The month of Elul is traditionally a period of Cheshbon Hanefesh (self-introspection and reflection) and taking stock, as we begin the process of preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe which begin one month later. This year, this solitary process for some will become even more pronounced, as our ability to come together as a community in synagogues will be limited.
The untold costs of the coronavirus pandemic are impossible to quantify at the current time. The story is still unfolding in front of our eyes, and we have no idea how far into it we are or when the end will come. But we can and must be aware of the many plains on which we are paying deeply. Human life and health, and global economic costs are the most obvious, but we are only just beginning to understand the depth of the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
The Talmud (Berachot 5b), having discussed the religious meaning of suffering, and after concluding that sometimes God sends suffering from love, then tells the story of Rabbi Chiya bar Abba who fell ill. His teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, came to visit him and asked him a puzzling question: “Is your suffering dear to you”? He replied “Neither the suffering nor the reward for it”. Rabbi Yochanan told him to give him his hand, which he did, and with it, Rabbi Yochanan stood him up.
In presenting this story immediately after the troubling theological position of “suffering from love”, the Talmud gives space for a radically contrary belief: we do not have to accept suffering and pain. When we are able, we can choose to receive help and be healed.
The story does not end there. In an unexpected twist, Rabbi Yochanan then falls ill himself. His student Rabbi Chanina visits him and asks the same question: “Is your suffering dear to you”? He also replied, “Neither the suffering nor the reward for it”. Rabbi Chanina told him to give him his hand, which he did, and with it, Rabbi Chanina stood him up. The Talmud asks if Rabbi Yochanan had the understanding to heal Rabbi Chiya in the first story, why did he not heal himself? Why did he need Rabbi Chanina to help him? The Talmud concludes with the famous saying: “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”
Rabbi Yochanan understood he needed help. Even someone in a position to help others needs help. This profound truth is one that we have come to understand more and more as the field of mental health and wellness has developed and become more a part of society. It is ok to not be ok. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. In fact, it is a sign of strength to have the self-awareness that you have a problem, and cannot fix it yourself.
This Elul let’s all take a moment to check in with ourselves, take a breath and reflect on what we may have been missing as we operate in coping mode during the challenges of this time period. And let’s also take a moment to extend our hand to those around us, our colleagues, friends, and loved ones, who may need an extended hand or a kind word to realize what their own needs are.
The following organizations offer resources about mental wellbeing that you may find useful: Jami, The Blue Dove Foundation, Well Advised, Young Minds, and Thrive Global. While some may refer to country specific services, we hope they will still provide useful materials and suggestions.