Moses and mental health

By Rabbi Emma Gottlieb

Recently, I was reading an article on mental health.

In many ways, it was sadly unremarkable, in that articles about mental health have been on a steady rise since the start of the pandemic, as globally, mental-health continues to decline. It’s one of the symptoms of the pandemic that will not get sorted out with a vaccine. In fact, I suspect we’re going to be dealing with the trauma and mental-health effects of the last year or so long after we’ve got the virus itself under control.

The reason that the article I read this morning stuck out for me, wasn’t so much because of what it was saying about the importance of sharing our own mental health struggles with one another, but because I had been been studying Parashat B’haalotcha, and it was troubling me. In Num. 11:11, we come across a disturbing moment as we find Moses in the midst of what can only be described as a breakdown. With the people complaining once again, Moses snaps at them and cries out to God: “Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favour, that You have laid the burden of this people upon me? I cannot carry all these people by myself, for it is too much for me! If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”

This is shocking and upsetting language to hear from anyone, that they would rather die than continue to feel the pain of what they are experiencing. And it is especially distressing when we consider that this is MOSES, the greatest prophet of all time! How can someone we often depict and think of as so strong and resolute have a moment such as this?

Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of calling our attention to the importance of such a cry of suffering. After all, if Moses can be honest about how he’s feeling in such a moment of darkness, then certainly there can be no shame in it when we find ourselves feeling that way.

If Moses Rabeinu can struggle with mental health, then anyone can. Because let’s be clear: Moses is not being overly dramatic or seeking attention. Moses is humble. Moses would seemingly rather be a leading a quiet life as a shepherd than leading this often-ungrateful hoard of Israelites to a new destiny. He didn’t ask for this life, and he is doing his best to live up to the challenges that must surely feel, sometimes, like they are crashing over him, nonstop.

Who here hasn’t voiced this cry of Moses: Why Me? What did I do to deserve this?

We like to think that our leaders and our rabbis are infallible. That they are strong and reliable and can lead their community through any storm. We teach martyrdom stories about Rabbi Akiva on Yom Kippur as if it’s the golden standard to be that kind of rabbi. But holding rabbis, and other kinds of leaders, or anyone for that matter, to such a high, unattainable standard, is part of what adds to the pressure that can leads a person to a breakdown such as the one Moses demonstrates here in our parasha.

In a beautiful demonstration, God responds to Moses calmly and without judgement. There are other times when God is quick to rebuke Moses and the people, but in this instance God is understanding — modeling for us how when someone is sharing the pain of their darkness, anxiety, or hopelessness, it is not the time to reprimand them. It’s not helpful to say, “cheer up”, or “just think of all you have to be grateful for”, or “think of how bad you are making others feel by sharing these feelings”.

Rather, God simply starts to suggest some practical advice, helping Moses to focus on practical step-by-step solutions; helping to remind Moses that there might be options that he hasn’t yet considered; gently presenting opportunities to shift Moses’ perspective and help him to feel supported and hopeful once more.

God suggests selecting 70 elders to help bear the burden of leadership – 70 elders who will experience what it is like to receive God’s prophecy, and who can then share that sometimes-burdensome experience with Moses, going forward. Moses will have others he can talk to about how it feels to be the go-between for God and the people. He will no longer have bear it alone.

In a moment of darkness in my own life, a family member responded to my sharing of darkness and hopelessness in a similar way, calmly and without judgement, with practical suggestions and offerings of possible new perspectives. It was that conversation that ultimately started me on a path that led me to Temple Israel and to Cape Town, where I find so much meaning and purpose in my life. Yet, like Moses and the Israelites, I had to wander through dark times before I was able to find my place in the world. And I know that for many others, the dark times can last longer than my own did, may be ongoing, and can be harder to push through.

That is why sharing our stories and our darkness with one another and asking for help is so important. That is why it is so important to remind one another that there is no shame in feeling lost, depressed, anxious or hopeless. That is why remembering that our rabbis and leaders and parents and loved ones and friends are only human is so important. That is why naming Moses as an example of someone who knows what it is like to struggle with mental health is so important.

God says to Moses: I will come down and speak with you…and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.

Let us draw upon one another’s spirit. Let us be unafraid to share when our spirits are low. Let us share one another’s burdens and say to one another, “you are not alone.”; and say to one another, “it can get better.”; and say to one another, “I understand”, and say to one another, “even Moses, the great Moses, felt that way sometimes,”; and say to one another, “we will get through this wilderness, together.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon — May it be God’s Will.

Mazaltov to last month’s Bar Mitzvah
Coby Selikowitz, 31 July

Coby Selikowitz

Temple Israel

• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Download here.

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