Struggling: a condition of being human
It has been just over 18 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Many of us in this room remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. I was in my sixth grade history class. My teacher had a tiny, black and white TV behind his desk where he would typically watch the news on his break. He turned it on and the whole class crowded around to watch in horror as an airplane crashed into the side of the World Trade Center. This attack spread fear and caused trauma all over this country, but those who suffered the most were the first responders and the families of those who died in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.
Earlier this year, a bill was proposed to continue the Victims Compensation Fund, which covers a lengthy list of physical and mental health conditions for victims, including first responders. For five months the House and Senate debated. During these lengthy debates, talk show host Jon Stewart spoke out, accusing Congress of ignoring first responders, saying “No American in this country should face financial ruin because of a health issue. Certainly, 9/11 first responders shouldn’t have to decide to live or have a place to live. They responded in five seconds, they did their jobs. With courage grace, tenacity, humility. Eighteen years later, do yours,” he told them. A month after he addressed Congress the bill was passed, extending coverage for victims through the year 2090.
This week’s Torah portion offers us a lesson in how we should care for our fellow humans. In the text that I will soon chant, we hear a portion of Moses speech to the next generation of Israelites, before they enter the Promised Land. He is instructing the people about what to do if they come across someone else's property. The Israelites are specifically directed “do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow.” Moses goes on listing several types of property, but in the end sums it up with “anything that your fellow loses and you find.” At the end of this instruction, Moses reiterates — לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם — “you may not remain indifferent.”
This instruction is straight forward. If you see something that is not where it belongs, you should help get it back to its rightful owner. In biblical times, this could mean taking home livestock and caring for it until its owner claimed it. Rashi interprets this rule to mean that you can not cover your eyes pretending not to see a problem.
This rule about not remaining indifferent can also apply to the way we care for people in our community. When we see that a member of our community is acting differently, we should check in with them. While societal norms have taught us to be uncomfortable confronting each other about personal matters, those who are suffering are often waiting for someone, anyone to notice and reach out.
Rambam teaches: “If a person develops melancholy, he should eliminate it by listening to music and songs, by strolling in gardens and amongst beautiful buildings, and by sitting amongst beautiful images, and other ways of broadening the mind, and then he will remove the distress of his melancholy.” In the eleventh century, this was the best way our sages knew to manage a mental health crisis. However, we are fortunate to have more knowledge and more technology here in the twenty-first century. To offer a modern interpretation of Rambam’s teaching, “If a person is struggling with a mental health disorder, they should seek help.”
Often when someone is struggling asking for help can feel like a massive obstacle. Science has proven that mental health disorders are often hereditary or brought on by trauma, yet society continues to stigmatize and shame those who suffer.
Consider our Misheberach prayer -- we ask for blessings of protection, to rescue those who are distressed, those who suffer from illness, minor and serious. We ask for their health to be restored and their strength revived. Before offering the prayer we share names of those whom we know to be in need. It feels obvious to pray for those suffering from cancer, recovering from surgery or an accident, but how often do we pray for those in our lives who are suffering from a mental health disorder?
We have an opportunity to change the way we think about, talk about, and treat those who are suffering. We can exist as Moses teaches and choose “not to remain indifferent.” Here, in this community we can choose to change the conversation, to reach out to those who are in need and to offer them compassion. While we cannot cure those who are struggling, we can learn to recognize the symptoms and support each other in our times of need.
Rav Nachman of Breslov said: “Struggle with your sadness. Struggle with your soul … the point is not to rid oneself of struggle, but to accept it as a condition of being human.” As we enter into this new year, may we each accept that struggling is just a condition of being human. And treating our struggles, both physical and mental are encouraged by centuries of Jewish wisdom and tradition.