With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Active Listening

08 January 2022
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sermon from Jami Mental Health Awareness Shabbat


If there is anxiety in one’s mind, let them quash it, and turn it into joy with a good word

(Proverbs 12:25).

This verse (that we heard in our Haftarah) is often cited with reference to mental wellbeing.

The Ark Synagogue has for many years partnered with Jami, the specialist provider of mental health services in the Jewish community, whose vision it is for “a Jewish community which accepts, acknowledges and understands mental illness.” In 2017, Jami designated this Shabbat Bo as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. They do so because as we heard, the sidrah Bo, includes the plague of darkness that fell upon the Egyptians, whilst the Israelites were yet able to see. The medieval biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra and others, interpret this darkness to have been so thick, one that “can be touched (Ex 10:21),” to mean that the Egyptians, “…could not see one another (v. 23) neither by the light of day nor by candlelight.

For some, when we have anxiety on our minds, we are able to quash the anxiety relatively easily. We may have identified the cause and addressed it, or if we cannot fully do so, made our peace with it and made it as part of who we are, something to live with. We may experience the darkness, our eyes open at night when we experience a sleepless night, but wake in the morning in some way refreshed, not sure how at a point we did fall asleep and that even though the hours were not long, the relief provided caused us to open our eyes to light. Whether it be a good word, as in the Proverb, we awaken to joy.

We also know that there are times of darkness – as Jami use it, the metaphor for mental pain, distress – for some or many, that are more frequent or even constant.

The past few years, we have spent an incredible amount on the physical health treatment of COVID directly and indirectly. I have no figures to back this up but I suspect that the investment on the mental health treatment on the effect of COVID will at best match the disparity of investment in physical and mental health of our country before and I suspect, after the pandemic.

As ever, I am not seeking to blame but to understand. To understand why in 2013…despite Mental illness being, “the biggest cause of disability in the UK – more than heart disease or cancer;” despite “people with a severe mental health illness on average dying 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population;” and despite, “the economic and social costs of mental health problems – from people missing work, to benefits and other costs – were estimated at £105 billion in 2010, more than the cost of obesity and cardiovascular disease put together.” Why despite all of this, there is such a clear inequality between mental and physical health provision. Have you heard of a target concerning waiting times for mental health crisis?

There are of course complex, multiple reasons for this, not least the championing of the length of a life over the quality of that life.

If there is anxiety in one’s mind, let them quash it, and turn it into joy with a good word

(Proverbs 12:25).

This verse is cited in the Talmud (bYoma 75a:2) with two rabbis Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi disputing the meaning of “quashing the anxiety in one’s mind – [yashena].”

One said: They should forcefully push it [yasena] out of their mind. One who worries should banish their concerns from their thoughts.

The other said: It means they should tell [yesiena] others about their concerns, which will lower their anxiety.

I like the idea that the Talmudic account is ambiguous about which rabbi said what, for we may recall ourselves giving both responses to one experiencing anguish. Today, the embrace of the latter approach as efficacious we hope to exemplify: To encourage one to talk and for us to be an active listener.

What does it mean to be an active listener?

It is clear that a difficulty is that there just aren’t enough professionals or professional services to match the need in society.

That is when the value of community is vital.

Community provides so much that is essential in a person’s life. As we read at the beginning of the service, a sense of belonging that involves sharing both our joys and also our sorrows, a space for all generations both to give and receive. We know that The Ark Synagogue has been an exemplar for many years in our concern for the welfare of individual congregants. The wellbeing of each individual combined, is the wellbeing of the community

But it is not always easy for us to reach out for the provision, tell [yesiena] of one’s concerns.

Our message on this Jami Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, is for us not only to call for parity or at least improved investment in mental health services; but to be part of the service. To be an active participant in the community. Each one of us can give and receive. To tell of our concerns and be the one that hears those concerns – to be an active listener.

We have become used to talk of isolation and social distancing. Distancing means physically, not mentally or emotionally.

Active listening means making a simple phone call, tapping a message, a smile, a meal … and then to share, both in listening and in speaking.

Being a community of active listeners. Even when isolated or someone is isolating, the good word is vital. It may merely be a short-term balm, but it can bring joy and a reminder of the feeling of joy is not to be underestimated, nor the knowledge that someone cares for you, to call or message or smile for you.

If there is anxiety in one’s mind, us together quash them, with good words, turning them into joy.