Hidden in Love: A Sermon on Mental Health

Thu, 09/20/2018 - 9:13am -- Rabbi Noah Farkas

Hidden in Love: A Sermon on Mental Health
© Rabbi Noah Farkas
Yom Kippur 5779/2018

For the past ten years I have lead a physician's talmud study group called Dinner for Docs. We meet about once a quarter, have some wine and eat a nice dinner. Then we engage in Talmud study. It was there that I really got to know Dr. Joe Beezy. He’s sitting right over there. Joe and I became friends over a page of Talmud, so much so that he asked me to perform the marriage of his daughter, Talya, to wonderful man named Leonard. Talya, it was such a beautiful day, warm and verdant, your dad played the recorder, remember? It was on that day I met your brother this dashing young man with a huge smile, named Ben.

I’m going to talk about him now, with your permission.

Ben grew up here at Valley Beth Shalom. He went to Emek Hebrew Academy obtaining an orthodox education. He had his Bar Mitzvah right here on this Bima. Ben went to Milken Community School up the hill. Once graduated from Milken he then went to USC where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh where he worked for a member of Scottish Parliament.

He went bicycling through Tuscany and France. He was selected for full scholarship to the inaugural class of the University of California Irvine School of Law. He was the first person to obtain a combined JD/MBA degree while at Irvine. He worked as an intern for the Ministry of Justice in Israel on a project combating human trafficking.

Later he was employed by a company called Broadcom. Even later, he worked as an associate in a downtown law firm handling some significant litigation. Ben was a powerhouse kid with amazing talent. He ran the LA Marathon twice, his best time was 3 hours 47 minutes. He was successful at everything he ever endeavored to do. Ben got straight A’s, traveled the world, wrote law review articles and was respected and loved by his friends and family. In fact he was respected by a global community.

Tragically, at the beginning of this summer, Ben took his own life.  

He fought every battle, climbed every hill and conquered them all except one. He lost the fight against himself.  

The Torah teaches, “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha” -“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) Last week on Rosh Hashanah I focused on the first half of the verse. “Love your neighbor.” There I spoke about love as act of defiance against oppression. Love as a covenant between God and ourselves that binds us in covenant with each other. Today on Yom Kippur, I will focus on the last word, kamocha. “As yourself.” For it is this last word, kamocha, which gives us the internal energy to help us love others. Kamocha tells us that each of us have a sense of self-worth, that we are worthy of love and in turn, gives us the space to love others.  And that it is this sense of kamocha, of knowing you are worthy of love, which funds the command to love our neighbors.

But what if we don’t have that sense of self-worth? What if we don’t love ourselves? What if, as someone once said to me, ‘Rabbi, I give all my love away and I just don’t have any left for myself.”?

Rabbi Akiva said, “V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha” -“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is klal gadol, it is the greatest principle of the Torah. The whole of Judaism rests on it. And so we have to explore this idea. We have to explore this idea further and look into ourselves and see our truest sense of self, for who we really are.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Yodeah Razim. Praised are you Adonai you knows the secrets of people. This is the prayer we say when we see a large crowd gathered. This prayer is an acknowledgement that in a crowd, one cannot know what is inside the heart of each other person. None of us know, even friends whom we’ve known for twenty years, exactly what each of us is really dealing with. God, on the other hand, the prayer says, is the Knower of Secrets. But on this day, today, we all need to know.

As a rabbi, you see me, you hear me, you can see my social media, etc. And I see all of you. I’ve been at Valley Beth Shalom for ten years. What I have seen in those years is thousands of stories I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’ve performed hundreds of funerals and weddings. Even more Bar Mitzvahs. I have come to know you. I know that there is hardly a family here that does not struggle with something.

I know that there are families here today dealing with depression. I know that there are families here with loved ones suffering from schizophrenia. I know that there are mothers or fathers who changed after an illness and now something inside of them seems off. I know that there are men and women here who struggle to make a living and it's affecting your family life. I know that there are parents here today who can’t sleep at night because their child is depressed or seems lonely and you don’t know what to do to help them. I know of children that ran away from your life without any real explanation.

There are families that are here, in this room, that are seized by addiction and alcoholism.

There are families that are here, in this room, that that are dealing with issues of mental health.

There are individuals and families that are here, in this room, that feel invisible and broken. That feel lost and exile.

The Torah teaches, Hanistarot L’Adonai Eloheinuv’haniglot lanu, u’lvavaneinu ad olam la’asot et kol d’vrei haTorah hazot. The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things are ours and our children’s to act on the teachings of this Torah forever. (Deut.29:28)

Hanistarot, the hidden things belong to God, but our Torah tells us that the v’haniglot, the revealed things belong to us. Today we must make what is hidden revealed, for our sake and for our children’s sake.

