31 January/1 February 2020, 5/6 Shvat 5780

Mental Health Awareness Shabbat

Vayeit Moshe et yado al hashamayim. Vay’hi choshekh-afeilah b’khol erets mitzrayim shloshet yamim. Lo ra’uish et achiv, v’lo kamu ish mitachtav shloshet yamim.

“And Moses held his hand toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was….” (Exod 10:22-23)

The last three plagues were said to be the worst; Locusts, Darkness and Death of the First Born. Actually the current locust plague across Africa, the most devastating for 70 years, is described biblically in its immensity. The skies are dark, and the farmers are desperate. It’s surely no coincidence that Darkness followed Locusts in the Exodus narrative. The penultimate plague is the most intriguing for us now.

The description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness – the darkness was so heavy, so intense that people couldn’t move from their position. So debilitated by the darkness were they, they couldn’t rise from their beds. Usually other senses kick in when sight is denied; but not here, not now. The darkness is described as afeilah – thick darkness, gloomy. The Torah text suggests it is a psychological darkness as well as physical.

This, surely, we can relate to. Darkness, depression, can descend like a plague. Mental illness has many parallels with this. We are better versed now in understanding the unwelcome periods of darkness many of us experience. JAMI, the Jewish Association for Mental Illness, has done much to raise the profile of the ubiquitous struggle so many go through. They have in my mind single-handedly changed the profile and perception of mental illness. Everyone is on a spectrum of mental health.  Philippa Carr, an FPSnik, works for JAMI. Indeed several of our members have benefited from their Mental Health First Aid training. One might think, when would mental heath first aid be needed, but you’d be surprised. Synagogues and prayer services can unleash all sorts of emotions and many of us have been ready to catch and meet those as they struggle.

Mental Health Awareness Shabbat was a phenomenal initiative. Communities all round the country will be paying attention to this, and raising its profile. We will be marking it at Shabbat b’Yachad this week. We hope our young people will benefit from it too. It wasn’t just the Biblical Hebrews who experienced the paralysing effects of darkness.

Wishing you an easy Shabbat.