Keeping the Broken Next to the Whole

Masechet Brachot tells a story of R. Yochanan, who had the power to heal and restore his fellow rabbis when they fell ill. One time, R. Yochanan himself became sick. R. Chanina came to visit him, took his hand, and healed him. The gemara asks: Why is this so? R. Yochanan could raise himself up! But no, he could not, the Gemara says, because “A prisoner cannot free himself from jail.” Those who are suffering cannot free themselves from that suffering on their own.

This is a notion that, thankfully, many Jewish communities take seriously. When people pass away, we make sure there will be a minyan for shiva and bring meals. When people are diagnosed with an illness, we raise money and daven for them. We do not expect those who are experiencing pain or weakness to raise themselves. Instead, we take their hands and help them up.

I feel so grateful to be part of a community that takes these responsibilities seriously. However, while we talk about how to help those who have physical ailments, we give too little attention to those who suffer from psychological pain. After all, the Jewish community in America has clear expectations of its members. Get a good education, get married, accomplish important things in the world, and raise the next generation of children who will continue this cycle. Be successful and happy. Mental illness does not fit into the vision we have for ourselves, so we don’t talk about it. And so, without meaning to, we leave those who are imprisoned by their own minds to raise themselves up. We do not even know they have fallen.

This issue is highly personal for me. When I was 22, after a number of weeks of unexplained crying and a deep, all-encompassing sadness that made it difficult for me to function, I went to a psychiatrist. She diagnosed me with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder.

Although the diagnosis was new, it wasn’t really surprising. Depression runs in my family on both sides, so I was certainly genetically predisposed. During middle school, there were months where the idea of going to school made me so anxious that I would cry hysterically and make myself sick so that I could stay home. More times than I can count, I’ve gone through periods where I felt sad all the time, withdrawing even from the people I loved and who I know loved me, because I felt like I couldn’t totally remember how to interact with people. Things that seemed intuitive for others—getting out of bed; laughing when someone tells a joke; cooking dinner—required internal reminders for me to try to “act normal” so that nobody would suspect there was something wrong with me. And I certainly did not know how to ask for help. My diagnosis gave a name to what I had always felt, which comforted me. However, even as I acknowledged this reality, I could not fully accept it. Depression was not—it could not be—part of the image I had for myself. And it was certainly not part of the image I wanted to project onto the world.

I have always been the classic overachiever. Never content to do the best I could, I told myself that I had to be the best, period. In that vision for myself, there was no room for depression and anxiety. Those were signs of weakness, excuses for failure—not for people like me. After all, we cried with people who had cancer, but we whispered about people who had mental illness. So I pretended and ignored and hoped that not too many people would notice the times when I withdrew into myself and away from the world. I internalized the stigma, and I carried it forward.

Even now, when I have learned to accept this part of myself, the stigma lives on inside of me. That part of me is pushing back against even writing, much less sharing, this piece. Publishing this means that anyone who does an internet search for me—a potential employer, a student, a prospective date—will know this about me, sometimes without ever having met me. I risk becoming known for my illness, when really, it is far from the most important thing about me. I risk being a victim of the stigma that I know I am guilty of perpetuating. But I want to learn from R. Yochanan and R. Chanina. I want to find a way let people know when I have fallen so they can raise me up. I want to let others who are suffering know that they can ask me to do the same for them.

Because, as anyone with an illness knows, the illness we have does not define us. It is certainly a part of me—some days more than others—but so are many other things that make up who I am, like my blue eyes, my passion for teaching, my love of puns, my devotion to my family, and my insistence on making cookies every Friday. And I would like to believe that for all of the ways my depression has made my life painful and difficult, it also presents the possibility of blessings. I would like to believe that my sensitivity, compassion, and sense of responsibility partly grew out of having experienced those impossible moments of darkness. Depression is not something I chose, but it is part of what has made me become who I am in the world. I do not romanticize it, but I am learning to accept it.

When I walk to work, I always pass a large billboard, painted on the side of a building, which says, “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not in character.” Even though I know this to be true, there are days when my choice to live an observant, rich, affiliated Jewish life makes it difficult to feel. Judaism is built around community. It is built around minyan, Shabbat meals, and batei midrash that are overflowing with Torah—and with people. However, these communal elements, which make Judaism so beautiful, can also make Judaism feel impossible for someone in the depths of depression. Judaism is not a religion for people who, in their moments of darkness, feel that it is impossible to be anything other than alone. As small as it may sound, there have been weeks when the prospect of going to kiddush has totally paralyzed me. What if, instead of pretending I felt sick or had somewhere to go, we could create a space where I felt I could be honest about that experience? What if, in the moments when people like me feel most alone, we could find a quiet way to validate and support that experience? What if aloneness could be even a little less lonely?

Slowly, the Jewish community is trying to find a way to embark on this journey. Synagogues and places of Jewish learning are beginning to talk about mental illness and how we can better support those who suffer. A brave few are sharing their own stories, and hopefully more will follow in their wake. The more we talk about these issues—the more those who suffer feel like they can be open about that pain—the more we can help lift up those who have fallen.

One of my favorite teachings from Chazal appears in Bava Batra, where R. Yosef says that broken tablets were placed in the ark alongside the second set of complete ones. To me, the profundity of this statement cannot be overstated. Even as something is broken, it retains its holiness. It is not to be discarded, but instead, it must be treated with the same kavod as that which is whole. Completeness comes from combining that which is flawed with that which is pristine. All of us are made of parts that are whole and parts that are broken. May we find a way to show each other our brokenness. And perhaps it will allow us to become a little more whole.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.
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