Holding Our Mental Health Sacred This Tishrei

The Author at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. (courtesy)

Every year on the 1st of Tishrei ( September 18th, this year), we went into an in an intense three week long time known as the Chagim. It starts with two days of Rosh HaShana, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, followed five days later by the week long celebration of Sukkot (or eight days if you live outside of Israel). In an average year, this time period, and the preceding month of Elul, can be stressful for the average person. There are meals to plan, new clothes to buy, people to see, and that’s not even including religious obligations and the days themselves. But this year especially, this period of time feels particularly daunting and intense. We are physically separated, ideologically at odds, and in many watching life as we knew it begin to crumble.

As we get further into Tishrei, I’ve been left with a lot of time to think about how to cope with this season of the year. For the more observant, there are added periods of 25-49 hours where there are very options for distraction. Which, in small doses, can be healing and helpful with creating space for ourselves and those in our physical presence. But these particular holidays are supposed to be intense and focused. Specifically around Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, where we are practically begging for our lives and our relationship to G-d and His Torah. While at the same time, celebrating His Kingship and believing that He will be there for us whenever and wherever we need. It can feel vulnerable to stand there and admit all your faults and transgressions, even silently, while praying for forgiveness and a chance to grow.

I think, on a certain level, that none of us are able to truly comprehend the gravity of these holidays. But it’s about tapping into the resources and understanding that we do have. Rather than finding ourselves so overwhelmed that we can’t focus or be present to see the beauty of what we’re doing.

Specifically, I think those of struggling with mental health issues, including addiction and eating disorders, are feeling these days a lot harder this year. We’re spending more time alone, there’s less celebration around meals, and even shul can’t be a space of connection. So, here we are sitting with ourselves, in a very deep head space, without the usual availability of connection and oneness. The question is how can we, and all people really, guard our mental health and hold it sacred right now?

The reality is that I don’t know what will work best for you and in your personal situation. So, all I can do is tell you what I and those closest to me do and hope that you’ll try them and find them helpful.

The first thing is to truly utilize the month of Elul. It’s there for us to lean into our connection with Torah and to reflect on this past year. So, that by the time we get to Rosh HaShana we are able to celebrate being alive and a part of the Jewish people. I know, it’s easier said than done. But I’ve found that having those conversations and moments of connection with other people (online or in person) did nothing but grow my community and spirituality.

Second, find some form of real world connection on the days where online isn’t an option. In 2020 this is particularly difficult, but try to see if a friend will have coffee outside, or if there is a shofar blowing, or tashlich. Give yourself a reason to leave your bed and your couch. Especially if you don’t want to that day. I spent one Yom Kippur in the Jerusalem forest because that’s where I felt connected. It’s okay that it’s not “traditional”, as long as you feel safe and supported.

Lastly, and I know this sounds cliche, but mindfulness is key during those long services. For me, I’m either overwhelmed and zoning out and feeling guilty about zoning out. Or I’m so intensely focused that I get overwhelmed by the seriousness of what we’re saying. Needless to say, neither of those are ideal ways to connect to the holiness of the day. Mindfulness, at its core, is being in the present moment without judgement. Which, in practice, means paying attention to where your mind wanders and bringing it back to what you’re doing. So, when I find myself feeling overwhelmed and panicked about how my life for the year will be written, I bring myself back to whatever we are saying in that exact moment. Nothing before and nothing after. It’s just the practice of bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

Nothing about this year is going the way we thought it would. Especially not when it comes to holidays. So, it’s important to hold these days and ourselves sacred throughout. Give space, allow for struggle, and create ways to stand back up.

L’Shana Tova and Gmar Chatimah Tova.

About the Author
Originally from Baltimore, Barbara resides in Jerusalem, Israel where she works in education.
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