Mental Health Moses

A Sermon on B’chaalotcha, by Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, May 2021

I want to begin with an article I was reading this morning about mental health.  In many ways, it was sadly unremarkable, in that articles about mental health have been on a steady rise since the start of the pandemic, as globally, mental-health continues to decline. It’s one of the symptoms of the pandemic that will not get sorted out with a vaccine. In fact, I suspect we’re going to be dealing with the trauma and mental-health effects of the last year or so long after we’ve got the virus itself under control.

The reason that the article I read this morning stuck out for me, wasn’t so much because of what it was saying about the importance of sharing our own mental health struggles with one another but because I’m having trouble shaking a line from this week’s parasha that has been circling in my mind throughout the week as I’ve been studying, teaching and discussing it with others. 

In chapter 11:11 of Parashat B’haalotcha, we come across a disturbing moment as we find Moses in the midst of what can only be described as a breakdown. With the people complaining once again, Moses finally snaps and cries out to God: “Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favour,  that You have laid the burden of this people upon me? . . .I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me! If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”

This is shocking and upsetting language to hear from anyone, that they would rather die than continue to feel the pain of what they are experiencing. And it is especially distressing when we consider that this is MOSES, we are talking about – the greatest prophet of all time! The great leader of the People of Israel! How can someone we often depict and think of as so strong and resolute have a moment such as this? 

Or maybe this is the Torah’s way of calling our attention to the importance of such a cry of suffering. After all – if Moses can be honest about how he is feeling in such a moment of darkness, then certainly there can be no shame in it when we find ourselves feeling that way. 

If Moses Rabeinu can struggle with mental health, then anyone can. Because let’s be clear: Moses is not being overly dramatic or seeking attention. Moses is humble. Moses would seemingly rather be a leading a quiet life as a shepherd than leading this often-ungrateful hoard of Israelites to a new destiny. He didn’t ask for this life, and he is doing his best to live up to the challenges that must surely feel, sometimes, like they are crashing over him, nonstop. 

Who here hasn’t voiced this cry of Moses: Why Me? What did I do to deserve this?  We like to think that our leaders and our rabbis are infallible. That they are strong and reliable and can lead their community through any storm. We teach martyrdom stories about Rabbi Akiva on Yom Kippur as if it’s the golden standard to be that kind of rabbi. But holding rabbis, and other kinds of leaders, or anyone for that matter, to such a high, unattainable and, to be quite honest, un-human standard, is part of what adds to the pressure that can leads a person to a breakdown such as the one Moses demonstrates here in our parasha.

And I know, because when people ask me how I, a Canadian born, American trained rabbi, ended up in Cape Town South Africa, I can’t answer their question without being honest about my own moments of darkness. Maybe it would be easier for both the one asking and the one answering, or more comfortable, if the story was neat and tidy – but life is rarely neat and tidy, and I don’t think we do ourselves any favors to pretend that it is. 

My South African journey began, although I didn’t know it, when I had to leave a job and a community that I loved in Boston in 2015 because of a mix up with my green-card application. It was devastating. And, I was also so fortunate to be able to make my way home to Toronto, to be cared for and supported by family, friends and colleagues while I found my footing. But even with all of the incredible love and support around me, I was unhappy. Toronto and Canada couldn’t at that time, offer a job and a community that was the right fit for me. But because so many people were trying so hard to take care of me, it took me a long time to be able to admit how unhappy I was. 

I felt guilty. I felt like maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough to make it work. But eventually I found myself in a really dark place, feeling trapped and scared and not able to see a way through to a better time. Like Moses, I found myself crying out – not to God, but to my father – with similar words to the ones used by Moses, needing someone to know how desperately I was hurting and how hopeless I felt.

In our parasha, God responds to Moses calmly and without judgement. Sometimes God is quick to rebuke Moses and the people, reminding them of all the things that they should be thankful for. But in this instance, God understands, and models for us, that when someone is sharing the pain of their darkness, anxiety, or hopelessness, it is not the time to reprimand them. It’s not helpful to say “cheer up”, or “just think of all you have to be grateful for”, or “think of how bad you are making others feel by sharing these feelings”. 

Rather, God simply starts to suggest some practical advice, helping Moses to focus on practical step-by-step solutions; helping to remind Moses that there might be options that he hasn’t yet considered; Gently presenting opportunities to shift Moses’ perspective and help him to feel supported and hopeful once more. 

God suggests selecting 70 elders to help bear the burden of leadership – 70 elders who will experience what it is like to receive God’s prophecy, and who can then share that sometimes-burdensome experience with Moses going forward. Moses will have others he can talk to about how it feels to be the go-between for God and the people. He will no longer have bear it alone.

My dad responded to my sharing of darkness and hopelessness in a similar way, calmly and without judgement; with practical suggestions and offerings of possible new perspectives. It was that conversation that ultimately led me to apply to my current position as one of the rabbis at Temple Israel in Cape Town, an incredible opportunity I would never have dreamed of or imagined for myself – where I get to be a pioneer and a ceiling-breaker and a role-model for Jewish women and girls who have never had a rabbi who is also a woman leading their community; where I get to join my colleagues and lay-leaders in fighting for the equal recognition and acceptance of Progressive Judaism in a country where Orthodox Judaism is the dominant denomination, with much power and authority over the Jewish communal bodies, organisations, schools, youth organisations, and museums. Like Moses and the Israelites, I had to wander through dark times before I was able to find my place in the world, the place where my soul is happy is my purpose is clear. And yet, I know that for many others, the dark times last longer, may be ongoing, and can be harder to push through. 

That is why sharing our stories and our darkness with one another is so important. That is why asking for help is so important. That is why reminding one another that there is no shame in feeling lost, depressed, anxious or hopeless is so important. That is why remembering that our rabbis and leaders and parents  and loved ones and friends are only human is so important. That is why naming Moses as an example of someone who knows what it is like to struggle with mental health is so important.

God says to Moses: I will come down and speak with you…and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.

Let us draw upon one another’s spirit. Let us be unafraid to share when our spirits are low. Let us share one another’s burdens and say to one another, “you are not alone.”; and say to one another, “it can get better.”; and say to one another, “I understand”, and say to one another, “even Moses, the great Moses, felt that way sometimes,”; and say to one another, “we will get through this wilderness, together.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s Will.

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