  In Hebrew, Nachman means, “one who consoles.”  Rabbi Nachman’s words and his very life can teach us how to be one who consoles.

Whether it means sitting under a table acting like a turkey or being the handrail for someone walking across a perilous bridge, we all have the power to help bring others out of the dark and into the light.  As Rabbi Nachman once said, “It’s not hard to push people away. The real work is to draw them close and uplift them.”

Shanah Tovah

For more information about mental illness and various resources, check out:

Jewish Family and Children Services

Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services

New Direction Support Group