A few weeks ago the kids asked Carol and me what we are dressing up as this year for Purim. While I hadn’t given it much thought prior to being asked, I thought of a meeting I had last month while visiting in the United States. I spent an afternoon with a fascinating individual who engaged me in a conversation on mental health and the clinical and biblical perspectives of it. While looking together at that week’s Torah portion – Ki Tisa we saw that when Moses was done speaking with the children of Israel after he descended from Mt. Sinai he covered himself with a veil or a mask.
(ויכל משה מדבר אתם ויתן על פניו מסוה (שמות ל”ד:ל”ג
Moses finished speaking with them and placed a mask on his face. (Exodus 34:33)
Why did he do this? Moses did this because his face had become so radiant that the children of Israel feared to approach him. We see that when he would speak with G-d he would take the veil off but then when speaking with the children of Israel he would need to put it back on. But why? Was he embarrassed? Was he afraid? Were they afraid? Our sages tell us that in order to afford the children of Israel the comfort they required Moses felt the need to guard some of his cheerfulness, so that the children of Israel wouldn’t be embarrassed to be in his presence. What is this Masveh– this veil? Is it just a cover up? Is this veil what keeps him from showing his true self?
Sometimes, for some of us, the only place that feels safe is behind the mask. We sometimes use the words of Masechah (mask) and Masveh (veil) interchangeably. If we take out the “vav” and the “kaf” from each we’re left with the word מסה(Masa) or mass – although often confused with the Hebrew word of the same sound but spelled differently – מסע (Masa) or a journey. This is what life is all about. A journey – sometimes with a heavy weight or mass on our shoulders. So often, unintentionally and sometimes without even knowing on our journey through life – we shield others from the full force of our love as well as from our sadness because of the heavy mass we are bearing. We hide from them our not feeling 100%. We cover up our ethical dilemmas, our moral confusions, our hidden traumas – basically our lives as we feel others expect us to live. And after some time, we become so acclimated to life behind the mask, this revelation of not being our full selves, that we’re terrified of what would happen if someone lifted the veil. We are often in such pain that we can’t take it any longer. Perhaps we are faced with the decision “can I really make a life worth living?” The many changes encountered could be perhaps thought of as lifelong jet lag –a feeling of just not being able to hack it.
Over the past year I have spent endless hours educating myself on Mental Health and Mental Illness – I have met with hundreds of patients and professionals throughout the United States and Israel. All in an attempt to see what’s really behind the mask – to reveal the truth; to find what needs to be done and to see how I as a member of society may be able to contribute. I have met with survivors of suicide and with families that had a loved one die by suicide. I’ve met with countless afflicted with PTSD and numerous trying to identify a hidden trauma. I have learned from adolescents and young adults in excruciating pain that they can’t understand that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and I’ve learned from religious leaders that they often lack the tools to confront the issues. I continuously bear witness that “you don’t understand” – “it’s just not worth it” and “please help me”.
My goal until next Purim in addition to further educating myself and encouraging others to do the same, is to continue the campaign in the reduction of stigma. The best way is to remove the mask – to not be embarrassed or ashamed to speak of depression or PTSD any more than we would be embarrassed to speak of diabetes or high blood pressure. All doing so while respecting the desires of the patient and their family. Throughout the year I’ve spoken in countless meetings to many people and in very few encounters did the sharing of something personal not come up. NO ONE is immune to mental health issues. But it would come up in a near whispering voice. While I’m not suggesting to go to the rooftop to broadcast about mental health I am advocating that we all be trained and aware of it and treat a mental illness just as we would a physical one. It’s been ingrained in me over the past year that while mental illness isn’t contagious you will also be afflicted with the need to take off your mask and share with all you know that even in the darkest hours– that they are not alone. Share with someone who you suspect may be suffering to let us (the communal “us”) know if they need a little extra love. As the Beatles remind us “we get by with a little help from our friends…” While we know there are no simple answers to the treatment of mental illness, what we do know is this: sometimes we all live close to the edge of the darkness. Some of us live very, very close, and some are stuck deep within that darkness. It’s OUR job, when we are able, to reach out to one another with open and loving arms – with a hug. We need to listen to each other and to hear one another. We have an obligation to create stigma-free zones, where we can talk honestly and openly about mental illness – depression, traumatic life events and anxiety. We need to emphasize that it’s OK to speak about the darkest of days, about losing jobs and being in an aggravating relationship; about not being able to make financial ends meet and about everyone thinking we’re living the dream while we think we’re actually failing on all fronts. It’s OK to talk about not wanting to get out of bed. And when someone begins to peel off their face mask we have to learn not to run away but to embrace them.
I have made it my mission since last Purim to educate myself and to open my heart to those who are suffering, and do everything within my power to catch them before they fall. I have learned that it’s a very challenging world but I’ve also learned that it’s an incredible world with incredible people. As challenging as life some times is, and perhaps for those behind a mask – most of the time – it really is worth it. Our world is overflowing with sunrises and laughing children; it’s filled with incredible acts of חסד, wonderful sounds (after all Eurovison is in Tel Aviv this year), calm seas and colorful sunsets. There’s great food to be had and phenomenal conversations – the list of goodness is literally endless! During each of the six days of creation, G-d looks it all over and declares, “This is good!” And when He was done, at the end of the sixth day, “G-d looked at all that had been created, and declared it was very good!” Yes, life is very good. So to those behind the mask I beg you – please hang in there! I have full faith and belief that it will get better. It may be hard work to be a person, but it is worth all the hardship.
So, this Purim I will not be in costume. I will not be wearing a mask. I am keeping my mask off and will not hide behind the stigma of mental health awareness. I will be wearing only a genuine smile. So to all those not yet able to remove the mask but will be peering out from behind the Masveh, the veil or the Masechah– the mask leading up to Purim, on Purim and even after Purim remember this: “we see you”, “we love you”, “we’re here for you.” Never forget – it’s a hard journey with pockets of turbulence but for the most part it’s smooth and the bumps do settle. Please hold on. Hold on for dear life and when ready to smile we’re here to witness the radiance behind the mask. If we take the gematria of the “ו” (vav) from מסוה -(masveh) and the “כ” (kaf) from מסכה – (masechah)we have 26 – the same amount in the letters of G-d’s name י – ה’ – ו – ה’ . Whether you’re still behind the mask or have succeeded in removing it remember that G-d is ALWAYS with us on our Masa – taking some of the weight off of us on our journey of life.
חג פורים שמח עד 120
Happy Purim Until 120!