Jami_MHS23

Sermon

Finding stability in times of trauma
Rabbi Elchonon Feldman, Bushey United Synagogue

Following on from the abhorrent terrorist attack on the 7th October, communities across the Jewish world galvanised in solidary and support of Israel. Rightfully we should be immensely proud of our collective response, which showed both our Jewish and British values at their absolute best. One such example of a communal response took place in our synagogue, following the Shabbat service, when we received an update from CST and opened up the floor for congregants to share their thoughts and feelings.

Many contributions focused on the practical effects of the war and the sense of isolation felt. However, it was the concluding comment which left me at a loss for words. One gentleman, new to the community, stood up and said in a shaky voice that he genuinely felt his world had been turned upside down by the recent pogrom and all of its aftershocks, and if it wasn’t for the community’s support, he wasn’t sure if he would have psychologically managed as he was literally at breaking point from what was happening.

Since that session, I have been privy to multiple conversations, both public and private, which have echoed these same sentiments. Simply put, people of all ages, of every political persuasion and religious affiliation, are struggling. We have on our hands an existential crisis, not just as pertains to our physical wellbeing, but more significantly as it relates to our mental health.

Analogous to the Covid-19 epidemic, where the sudden coronavirus outbreak pulled the rug out from our certainty and stability, leading to hysteria, depression and anxiety, we have to accept that these reactions and many more are in existence across our Jewish community and so many of us are already not coping.

Of course, we must affix blame for this entirely on our Hamas enemies who have succeeded with their terror attack on afflicting psychological trauma upon us, but we must now carefully consider what can be done to avoid long-term damage as we try to alleviate our own and others; mental anguish at this time.

There is a call upon communal infrastructure to learn the lessons of Covid 19 and to prioritise now mental health support for our community, and I have no doubt that Jami will be leading the charge in this regard. However, there are also practical suggestions which we can learn from our Torah on how to cope better during times of crisis.

Psychologist Rabbi Dr Ari Sytner, an expert on trauma intervention, recently discussed in a podcast three helpful steps towards creating stability in times of challenge:

Pull over

Following on from our people being freed from Egypt, we find that of all the nations in the world, only Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, joined our people. Our commentaries explain that although the miracles of the exodus were well known, most people did not stop to reflect and understand their significance. Only Yitro pulled over and did an emotional MOT to recognise the inspiration that he was feeling to then act upon it. We too must do likewise. We have an obligation to see to our own mental health by figuratively pulling over to the side of the road to assess what is going on physically and emotionally. Without doing an internal MOT, we cannot know how we may be struggling. If this is too hard to do on our own, perhaps do this exercise with a friend or mentor. Despite all the strains on us, we must find times to pause and assess.

Disconnect

Shabbat, our Rabbis teach us, is a gift from Hashem that forces us to stop and take a much-needed break from the week. Now, more than ever, we must recognise that our mental health is struggling with the constant bombardment of social media intrusion which has created algorithms to draw us in and not let us go. Shabbat is a great opportunity to take a digital detox, but throughout the week we must limit how much exposure we allow ourselves and others. Perhaps check in on the news once or twice a day and choose not to listen or read every message which is forwarded to you. Further, what you do read should have a ratio of more positive to negative. We need to disconnect and take mental wellbeing breaks and instead do something constructive, such as physical exercise or connecting with others.

Learn to pivot

Finally, our Torah intentionally embraces the need for a plan B. Hashem, from the onset of creation, builds a world one way, only to destroy it to start again. Later, Avraham journeys to Israel, only to have to leave because of famine. Later on, on our way out of Egypt, we find ourselves with a 40-year detour. Even the very Torah, which we are handed in the form of the ten commandments, comes from the second set of tablets and not the first. This is an important lesson that life seldom runs with our plan A, but that doesn’t mean that plan B cannot work. This teaches us the importance of pivoting when necessary to find ways of thriving, even if it’s not in the way we planned to. This crisis in Israel has shaken our plan A, without a doubt, but perhaps what can emerge is a plan B; getting involved in volunteering, connecting to community, or building better links to Israel. Pivoting gives us agency over that which has been thrown at us. It helps us roll with the punches of life and is a great way to tend to our mental health.

Jami Mental Health Shabbat sadly cannot have come at a more opportune time as we, as a community, try to support each other and tend to our psychological wellbeing. Our Torah is a wonderful manual to use in this endeavour, and it is our hope that by prioritising attention towards how we are emotionally affected by the Israel-Gaza war, we can find stability and avoid, please G-d, long-term trauma. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Elchonon Feldman is the Senior Rabbi of Bushey United Synagogue and a practising Psychotherapist.