Shabbat Briyut Ha’Nefesh Sermon by Nicola Feuchtwang

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 4 February 2020

How often have you written out a shopping list, then forgotten to take it with you when you go shopping? Do you remember to buy everything you needed?  When I was at medical school, we were often expected to memorise lists: “Tell me the symptoms of such&such disease” or “What are the 11 commonest causes of Blue Fingernails?”  I always needed some sort of rhyme or acronym as a mnemonic, and even then, I would probably only manage half the list.

But suppose I actually had a patient with (let’s say) blue nails – and I had to read the textbooks in order to explain to them why we were doing tests – I would remember the list – and that patient – forever.  In fact, it didn’t even have to be my own patient, it could be someone I heard about or even a character in a book who made the symptom or disease “real” and memorable for me.   I was therefore intrigued by a book I found in the public library (I think it was called ‘Feet of Clay’) which took biblical characters and tried to diagnose what was wrong with them.  In fact, it turns out there is a whole genre of literature of this type. For example, did you know…?

  • Noah had albinism (and an alcohol problem)
  • Job may have had a vitamin deficiency called beri-beri, which could explain his rumbling tummy and his low mood
  • Goliath may have had a particular type of brain tumour, and so on.

What about poor king Saul?  In our Haftarah this morning we read about him being terrified, and being calmed by music. In later chapters of the book of Samuel, there are times when he is angry, unreasonable, paranoid, violent, and so on. In the language of the Bible, this is described as the spirit of God leaving him and being replaced by ‘an evil spirit’ (incidentally, also from God – not from a demon as one might expect in many cultures).

In another idiom, we would say that his soul was sick or troubled, or that he had a mental health problem.  There has been no end of speculation as to his possible diagnosis.  My copy of the book of Samuel has a commentary which includes a note to the effect that Saul’s symptoms suggest manic depression, or what we would now call bipolar disorder.  This is also the opinion of an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry just a few years ago. On the other hand, a writer in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2007 disagrees, and says no – Saul was a man in an impossible situation.  His army was outnumbered, his soldiers were panicking, he had been told to await instructions which hadn’t arrived, he took initiative – and was then reprimanded for doing so.  His behaviour and symptoms were those of work-related stress.  It can happen to any of us when our tasks in life overwhelm us or we feel undermined.

Maybe the diagnosis doesn’t really matter.  After all, this is a service in a Beit Tefillah, not a clinic.  But I think we can learn a lot from the way the story of Saul is told in the Bible:

  • First of all, there is no attempt to cover up the story.
  • It tells us that ‘Sickness of the soul’ can happen to anyone, even kings.
  • Saul is still honoured as a king, the first king of Israel, notwithstanding his failings and the times when he didn’t function well.
  • Even when he was unwell, Saul was able to take advice and follow it – and it really helped him. In his case, the key was music.

It can be difficult to acknowledge that we need help, let alone accept it, especially for those of us who are more used to helping others.  The study passage we read earlier comes from a text in Talmud written nearly 2000 years ago.  Let me remind you how it ended: “the prisoner cannot free himself from his shackles” – in other words, even those who usually do the caring sometimes need help to care for themselves.

We still have a long way to go, but I think UK society has come a long way in recent years in our willingness to talk about our mental health, and our difficulties with it.  This has been partly thanks to specific advertising campaigns, and the courageous speaking out by younger members of the Royal Family.  In the Jewish community, this weekend has been designated Mental Health Awareness Shabbat and JAMI (‘the Mental Health Service for our Community’) has prepared some useful Resource materials for teachers and individuals.

The reason they have chosen this particular Shabbat is in fact because of the Torah reading. Parashat Bo includes several of the plagues which afflicted Egypt.  So far they have been increasing in severity, affecting the agriculture and economy of Egypt, and then the physical health of the livestock, and then that of the Egyptians themselves, and it is all going to culminate in the horrific death of the firstborn.  But this 9th plague of darkness – what is so awful and life-threatening about darkness?  There are theological explanations about how each plague in some way represented the victory of God over the deities of Egypt, and darkness for the Egyptians must have felt as if the sun-god Ra was vanquished. But let’s look again at the actual wording in Torah:  a fog-darkness so that a person couldn’t even get up, and no-one could see his fellow.

Ramban (13th century) says: This was no ordinary darkness, not just an absence of light, but something palpable and paralysing.  Even earlier, Ibn Ezra (12th  century) suggests it had the quality of a ‘thick mist’ such as he had experienced for days on end at sea.   To anyone who has suffered a severe depression, or stood by a colleague or loved one in that situation, the analogy is obvious and the choice is apt.

How can we look after our own mental health, and how can we as a community help each other when things are difficult?

Both the JAMI Resource Pack, and the website of the organisation MIND, point to the NHS “5 Ways to Wellbeing”.  In brief, these are:

  • Connect: Social relationships are critical for promoting well-being
  • Be Active: Regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety
  • Keep Learning: It enhances self-esteem
  • Give to Others: People who help others are more likely to rate themselves as happy
  • Be Mindful: Being aware of what is taking place directly enhances well-being.  ‘Savouring the moment’ can help to affirm your own life priorities.

As I re-read these websites in preparation for today, I reflected that maybe our  community at Alyth is already on the right track and can offer some hope.  The answers will differ for each individual and situation, but here at Alyth there is plenty of scope for learning, for giving, for connecting, for savouring the moment, and even for being physically active.

The question then for each of us has to be:   Am I getting what I need?   Who might need me?   Am I giving what I can?  Can I do more…?

I would like to finish with part of the prayer which Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner has written especially for this Shabbat:

Harachaman, may the All-Merciful one grant our community and all other communities the strength and courage to extend help to all in need of it. May this community be a sukkat shalom – a shelter of peace and a place of refuge for those who need support and those whose mental health needs the love we can provide. May we help all those amongst us who experience a time of mental ill-health find understanding and strength within themselves, so they may once again lie down in peace and rise again to enjoy life. And through our work in building a holy community, may we give ourselves and all around us the endurance we need to face every day of life in all of its challenges and its wonders.

Shabbat Shalom.