Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.
It is not your every Shabbat sermon that begins and perhaps ends by quoting the author, Haruki Murakami. Perhaps best known for his 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, I think his works have only got better and I am a rather avid follower: My quiet obsession has led me to explore jazz via his music references and I have fallen into a rabbit warren of other contemporary Japanese authors.
In his latest book, First Person Singular, of short stories, Haruki Murakami begins with a typically esoteric story that includes some serious thought about human relationships with hints of a Divine nature.
“Maybe I had done something that had caused her to form a personal grudge against me. Or maybe, for no special reason, she found me so unpleasant that she couldn’t stand it….but would a person really go to all the trouble of coming up with such a complicated plot in order to harass someone, just out of spite?… I couldn’t remember a thing I’d ever done to make her hate me that much. But sometimes, without even realising it, we trample on people’s feelings, hurt their pride, make them feel bad. I speculated on the possibility of this not-unthinkable hatred, the misunderstandings that might have taken place, but found nothing convincing. And as I wandered fruitlessly through this maze of emotions, I felt my mind losing its way. Before I knew it, I was having trouble breathing (p. 14-15).”
If ever there was a year when we may have been caught short of breath due to our emotions, our mental wellbeing, or unknown feelings we struggle to identify. Interestingly, some who live with long-term mental health issues said to me, “Now everyone know how it feels.” Our experience has in many ways been a leveller, creating conditions that at once could be restful and peaceful; and vacuous and trying. The ancient rabbis began to recognise different mental states the subtly of which was largely absent in the Tanakh. They knew of marah shechorah, meaning melancholy or depression; teiruf daat, literally a tearing of one’s discernment, usually temporarily, through to sakanot nefesh, that threatens life.
In our time we are grateful for nuanced understanding of mental illness and mechanisms to provide support. This coming week is designated #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek promoted as you would expect by our partner provider, JAMI – the Jewish Association for Mental Illness. Thanks to the curation of our Care Coordinator, Omar Portillo, working with JAMI and others, we are able to bring our series of Wellness Workshops that continues this Wednesday, and to provide training for our Care Team volunteers, and directly to members.
This vital resource in the heart of our Jewish Community, helps us – The Ark Synagogue – to be a true Community. We should not underestimate the simplicity of ‘befriending.’ The importance of this with over hundred volunteers reaching out to others during the pandemic provided not only practical support but vital emotional support. Even if one could not access online, there were fellow congregants providing a physical presence to dampen feelings of isolation and loneliness.
To give voice to our feelings, emotions, when we are mentally fragile is to allow them out of our head. Having trusted individuals around us and for some a sense of God. These words were attributed to Rabbi Israel Mattuck and quoted in ‘A Jewish Book of Comfort’ (an anthology of support edited by Rabbis Drs Charles Middleburgh and Andrew Goldstein):
“There are sorrows whose roots the sympathy of best friends cannot reach. There are burdens so heavy that no human being can help to life or bear them. There are some whose wounds are too raw even for a friendly touch. What must it mean to such people to know and to feel that One greater than humanity is there with a sympathy silent but how tender! With a balm unseen but how healing. One to pour out its torrents of bitterness without words. A Friend with tenderness, with a healing knowledge, and power how healing.”
For those who faith is central to their being and well being, the words we heard concluding our Haftarah will ring true: “Heal me, Eternal One! Then shall I be healed. Save me! Then shall I be saved. For You are my praise (Jeremiah 17:14).”
And whether we understand the structure of Judaism to be God given or humanity written with a hint of divine inspiration, there is no doubting the efficacy of rest. Shabbat is such a gift and for many in our Congregation, even when days could blur into one, ritualising one day of the week and setting it and ourselves apart has provided a sense of congregation, community and comfort.
We are told in our sidrah this week (B’har, Leviticus 25), that the land also needs a sabbatical a year of complete rest. This Mental health Awareness Week in particular encourages us not to leave behind the benefits during lockdowns that we have found in the world around us, in nature. A daily walk, not driving, birdsong, planting, pruning, digging, growing our own. Sometimes we might do so with others and at other times on our own, precious moments that perhaps combine all the powers of healing that I have mentioned, an awareness and gratitude that we are not alone, that we live in a very special community, where we are cared for and where our caring for others matters. A community blessed by the possibility of knowledge of God, the language of prayer and the practice of ritual.
In such a context, when we consider our marah shechorah or teiruf daat, we hope that we will reach a greater understanding of our self, our fragility and our strength. We may come to see these moments as vital, reaching the essence of our being and providing fortitude through that which is mundane. Perhaps it is a holy moment when one experiences difficulty, then realisation and through it, strength. But over to Haruki Murakami to conclude far more poetically than I ever could.
“When we truly love somebody with all our heart, or with deep compassion, or have an idealistic sense of how the world should be, or when we discover faith (or something close to faith) …Your brain is made to think about difficult things. To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. And that becomes the cream of your life. The rest is boring and worthless. That was what the gray-haired old man told me. On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in late autumn, on top of a mountain in Kobe, as I clutched a small bouquet of red flowers (p. 26).”