Vayikra 5783: Nurturing spiritual health
This week I spoke on a panel at the Jewish Funders Network annual conference about the crisis in teen and young adult mental health. I doubt I need to tell you the numbers. They paint a devastating portrait. According to the most recent CDC data, 41 percent of American high school students in 2021 reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 28% 10 years earlier. Within this number, the rate rises to an astonishing 57% of girls, and 69% of LGBTQ+ teens. Likewise, a recent CNN poll found that 52% of Americans ages 18-29 have always or often felt anxious in the past 12 months.
It’s not only the pandemic that’s driving these numbers. The rates have been on a steady increase for years, and a variety of hypotheses have been offered: social media, especially channeled through always-available smartphones, has deeply corrosive effects on young people’s mental health; the hopelessness of so many narratives about climate change feeds a feeling of helplessness; the tethering of teens and young adults to their parents through location-based apps — and, even earlier, helicopter parenting — removes the play spaces in which they naturally develop resilience and independence.
I have one young adult child, one teenager, and one more about to become a teen. I have lived this. The anxiety and depression is real and gut-wrenching. The struggles with identity, addiction, functioning in the world — everyone is either struggling with them or knows someone who is. And our systems are overwhelmed. One friend recently told me that the wait time to see a therapist to help her teenage daughter struggling with depression was over six months — in a city with more therapists per capita than any other place in the country.
Our panel discussed things we can do: increase mental health resources; reduce screen time; do a better job with training youth-supporting professionals; create wellness centers for counselors at Jewish summer camps. All of these are important and vital. In my presentation, I talked about some dimensions that I think don’t get enough attention: The role of mindfulness and spiritual practices in helping maintain mental health and prevent mental illness in the first place. As Institute for Jewish Spirituality Advisory Council member Dr. Lisa Miller (whom I interviewed in 2021) has shown, spirituality is the leading protective factor against the “diseases of despair” in young people. Teens who identify as spiritual are much more protected against substance abuse and dependence, major depressive disorder, and risk-taking. And they show a 50-80% decreased relative risk for suicidality. Bringing spiritual practices to teens and young adults is one of the most important things we can do as a community to help them. And: engaging them in Jewish spiritual practices — like the ones we teach at IJS — has the added benefit of connecting them to the deep roots of their families, people, and heritage.
It’s not just the young people who are suffering — older folks need help too. Parents who are stressed and anxious have a hard time being a calming presence for kids who are stressed and anxious. Parents who are addicted to our phones have a hard time being present for their kids who are also addicted to their phones. As a family therapist friend of mine told me years ago: You may as well do family therapy, because eventually you’ll find your individual issues are inextricably linked to the family systems issues you’re worried about.
This week we begin the Book of Leviticus. We spend a lot of time in this Torah portion reading through the intricacies of the sacrificial system: what type of animal or grain may be used, where blood is sprinkled, how the sacrifice is or isn’t eaten, etc. It can feel remote, and often we rabbis take this opportunity to shift our focus to Passover, which inevitably happens within the next couple of weeks after we begin this book. But I think Leviticus, Vayikra, invites us to expand our understanding, particularly as it concerns this multi-faceted notion of relationships, identity, and being in the world. The great teacher Nechemia Polen puts it well:
Leviticus offers us an alternative way of knowing, an embodied spirituality that highlights space, demonstrative gesture and gift-giving as the touchstones of religious life. Rather than assuming that betterment of the human condition will take place by means of education and the promulgation of ideas, it relies on proximity and access to a locus of transformative energy and spiritual power to effect positive change. It avoids the didactic voice so common elsewhere in Judaism and instead celebrates immersive action, with great sophistication and effectiveness. (“Touches of Intimacy,” in Arthur Green and Ariel Mayse’s A New Hasidism: Branches, p. 41)
Leviticus beckons us to remember that our expressions of sacred relationship, like life in general, are not ideas to be postulated or things to find interesting. Rather, they are things we experience and do with our bodies, emotions, and minds. Leviticus reminds us that living is a full-bodied experience, and that we do it in relationships and communities.
We can argue about whether or not a society with animal sacrifice at its center is really the healthiest way to go. Surely there’s plenty of trauma there too. But the broader point of Vayikra is one that the science of spirituality has confirmed for us: We are hard-wired for relationships — with other people, with the earth, with the Divine. We need ways to develop and express these parts of ourselves in life-affirming ways, and we need to live in and maintain communities that nurture and support them. While there are many wonderful parts of today’s world that align with these goals, there are many other very powerful parts that work against them, and we see the unhealthy fruit of these cultural toxins in the emotional-mental-spiritual struggles we and our children confront today.
The good news is that we have technologies to confront them. These include our spiritual practices, which have such deep and powerful roots. As we begin the book of Leviticus, may we renew our spiritual lives, our connections with one another, the world and the Divine. May we do so for our own sake, for the sake of our children, and for the sake of all beings.