Rabbi Jeff Berger, S&P Sephardi Community

Many thanks to Jami for promoting Jami Mental Health Shabbat in the UK and for all that they do in our community supporting thousands who struggle daily. Jami’s breadth and depth of programming is bespoke to the needs of Anglo-Jewry, something required more than ever today.

Traditionally, Jami Mental Health Shabbat has been linked with Parshat Bo because it contains the Plague of Darkness. For anyone experiencing depression or other debilitating mental health issues, being unwell can feel like the ‘three days that Egyptians sat in darkness, paralysed to move’ (Ex 10:23). וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו–שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים

For most of the plagues, Moshe gave a warning and after the plague occurred, Pharaoh, unable to withstand the discomfort, broke down and asked Moshe for a reprieve. The plague of darkness lasted for three days, arriving without warning, and lifting without Pharaoh’s supplication. This too is what people who suffer from depression often say – not knowing when it will come, how long it will last, nor what to do to chase it away.

In Parshat Bo, few will have also noticed another reference that is found during the Plague of Locusts. There, the Torah casually states that so many locusts descended on Egypt, ‘they covered the eye (face) of the land and darkened the earth’ (Ex 10:15). וַיְכַס אֶת-עֵין כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, וַתֶּחְשַׁךְ הָאָרֶץ,

Several commentaries ponder why the Torah uses the same terminology for darkness, Hoshekh, here, as in the plague that immediately followed.

Most suggest there were so many swarms of locusts in the sky that the rays of sunlight were entirely blocked from reaching the ground. Isaac Samuel Reggio, (Italy 1784-1855), asks, ‘If the entire land was covered, wouldn’t we know there was darkness?’ Instead, he interprets this metaphorically, suggesting that the hearts of the Egyptians were ‘darkened’ by anxiety and fear. ‘They were troubled, and their souls suffered’ (Ex 10:15:1).

Offering a rational interpretation to the sequence of the plagues, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) wrote that the strong westerly winds that blew away the last remaining locusts, also gathered thick clouds that remained in place for three days (Ex 10:21).

From these interpretations, we understand the Egyptians experienced collective trauma, economic hardship, leading to severe mental debilitation.

One response to Jami Mental Health Shabbat is acknowledging that ‘It is Alright Not to be Alright’. As many as one in six adults experience a mental health issue in their lifetimes. Those of us who suffer should be aware that we are not alone.

Resilience is the capacity to recover from difficulties. As a national characteristic, Britain is known for our Keep Calm & Carry On mentality.

The journey through life from birth to death seldom progresses in a straight line. What is meaningful and challenging at one stage becomes less so at another. Small children are known for how quickly their whims and desires vary. Adults aren’t much different.

But life is always changing – the series of destabilising events occurring over the past three years has multiplied this many times over. Our public response to Covid-19, the cost-of-living crisis, climate change, and the Israel-Gaza war have been life-changing and far more upsetting than expected. We are constantly challenged to overcome deep-seated, unconscious insecurities and mental trauma. We are pressured to learn new skills quickly, to function at the top of our ability, in ever more complicated environments and settings.

The cumulative effect of these pressures shouldn’t be underestimated. Throw in a few unexpected critical life-cycle events like child or elderly care, moving house, changing jobs, divorce, or even bereavement, and depression may not be so far off. Our resilience really gets tested.

But resilience helps us gain competence and connection.

That some people respond better than others to mental pressure is related to several factors:

  1. Extended social networks of family and friends that we foster
  2. An ability to keep grounded and focused on achievable goals
  3. Self-esteem and confidence enable us to avoid feeling helpless
  4. Competence and problem-solving skills empower us
  5. Communicating our pain pulls together our support base, and
  6. Being able to remain calm helps us to face each challenge anew

We build resilience first and foremost by improving self-awareness – understanding our strengths and weaknesses. Stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness-training help regulate our emotions, thoughts, and behaviour. And, having support teams we can rely on, enables us to be more authentically ourselves.

Resilience doesn’t happen by chance.

Mental health issues are increasing. We have the capacity to build inner strength to cope with our challenges, but sometimes we need support. Despite the darkness around us, we are thankful for an organisation like Jami who does much more for our mental wellbeing than we realise.

Wishing you a Jami Mental Health Shabbat Shalom.