Let us open the book of life, the book of redemption, the book of merit, the book of forgiveness, we open ourselves and open the book to see what is really inside - together.

I wish I could say that Ben’s story is unique, that he is the only good kid who was troubled. I wish I could say that we Jews have figured out how to protect ourselves and our kids from mental illness. I wish I could say that our own community at VBS was somehow inoculated against the epidemic of mental illness. Alas we are not. Mental illness is everywhere. It knows no boundaries of gender, ethnicity, age, or economic status.

According the National Alliance of Mental Illness, this disease affects one out of every five adults in the United States. 43.8 million people every year. About 16 million adults suffer from depression and 42 million live with various anxiety disorders. Many, many people experience both. Worse yet, suicide rates have risen, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by an average of 30% in the last fifteen years. In some areas of the country it has risen by 57%. 45,000 people died by suicide in 2016 alone. That is more than twice as homicides. We kill ourselves more than we kill other people.

Those between the ages of 15 and 34, suicide is the second highest cause of death. And among children, our children, little children, those of just 10 years old, suicide has risen by 30%.

Scientists tell us that mental illness is just like any other illness. When someone breaks their arm, they go to the doctor. When they have a heart attack, they take medicine, or have a procedure. And we pray for their recovery. We put their name on a list and read it outloud on the sabbath. That way everyone knows who in our community is sick. But, as my friend Rabbi Paul Kipnes once asked, we pray for the healing of the body and the spirit refuat hanefesh, refuat haguf, but why do we only put the names of those with broken bodies on our misheberach lists? Where are those with bipolar affective disorder, with chronic depression, with alzheimer’s and dementia, with OCD, with teen eating disorders. Or those who cut themselves, or who have succumbed to the disease of addiction?

Do they not have our prayers?

Do they not deserve our blessing?

We are just so afraid to talk about this. Partly because we live in a culture that seems allergic to vulnerability. It’s because we think being vulnerable means being weak. We think being vulnerable is somehow “less than.” We think being vulnerable means we sharing our“private business” with everyone.

But we have to. We have to shine a light on the shame of vulnerability.

The rabbis, as always help us lead the way. Only four pages into the Talmud, four out of thousands, the topic of vulnerability is raised. It’s in a story. Once Rabbi Jonathan, a great sage became really sick. He holds himself up in his chambers and refused to see anyone, until his friend and student Rabbi Hanina came and visited him. Rabbi Hanina asked Rabbi Jonathan. “Are your sufferings endearing to you?” Are they something you wear as a badge of honor? Are you such private a person, that you wouldn’t receive help when it is offered? To which Rabbi Jonathan said, “Neither my sufferings nor their reward are endearing to me.” Rabbi Jonathan reached out his hand from his sick bed to be lifted up. As he became stronger with his students help, he said, “One cannot break out of prison on his own.” (T.B. Berachot 5a)

The rabbis knew that from the get go that we put up these walls to keep others out of our deepest selves, including walls that keep ourselves out of our own hearts, but these walls can go from being a bulwark to being a prison. Instead of keeping others out, we keep ourselves locked in. It’s only through openness to uncertainty and risk, a willingness to be vulnerable and let others in, can we break out of our own prisons.

Ben’s parents, Miriam and Joe, tried so very hard to get him to therapy for depression but his disease and the stigma our society that has created around this disease made him highly resistant to getting the help he needed. Ben was not an isolated boy. He played with others. He traveled with friends. He was embedded in a community, but he hid his suicidal thoughts from everybody. He denied having suicidal thoughts or plans even when asked directly. So strong was the stigma of dealing with depression, that his darkest thoughts only came to light when Joe and Miriam found this written in his private journal on his computer:

“Sometimes, I feel like reaching out to others and telling them everything, but then I will just feel ashamed or risk people's confidence in me. Perhaps I would have some immediate relief, but I would jeopardize my ability to get jobs and people would know these vulnerabilities about me and I would feel weak forever. I see myself reaching toward so many faces and arms, but I sink farther and farther down. It is a total descent into the deep."

Ben never wanted to speak about what was truly inside of him. This disease we call depression. Even when asked directly, so strong was his shame and embarrassment, his vulnerability, that he would deflect every question.  

And yet because of it, because of this terrible disease and a society that has yet to fully destigmatize mental illness, Ben, like the prophet Jonah, fell farther and farther slipping below the surface and down into the deep.

Hanistarot, the hidden things, they belong to God. We cannot bring Ben back. He belongs to God now. V’haniglot, but the things we are able to know, to do, to act, belong to us and our children. We must make what is hidden revealed, for our sakes and for our children’s sake.

As so for you, or for someone you love are dealing with mental illness. You who feel invisible and unheard. You who feel isolated and strange. You who feel in exile.

Know that I am here. I see you. I love you. You are loved. You are needed. You have our blessings.

