Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779
I want to begin by taking you back to my sermon last Yom Kippur following which so many of you obliged and queued at the voting booths to select those issues that most concern you. The overwhelming majority of you voted that Mental Health and Wellbeing is the number one concern. In the months since last Yom Kippur, a team of volunteers has worked alongside me to explore how we can use our local community organising alliance, Harrow Citizens, to effect positive change.
One year down the road, we know a lot more about the jungle of funding for mental health and the lack of good signposting. And we have made small steps towards practical solutions: our member Vanessa Berle, who is being honoured this year at Simchat Torah, was instrumental in working with our mental health action team in creating a resource sheet to help sign-post to local mental health services. You can pick up a copy after the service at the loan book table.
Yet, I realise today probably more so than a year ago how long and complicated the journey will be to facilitate positive improvements in our local mental health services.
Yet as I was reflecting on the difficult journey lying ahead, while being swamped with a never ending stream of bad news both from within this country and looking at the situation around the world, I realised that what maybe all of us need today at the cusp of a new Jewish year is strategies to help us respond to personal or national tragedy, in a way that does not require us to look away and pretend all is good, but nonetheless allows us to look towards the future with hope. What we need is to build our own resilience – our ability to cope when life is scary, awful and unfair.
So, as we assemble here today at the start of a new year, I want to give you a new set of aseret hadibrot – Ten Commandments for building resilience1. You can imagine this new set of Ten Commandments on two tablets like the ones we are told Moses received on Mount Sinai: on one of the tablets are the commandments that help us build our own resilience and on the other tablet those commandments that enable us to help others find resilience.
So let’s begin by looking at the five commandments that help us build our own resilience:
1. Don’t allow the three P’s to hold you back
If we look at Hagar’s response in the Torah portion that we read today, we can imagine that walking away from her son, sitting down in the distance she was thinking: “What did I do that got us into this terrible mess?” Hagar expresses her total and pervasive sense of loss in just four Hebrew words: “Al er’eh b’mot hayaled – Let me not look on as my child dies.” As she bursts into tears, we sense her feeling that this is the end; their fate is sealed for eternity.
Hagar is helped by God in escaping what the psychologist Martin Seligman called the gridlock of the three P’s: personalization, the belief that we are somehow at fault, pervasiveness, the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life, and permanence – the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever. Our first commandment reminds us that we do not require Divine intervention to recognise that these three P’s will only hold us back in our recovery.
And that brings us to our second commandment
2. Look for sources of self-confidence & find the strength for self-compassion
There is a Chasidic teaching that we should carry two pieces of paper in our pockets. On the first one it says: “I am but dust and ashes;” just as we sing in Avinu Malkeinu, eyn banu ma’asim – there is little merit in us.
During these Days of Awe, we are called upon to perform cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of the soul, to examine our life, to ask forgiveness for our wrongdoings and reflect so that we will do better in the New Year.
But the Chasidic Masters also taught that we must carry a second piece of paper with us: “For my sake the world was created.” That is exactly what the second commandment teaches us: that to ensure good mental health we mustn’t forget that, despite our shortcomings, we are special just the way we are. We must look for sources of self-confidence and find the strength for self-compassion. Before we can truly forgive others, we must forgive ourselves and assure ourselves that we are worthy to be granted absolution for our faults and recognise that indeed we can and will learn from our mistakes.
One way of building our self-confidence and our ability for self-compassion is to pay heed to our third commandment:
3. Count your Blessings
There is indeed a Jewish custom, originating in the Talmud (Menachot 43b), to recite 100 blessings a day. Maybe it sounds like a hard thing to achieve. But rather than looking for a strict requirement of a 100 blessings, what if we even started with ten? What would our daily lives be like if we expressed gratitude for the blessings around us at least 10 times a day?
This is a particularly important commandment to pay attention to at times when we experience severe hardship, when illness or grief or the news on social media seem to overshadow everything that is good; because even when times are really tough there are things that we can be grateful for! We just have to pay attention.
4. Pay attention to your contributions
Counting our blessings is a powerful way to improve resilience but the psychologists Adam Grant and Jane Dutton found that counting blessings doesn’t actually boost our confidence, which is essential for long-term mental wellbeing. However, counting our contributions can do exactly that. Grant and Dutton believe this is because gratitude is passive: it makes us feel thankful for what we receive, while contributions are active: they build our confidence by reminding us that we can make a difference.
