Sermon – 3rd February 2017 – Shabbat Bo 5777
I sat open mouthed and completely absorbed as if a silent observer in the most intense therapy session. The play with just three characters involved the rehabilitation of a prisoner after traumatic events had led him to be locked up at the age of 16 and we the audience were witnessing the results of that life almost 20 years later.
It was the most powerful expression of how a series of tragedies can lead someone to be so utterly locked up in their own thoughts, their own horrors. The terror of memory can be so all encompassing that it is possible to create a new or false reality that plays over and over again, torturing and tormenting its victim until they appear broken beyond repair.
“Experience” by Dave Florez involves a fictitious, rather controversial and sensationalised form of therapy but the extreme nature of the treatment enabled the audience to see the power of receiving the right help and support and how that can unlock and untangle such a depth of despair that it appears from the outside as if a switch has been flicked or at least that the right crutch or plaster has been applied enabling bones to fuse and strength to be restored.
Perhaps as we read the story of our redemption with our Exodus narrative we see that we were the silent witnesses who watched the crippling series of events which led every individual household in Egypt to feel like the later biblical character of Job, tested and crushed until eventually plunged into darkness. A loss of life-preserving water, insects that cause a constant source of pain and irritation, livelihoods lost through cattle disease, harvests and crops wiped out. No food, no water, constant physical discomfort and then plunged into a deep deep darkness. Is this ninth plague physical because although crippling to a society without electricity it doesn’t feel part of the ramping up of ways to convince Pharaoh. Yet metaphorically it speaks so beautifully to the effects that trauma and pain can have on individuals and how that affects society at large. When life feels shrouded in a personal darkness it can be as if no one can see your pain, nobody is experiencing it with you and no one is able to reach out to you. If nobody lifts that blanket of darkness then it is unlikely many have the resilience to turn the lights on for themselves. Even a temporary reprieve can often mean that darkness lies in wait for another series of events to spark it off.
Rabbi Daniel Epstein writes, “The plague of darkness, unlike the other plagues, appears to happen in two halves. The first three days, according to Rashi, are described as an inability to see and the second three-day period was one of complete physical incapacitation for the Egyptians. This deterioration in capacity, mobility and control of one’s environment has often been described as the feeling one has when suffering from anxiety or depression or other mental health challenges. It can begin with a shutdown of context. Caught up in a sense of anxiety and neurosis around one or more issues, one’s immediate surroundings and senses seem to blur and become dulled and a metaphorical curtain seems to descend. This symptom, if not recognised, identified and treated, can lead to a paralysing and overwhelming sense of entrapment and fear.”
If the ninth plague is darkness surely the tenth should be death? Why doesn’t God kill Pharaoh himself, why the death of the first-born? We see all too often that when people experience the extent of the depth of the plague of darkness or depression in their lives they often resort to the only place they can find their reprieve, by taking their own life. The repercussion that has on family and friends is where we see the next tragedy, the next source of devastation in other people. The individual is relieved of the cycle of pain and torment but it doesn’t disappear; that pain is simply passed on to those who have loved and now lost. Even for those who manage to continue to live with the on-going struggle, be it our children, siblings, parents or friends, as they battle with their mental health it can be akin to a bereavement for those who love them, as the person we once knew gets lost and locked into a world none of us can share with them. We end up experiencing the death of the first-born, the death of the first version of that person we knew.
We may never understand the series of plagues or events that steal someone from us and plunge them into a place of such darkness. We may even feel their hearts, like Pharaoh was in some way being hardened as they seem defiantly unable to break the cycle but perhaps through the Israelites wandering we learn the true lesson of the horrors of dealing with mental illness, of being delivered from the depth to freedom. Forty years of wandering may feel like a lifetime of a journey. Forty years to go from being the victim to being able to experience our freedom. Yet even then we see the repercussions of the traumas of one generation being passed onto the next. Many demonstrate how our psyche today is so influenced by the traumas of the generations before us, yet few understand how or why.
Prime Minister Theresa May, in her vision of a shared society delivered last month, said:
“…Mental health problems affect people of all ages and all backgrounds. An estimated 1 in 4 of us has a common mental health disorder at any one time. The economic and social cost of mental illness is £105 billion – roughly the same as we spend on the NHS in its entirety.
And for children – 1 in 10 of whom has a diagnosable condition – the long term effects can be crippling: children with behavioural disorders are 4 times more likely to be drug dependent, 6 times more likely to die before the age of 30, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.
We all know someone – a family member, friend or colleague – who is directly affected by mental health problems. But while people talk about ‘parity of esteem’ – and it was a Conservative-led government that legislated for it – there is no escaping the fact that people with mental health problems are still not treated the same as if they have a physical ailment – or the fact that all of us – government, employers, schools, charities – need to do more to support all of our mental wellbeing.”
The figures are even more startling:
- Among people under the age of 65, nearly half of all ill health is, in fact, mental illness. Yet, only a quarter of those with a mental illness such as depression are receiving treatment.
- One in four of us will have a diagnosable mental illness in any year, and 10% of children have a diagnosable mental illness before the age of 16.
- Suicide is currently the biggest single killer of men under 45 in this country.
- And although mental illness accounts for 28% of all recorded disease, it receives just 13% of the NHS’s budget.
Why has JAMI, the Jewish Association for Mental Illness taken this Shabbat to ensure its name is spoken from every bimah around the country? Today we are part of breaking the taboo. Making sure that words like suicide, schizophrenia, anorexia are not whispered for fear of judgement but are spoken and heard in the same way as cancer, heart disease and broken bones. With sadness but not with judgement, with hope because as a community and as a society we are prioritising those people who need our help and support but also with understanding, because we have all chosen to educate ourselves about something which affects too many people to be brushed under the carpet or ignored. That far from them being concepts that marginalise they are reasons to pull people to the heart of a supportive and proactive community that cares. Because part of the reason that mental health problems can often feel like they exist within the plague of darkness is in learning a language for so many physical illnesses we have lost our words for the despair, the confusion, the isolation of mental illness.
Yet we don’t have to create a new language. We can reach back to our past as our psalms are filled with that anguish and yearning.
So as we take a moment with a verse of psalms which you can find on your hand-out which looks for a source of hope and comfort we remember that we do not need to look outside of ourselves to find that hope. The Israelites in this week’s parasha were in the place of the greatest despair yet they cooked a meal and ate wearing their sandals; such was their hope that things could get better. Rabbi Stefanie Kolin says even in our darkest hour, when things appear not to be able to get any worse, Torah offers us hope, and tells us to plan as if things will change and might get easier, then maybe we can find hope even when we are feeling in our darkest hour. Maybe we can find a way to just put our shoes on, with the knowledge that at the right time, we’ll feel able to move again.
However we experience the darkness may we always find the strength to put on our sandals in the knowledge there is always hope that tomorrow will be an easier day.
|יז וַאֲנִי, אָשִׁיר עֻזֶּךָ—
וַאֲרַנֵּן לַבֹּקֶר, חַסְדֶּךָ:
וּמָנוֹס, בְּיוֹם צַר-לִי.
|17 But as for me I will sign of Your Strength
Each morning I will sing of your mercy
For you have been my tower of strength
A refuge in my day of distress.
|יח עֻזִּי, אֵלֶיךָ אֲזַמֵּרָה:||18 My strength, to You I will sing praises|
 Quote and figures supplied by JAMI.