You might feel sick, but no more or less sick than anyone who has cancer or pneumonia. We don’t yet have the tools to fully deal with the disease you have or your loved one’s have. But you are not weird, or sinful, or guilty for being the way you are. You are not a bad person. Nor are you unworthy of blessings. God blew the breath of life into all that is and gave all of us, including you, a unique soul. Part of each of us is perfect and unique. You are a blessing to us. You are loved. Baruch Ata Adonai, Mishaneh Habriot. Blessed is God who creates differences in the world.

I see you. I love you. You are loved.

And you should know that there is no one quite like you in the whole universe. God prints the holy image on each of our souls, but unlike the usual coinage where everything's the same, God’s coins are all unique. You are priceless, and you matter. You matter to the world. You matter to me. You matter to this community. And being here, I mean right here, means that there are five thousand other unique souls that are also here for you.

No matter how alone you might feel, you are never alone when you are in the covenant. Each and everyone of us was at Sinai with you, and each and everyone of us is here for you today. This is your shul. This is your community. I am your rabbi. You are part of us. This is your home. Baruch Ata Adonai, Yotzer et Adam Be’zelmo, Bz’elem dmut tavnito, V’hitkin lo mimenu, binyan ade’i ad. Blessed are you, God, who fashions each person in their own likeness, and established the potential for flourishing of each human soul. Baruch ata Adonai, Yotzer Adam. Blessed are you, God, the creator of humanity.

I see you. I love you. You are blessed.

“V’ahavta l’rechah kamocha” Love your neighbor as yourself, is to know that each of us has infinite worth. This great principle, this great commandment that comes in the center of Leviticus, a book in is in the center of the Torah, which is the book that is the the center of our lives teaches us that it is holy to love other people and indeed to love the world. It is equally holy, to know that you are loved.  

What is hidden in love must be known. We must make it known. To love and to be loved is not only an academic exercise, we are dealing with real people, connected in love to all of us. To love and be loved is not just an emotional disposition, it is a mitzvah - a deed, an act, an overt and explicit act from one person to another and as the Torah teaches, from one person to themselves. Which means over the course of this year I will be coming back to this topic of mental health on several occasions.

More importantly, I have called a meeting. On Sunday, September 30, at 1:00 PM, we are convening families and individuals who are touched by this mental health epidemic. Experts from across the city will be here. Organizations that are hear to help with resources will be out in force. Please come. Please bring someone with you. Please let others know. It’s too important.

We are calling the initiative, “So Healthy Together.”Across the entire community from the Early Childhood center to the Hazak our senior community, from the Youth Department to the Sisterhood to the Day School - everyone, together, will be creating mental health programing and initiatives for our entire community under the banner of “So Healthy Together.”

You don’t have to be a member to come. The programs are free. If they’re not, I’ll pay whatever it costs to make them free. This is too important. This is too sacred of a moment to let it slip away. There will be no boundaries, no one excluded. This is your shul. This is why being part of a community matters. And why our shul, Valley Beth Shalom, shows that religion is at its best when it responds to the moral and spiritual needs of each of our yearnings.  

Since 1971, we have been blessed at Valley Beth Shalom to have a Counseling Center. It’s just downstairs. It’s filled, brimming with compassionate trained counselors who are here to offer counsel and therapy to anyone who needs it at low cost or free of charge. Judie Cotton runs the counseling center and is very much my partner in this work. In addition, our wonderful counseling center will have counselors and therapists on hand at every program just to talk if you need it.  

And finally, I want to say one more word about love. On Yom Kippur, we call this the day of judgement. We stand in awe of God, fearful for what the coming year might bring. If you look closer, however, we pray that we pass before God like sheep before the shepherd. We are part of God’s flock.  

The ethic of a shepherd, though, is not to judge one guilty or innocent, righteous or sinful. The ethic of the shepherd is to know intimately the needs of his or her flock. This one needs more water, this one has more energy in the morning, this one wanders off. As much as Yom Kippur is a day of judgement, it is also a day of love, each of us assessed not by jury or a judge, but by our caretaker, our shepherd. Who loves us and knows what is inside our hearts and guides us back home. 

When you leave here today, raise your heads. Look up at the pair of windows that crown our atrium. The one over the entrance are the words of the Shema. God’s call out to each of us to listen to God’s love song, the Torah. The other, is our response to God’s call. It is our little verse; the three words upon which so much is staked. The three words that drove Rabbi Akiva to change the world.  The three words that remind us to act for justice. The three words that teach us that we are worthy of love. It’s the three words we need to hear all the time.  V'ahavtah l'rechah kamocha” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Build our world on love. Build ourselves on love. Build our community on love, for we ourselves each and every one of us are loved everlastingly.

I love you.

Gmar Chatima Tova.