So, in addition to counting our blessings we must not forget the fourth commandment: pay attention to your contributions – when you feel down, think of the ways in which you have made a difference recently or make plans for making a contribution in the future. You don’t have to single-handedly change the world – it can be a small act like helping out at an event at the synagogue or calling a friend or acquaintance, who might be going through a tough time or feel lonely.
All it requires is a conscious effort to do something as we are reminded at the end of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: good deeds annul the severity of the decree.
5. Kick the elephant out of the room
The fifth commandment that helps us build our own resilience might be one of the trickiest so far. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, called this one “Kicking the elephant out of the room.”
An instinctive reaction of many of us, when facing a difficult time, is to withdraw and hide our pain. But as understandable as this reaction is, it leads to a sense of isolation. If we don’t speak about our pain, others will likely also avoid addressing it. Sandberg observed this about her own behaviour after the sudden death of her husband aged 47. Because she did not mention him, colleagues and friends did not bring him up either leading Sandberg to feel very isolated.
It might be hard to share our pain but Judaism offers many ritual opportunities – shiva, yahrzeit, joining together in communal prayer. Being part of a community helps us to be supported to be more open to sharing our pain.
The fifth commandment has value in itself but is also important because if we fail to kick the elephant out of the room, we will prevent others from following the second half of our new Ten Commandments recorded on the second tablet, which focus on the things that each one of us can do to help others find resilience.
6. Express empathy
The first of this set of commandments sounds very simple, yet can be rather difficult: express empathy. Don’t just feel sorry to hear that someone is struggling, tell them that you are sorry. Reach out even if you don’t know what to say – that’s what Bikkur Cholim, reaching out to those in need of healing, is all about. This simple gesture will help a fellow human being to feel less isolated even if it cannot change the sad reality with which they are dealing.
7. Relate to the other person’s pain but avoid unhelpful comparisons
When observing the sixth commandment it is important to also remember the seventh commandment: relate to the other person’s pain but avoid unhelpful comparisons. The graphic designer Emily McDowell was 24 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. For her, the most difficult part of her illness wasn’t losing her hair or sickness from chemo.
It was the loneliness and isolation she felt when many close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say or said the absolute wrong thing without realising it. Based on her personal experiences, she started a greeting card business called empathy cards. One of my personal favourites, which beautifully illustrates the essence of our seventh commandment, reads: “When life gives you lemons, I won’t tell you a story about my cousin’s friend who died of lemons.”
It is a normal reaction that we want to relate to others by sharing our own pain but often these comparisons feel belittling and irrelevant to the person we try to comfort. Instead let’s relate to someone else’s pain by asking how. How are you? How does this make you feel? How can I be most helpful and supportive?
8. Help by providing perspective
The third way, in which to help others build their own resilience, links back to our first commandment. Remember the three P’s — personalisation, pervasiveness and permanence? Just like Hagar was held back by the three P’s and needed Divine intervention, when we suffer, we sometimes need help to overcome the three P’s too so our eight commandment instructs us to help by providing perspective. This doesn’t mean that we should pretend to be experts when we are not but through active listening, each of us can help to provide perspective and validate the other person’s pain.
9. Show interest
The best way to do this is to follow the ninth commandment – show interest. Don’t probe beyond the other person’s comfort zone but reach out with questions even giving permission to not receive an answer.
10. Help in the search for hope
Which leads us to the final one of our commandments: help in the search for hope. Hebrew has two words for hope – Tikvah, the term that most of you will be familiar with from the title of Israel National Anthem Hatikvah, and Tzipiyah.
The rabbis talk about Tzipiyah when they speak about the hope for salvation and redemption. The word is based on the same root as the word to scout. This type of hope is not just a passive but an active hope. We must go and seek it like scouts exploring unknown territory. The darker the territory the more difficult is the task, making the help of friends and family all the more important. Tzipiyah is a type of hope that does not require us to deny the existence of darkness but that reminds us, as the modern sage Leonard Cohen z’l put it: there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
For this is the essence to mental wellbeing and the key to living a life filled with joy even when the world seems to be turning against us: to support one another in fulfilling the ten commandments to build resilience so that together we can bravely look at the cracks all around us and still acknowledge that that is how the light gets in.
May the New Year be a year of resilience for all of us enabling us to find light even amidst the brokenness.
Ken yehi ratzon – May this be God’s will.
1 This sermon was in large part inspired by two books: A. Grant and S. Sandberg, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, and K Crowe and E. McDowell, There is no good card for this: What to say and do when life is scary, awful and unfair to people you love.
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