This week’s Torah portion, Bo, marks ‘Mental Health Awareness Shabbat’, an initiative started by Jami in 2017. For those who have not come across them before, Jami is a charity whose ‘vision is a Jewish community which accepts, acknowledges and understands mental illness’. They picked Parashat Bo because it tells us about the plague of darkness: darkness descends over the land of Egypt, and no one (except the Israelites) could see their fellow or rise from where they were for three days (Exodus 10:22-3). Abraham Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides both infer that this darkness not only blocked the sunlight, but candlelight too. It was total, un-penetrable darkness.
It is a good metaphor for depression, a really good one actually. It is unlike ‘normal’ darkness which can be broken by light; clinical depression is unlike ‘normal’ feelings of sadness that come and go as emotions and circumstances change. I think the plague of locusts that precedes the darkness can also be seen as a powerful depiction of mental illness:
‘They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field.’ (Exodus 10:5)
I find much of Parashat Bo deeply depressing, but reading this as a metaphor for mental illness is as apt as it is terrifying. Mental illness can feel as though it is eating away at every last bit of you: your relationships with yourself and others, your interests, your ability to focus, concentrate and perform even the most mundane of tasks. It can feel like it is changing every aspect of you, devouring your very soul.
And the way I see it, the metaphor can continue throughout the parashah. Again and again, Pharaoh acknowledges his guilt, pleading before God, and it seems like he has had a change of mind. Yet the Israelites are not freed from slavery: ‘God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go’ (Exodus 10:19).
Accessing help in the UK for mental illness is a difficult process. GPs can be unkind, blaming the individual for their struggles; they prescribe pills and exercise without helping to address underlying trauma, or teaching skills that help you cope. The waiting lists for free therapy are months, sometimes years, long – and when you get there, it is usually only a standardised six week course that does not work for different brains. It is chronically underfunded.
A huge part of the problem is that the responsibility often falls entirely on those who are ill: rarely is there anyone guiding you through the system, ensuring you do not fall through the cracks. There is no one taking on the role of God or Moses, continuing to stand up for you against obstacle after obstacle.
Recovery, too, is not linear. You may overcome one aspect or bout of symptoms, but for people with chronic mental illnesses this does not mean that it is all over. As Poorna Bell, whose husband died by suicide, writes in her book Chasing the Rainbow, ‘we perceive mental illness as something to be fixed, and once someone is ‘fixed’ we expect them to be recovered’. Mental illness can be treated or managed, but in a society stricken with food, housing and job insecurity, we cannot expect medical management to be sufficient: where there are underlying social and political causes we must work as a community to change these too.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Shabbat is ‘Mental Health in a Changing World’, recognising the toll that the pandemic has had collectively on our mental health. In this parashah the plague of darkness comes towards the end of the ten plagues; as the Egyptians are reeling from the impact of the previous eight, they find themselves unable to rise. Similarly, as we move further and further through the pandemic, the affect on our mental health has become more pronounced. In the past summer, one in six adults reported experiencing some sort of depression, compared to one in ten in previous years, and a similar increase has been reported in children (ONS, 2021 – see JamiUK.org for more details).
The Israelites did not suffer through the plague in the same way. We are told that the Israelites were able to see through the darkness – see their fellows. One of the resources Jami have on their website for this Shabbat reminds us of the value of this connection:
‘Pre-pandemic it was easy to take our community or connectivity for granted. We underestimated the importance of having people around us. Of feeling a part of something. It’s vital that we rebuild and retain these connections going forward. We thrive as humans when we work with others. We are greater than the sum of our parts. Not only because we maximise our potential to achieve and pool our resources, but because as humans we need the opportunity to socialise. To speak and be listened to. To have people around us with whom we can share our thoughts, feelings and ideas.’
May this be the world we work towards creating as we come to escape from Egypt: one of connection and communication, where we value the humanity in all our fellows, and ensure everyone has the time and resources to meet their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.