Common Sense: Or, what I’ve learned from Shavuot, support groups, and Bono

We Jews are a sensible bunch.

That is, we use our senses to perceive the material world. As has been the case throughout our history, we’ve had to see it to believe it.

When we were in Egypt, it was the Ten Plagues, the hand of God, something physical, that persuaded us to follow Moses into the desert. As we — the Hebrews at this point — waited for our leader to come down from the mountaintop, we grew impatient and created the Golden Calf. This idol was a physical manifestation of that in which we were trying to believe. In a word: God.

We were so used to our senses leading the way that we could not yet see what was going on behind the scenes. Again, we needed to see it to believe it. And then when Moses did come down from Mount Sinai, when he saw this idol worship he smashed the two tablets and they had to be recreated.

I find it interesting that the tablets themselves were physical, as were the burnt offerings given during that time and throughout the Torah. I also find it interesting that in this day and age, when there is no Temple in which to sacrifice, we still maintain our religion via our senses:

We wear tefillin each day; lein the Torah out loud; perform the brit milah; post mezzuzot on the thresholds of our houses; perform the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat; blow the shofar and eat apples, honey, and new fruit on Rosh Hashanah; perform kapparot with coins or a chicken before we deprive ourselves of food on Yom Kippur; shake the lulav, smell the etrog, and build sukkot using very detailed specifications; dance with the Torah; dress up in costumes and hand out mishloach manot; eat matzah, and everything else that I’ve failed to mention here.

Sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. These are the senses that we use throughout the year while observing our religion.

We are a sensible people. It was only when the tablets were brought down as a physical manifestation of the law that our days as Hebrews became a new age — that of Judaism, the Jewish people as a community, as a nation, and united by the laws of the Torah. As Jews, we are a religion and we are a community, and I find them both equally important. So the question is, do we still maintain the see- it-to-believe-it mentality, or have we moved beyond that? In the words of Bono (yes, the lead singer of U2), have we arrived at “a place that has to be believed to be seen”? Do we perform all these physical rituals because now we believe in the words of the law, written down or otherwise?

I think that yes, we have reached a point where, in terms of Jewish custom and law, somewhere along the way “see it to believe it” became “believe it to see it.” That’s a good thing, I maintain. It means that we trust in a code of ethics — something invisible and intangible — and carry out the physical religious traditions.

So now here’s the tie-in to my own agenda:

We need to do a better job at observing the inside of a person who is hurting. We may not see it physically, but we need to understand that it’s there mentally — mental illness, depression in particular, affects us all, whether personally or tangentially. How can there be so much silence behind what there is so much science behind? We may not see the synapses or neurotransmitters or what have you wreaking havoc in the brain, but they are there. People with depressive disorders are hurting inside. We need to believe it.

And when we believe it, and then see it, we need to use our built-in sense of community — that which we received at Mount Sinai — to help support those in need. Love your neighbor as you would yourself. An important nugget of truth taken from the mountaintop.

We may not be able to see depression physically, but we need to start believing it more. Because when we believe it’s there, that is when true support can be sought.

So then what might people who are hurting do to support themselves? And what might a loved one do to support the person who is hurting? Furthermore, how might a person whose loved one is faced with a depressive disorder help him or herself?

Answer: talking with one another. Sharing our experiences and supporting one another. Not being afraid of stigma anymore, especially among those who are in the same boat. And let me tell you, there are many of us in that boat.

May’s Mental Health Awareness month may have passed, but awareness and support are important all 12 months of the year. Mental illnesses are something you can’t physically see unless you know that they’re there. And they are there. Once you understand and believe it to be true, you will see it all around you—faces in pain, people, people with depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, anorexia, bulimia, ADHD, PTSD, all needing your outreach and support. We as individuals and we as a Jewish community can do just that. So let’s do just that.

Again, yes, my own agenda — Refa’enu’s mood disorders support groups meet in Paramus on the first and third Tuesday nights of every month; there is a group for people with a mood disorder (forms of depression and bipolar disorder), and another group for family and friends. But I think it has much to do with one possible meaning behind this past holiday of Shavuot, which interestingly coincided with Mental Health Awareness month. That is, to transform ourselves from having to “see in order to believe” to having to “believe in order to see.”

We, as Jews, are a sensible people, in that our rituals revolve around the five senses. Now let’s be sensible and support one another as we would have others support ourselves.

The Torah came down to us with one major guiding principle: Love your neighbor as you would yourself. I think now is the time for us to arise and honor that which we have been taught.

More information about Refa’enu and its support groups can be found at You can also email with any questions or comments.

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at You also can email with any questions or comments.
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