If there was one thing I heard in rabbinical school more than anything else, it was: “remember, you are a rabbi, not a therapist or a mental health professional.” Often one of the greatest sources of trouble for rabbis and congregants going through difficult periods of time can be rabbis coming out with a great deal of goodwill to deal with troubles rabbis are not professionally equipped to deal with. Be it marital problems, eating disorders, difficult grief, or other issues, rabbis might be tempted by sympathy to overstep their professional capacities, and individuals in distress and need of support might lean in too heavily on rabbinic support when indeed, someone more professional is needed to address the situation.
While rabbis, as community leaders, must recuse themselves from individual situations, we can no longer sit on the sidelines of what is happening to humanity in general, the United States as a country, and our own Jewish community. We, as rabbis, know best that people should not live in isolation, yet they often do.
If you have ever been asked where you have been on 9/11, you are probably enough of an adult to know that over the past twenty years–as we have all been living as adults, suicide rates in the United States have increased by a staggering 25%–one quarter. Suicide rates have been going up without a break since 2011. More than 2.5 million (!) young Americans struggle with depression, with many others struggling with addiction. Millions have suffered burnout at work, and many have left the workforce.
Already 12 years ago, a 2010 study drawing on 148 different studies concluded that strong social relationships were more important to your health than not smoking or exercising. People with strong social relationships with 50% more likely to survive over the 7.5 years of follow-up than those with weaker social relationships. The American Heart Association also published a study showing isolation causes an increase of 30% in heart attacks. Over the past two years, 1 in 4 people saw their social circles shrink as well as many other adverse measures of how we are doing as a society.
While this can be the subject of many talks and classes, it is also very much part of what Yom Kippur is all about.
One of the most beautiful scenes described in the Yom Kippur is the Kohen Gadol–the High Priest’s–service in the Beit Hamikdash. “Indeed, how splendid was the image of the Kohel Gadol as he exited the Holy of Holies .”This glory did not come in a vacuum. “Vehakohanim Ve’ha’am” the Kohanim and the entire people of Israel would bow down upon hearing God’s name, bringing the service to its climax as they greeted the High Priest to celebrate the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service.
Yet as the laws of the Beit Hamikdash require, the service at a recognizable time gap away from when the sun goes down. So what did they all do as the service ended in the Beit Hamikdash, and the day did not conclude yet? The rabbis teach us (at the end of Tractate Taanit) there were no better days for Israel than Tu Be’Av and Yom Kippur. On these two days of the year, young Jewish men and women would go out to the Vinyards around Jerusalem, dance, and find someone they thought they would marry. At the same time that we sit here in deep reverence for the Ne’ila prayers, the youth of Jerusalem would go out to the vineyards to find love. While Tu Be’Av is a nice day in the middle of the summer on which, it must be nice to go out to the vineyards for a singles event. Does this make sense for Yom Kippur? Not as much. Could the young singles of Jerusalem not find a better time to socialize than Yom Kippur afternoon?
To answer this, we must understand that Yom Kippur is about mending relationships and thereby building community. On the initial Yom Kippur, when God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, God also restored the clouds of glory to the Jewish people, which is why Sukkot follows the holiday of Yom Kippur. It is our ability to forgive others that paves the way to community building and restored socialization.
On Yom Kippur, as we stand before God and ask him to forgive us, we also ask others to forgive us. We also ask ourselves to forgive others, and most importantly, God asks us to forgive ourselves. In order to rebuild a community, we need forgiveness. To recreate relationships, we need forgiveness. To recreate communal spaces, we need forgiveness. To reestablish and strengthen family bonds, we need forgiveness.
The rabbis teach us in the Midrash on Beresheet God sought to create this world with strict justice and judgment, yet He then saw that with pure judgment and justice, this world could not exist. Our sins would not be tolerated for one moment. So God created this world with compassion too, and this is how we exist. There is no world, community, family, or friendship without forgiveness. Our call on this Yom Kippur
The great philosopher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught so many valuable intellectual lessons through his many books and lectures. Yet one of his most valuable lessons comes through a story he had shared. On one of the only occasions he visited Israel, he was taken to visit Kibbutz Kinneret in Israel.
At the time, the Kibbutz had iron-clad socialist and even Stalinist affiliations, which included strong opposition to religion. While they were not thrilled to see a rabbi on their Kibbutz, they treated the American guest respectfully. They offered him something to eat, and he politicly declined as he assumed the food was not Kosher. They then offered him some locally grown grapes, which they thought would be less of an issue, but he declined those as well. Finally, his hosts at the Kibbutz asked him why he would not eat even grapes. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that since fruits and vegetables in Israel required tithing, eating them before those tithes were ritually separated was as forbidden as eating any unkosher food. Members of the Kibbutz went on to explain to him that once upon a time, decades earlier, in the 1930s, then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook came to visit the Kibbutz as part of his tour of the Jewish farms and communities up north and he spent Shabbat in their Kibbutz.
As the Kibbutz was not Kosher at all at the time, the rabbi brought his own Challah and bottle of wine with him and went to the communal dining room (“cheder ochel”) with his Challah and wine. As Rabbi Kook was sitting there, he was mostly ignored, people turned the lights on and off in his face, and chuckles were heard from all over. The same scene repeated itself on Shabbat morning. When Shabbat ended, they had a gathering of the whole Kibbutz. The rabbis danced with them, told them stories about his childhood, and said nothing about religion or their conduct.
On Sunday morning, as Rabbi Kook was departing and telling everyone goodbye. As he departed, the rabbi wished them well and said goodbye with a smile, making only one wish to the members of the Kibbutz: make sure that they always eat at least one meal together in the shared dining room–le’echol be’yachad”. Not a word about religion, Kosher, or anything of the kind. The same day the Kibbutz decided to turn over its entire kitchen and make it Kosher, they told Rabbi Soloveitchik.
As rabbis and communities, we often spend our days and nights telling people about the importance of the laws of Shabbat, Kosher, prayer, and more. Yet, in these times, more than any, we must make sure we restore communities. It is time we fight to restore our public square–be it in families, communities, or in society as a whole. It is time we take the term Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazah–all Jews are responsible for one another–from being invoked only in times of international crises and begin to invoke it in our day-to-day lives. It is time to recreate friendships, family bonds, and community and make sure we care for vulnerable individuals. Whether it means inviting more friends for Shabbat dinner, going out again to coffee with a friend, checking more often on others, doing more for our own mental health and social life or that of our children, and doing anything we can to recreate a world that is a little bit more forgiving, a little bit more compassionate, and more in the image of God described in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
So are rabbis therapists or mental health professionals? Usually not. Yet rabbis, lay leaders, and every member of the Jewish community have an obligation to raise the banner for a restored sense of happiness, security, community and to create a world that is a little more compassionate, a little more forgiving, and a little bit more friendly.