Beyond the Palace Walls: Reflections on Mental Health for Purim
Image credit: Illustrated Megillah. Hamburg State and University Library, Germany, 1434.
Purim (פּוּרִים) is the Jewish holiday commemorating when the Jewish people living in the ancient Persian Empire were saved from extermination. The events occurred more than 2,000 years ago (3392 BCE), between the destruction of the First Temple and the building of the Second Temple.
The Purim story is recorded in Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, named after the Jewish heroine and prophetess. Queen Esther saved her people from the wicked Haman, who plotted to wipe out the Jews in a single day. Due to what many consider to have been divine intervention, the Jews were spared and avenged their enemies.
Purim, also known as the Festival of Lots, from the Hebrew word פור (pronounced “pur”), is a reminder that G-d is the ultimate decision maker. Haman is angered when Mordechai refuses to bow down to him and decides to destroy the entire Jewish people with a “pur” (a lottery) to select the exact date. Purim reminds us that even when events appear to be happening at random, such as in a lottery, G-d controls our fate.
Purim is traditionally one of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar. Every year, Jews around the world celebrate this miraculous salvation by reading the Megillah, feasting, dressing in costumes to remember the story, sending gifts of food to friends and giving charity to the needy. The fast of Esther takes place the day before Purim. We fast the whole day to commemorate Esther’s fast before going to King Achashverosh to plead for mercy for the Jews. On this day, we remember the dire situation the Jews faced back then and at many times throughout history.
Today, the Jewish people are facing another challenging time. Depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide and other mental health challenges are increasing at a rapid pace. The Jewish community often refrains from acknowledging these issues or talking about how they affect Jewish families. Our family, our friends and our community are suffering silently because of the shame and stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse. The CDC reports an acceleration in overdose deaths for 2020, which is predicted to be the deadliest year for drug overdoses in our country’s recorded history.
Experts predict mental health issues will create a “fourth wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to CDC data, 40 percent of adults in the United States have experienced symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse since the start of the pandemic. Anxiety was three times greater in 2020, and depression was four times greater than the previous year. The numbers of those seriously considering suicide jumped 200 percent. And no community — not even ours — is exempt. The Jewish community experiences the same issues the rest of the country is struggling with.
As alarming as those numbers are, it’s the personal stories behind the statistics that really count. Last year at Purim, my daughter was struggling with her mental health. There were days when it took Yael four hours to get up, get ready and get to school. Sometimes she only had the strength to make it through one class. She was angry at herself for feeling so bad and frightened by her thoughts of desperation and wanting to die. I tried not to crumble as my heart broke for her.
My husband and I knew therapy was key to helping our daughter get better. We made an appointment with a counselor recommended by her school. Yael was resistant to ‘talking to a stranger’ but agreed to go. I thought the therapist was terrific; Yael did not. We agreed she would go three times to give it a fair try. That therapist turned out not to be the right fit for Yael. We quickly found another one who she connected with and who helped her get to a better place. Similar to the Purim story, Esther was reluctant to go before King Achashverosh to plead for his help to reverse the decree to annihilate Jews throughout the kingdom. She knew death was the penalty for anyone who went to the king without being summoned. And yet, Esther put aside her fears and asked King Achashverosh to help the Jewish people.
In the Megillah, Mordechai warned Queen Esther: “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position!”
As we read the Purim story, we come to recognize Esther as the chosen one — the one selected to help her people. From this, we understand the importance of seeking help when you need it — and offering it to others who do, even when they don’t ask for it. Maybe this sounds familiar. When someone is facing a mental health challenge — be it depression, anxiety, what have you — treatment can help.
And it’s hard! For the person who struggles, there are conflicting feelings of making progress and dealing with setbacks along with doubt that they will ever be 100 percent. For those who care about the person struggling, there’s a painful process of learning to listen, accepting them from a place of understanding and not going into a “fix-it” mode.
Sometimes a teen needs a parent, a teacher or another trusted adult to get them to agree to treatment. Adults also often need encouragement from a caring family member or friend to get professional help. People need to know mental illness is not necessarily a life-long condition. It can be a pathway to growth and finding one’s full potential, if only the person gets the love and support they need at the right time.
Just as Esther felt the fate — indeed the lives — of the Jewish people upon her, I felt my daughter’s life was at stake. Even when things were improving, we never knew what challenge the day would bring. We had to take her to the hospital a few times when she experienced side effects of her prescribed medication. One medication elevated her heart rate to a dangerous level that required an emergency hospital stay. Another medication caused a rare side effect where she had tremors so bad it was unsafe for her to walk. While the time when she wanted to die and actually had a plan was incredibly frightening, the constant worry over her short-term and long-term future was the most difficult for me to come to terms with and would become an ever-present source of stress.
Yael knew she needed help and bravely put in the hard work therapy requires. After a year of learning new skills, finding ways to recognize her strengths and build on them, moving beyond her comfort zone and leveraging the benefits of medication and nutrition to improve her mental health, Yael is doing great. She is at her desk and ready for learning before school starts each morning. She told me recently: “My resting face is a smile.” What a bracha (blessing).
G-d’s name does not appear in the Megillah — the only one of the 24 sacred books where such a phenomenon occurs. Still, G-d is alluded to by the words “the King.” Rather than being concealed, G-d only seems to be hidden. Judaism is full of miracles, from Noah’s Ark to the burning bush to the splitting of the red sea. These kinds of clearly visible miracles end with the Purim story. Now, each of us must find G-d in the everyday events in our lives. Even on the darkest of days, I was grateful for my daughter’s progress and prayed G-d would bring a complete healing. The first thing I did every morning was to say the Modeh Ani prayer to thank G-d for giving us life.”
When we think of Esther becoming the Queen, many consider it a fairytale in which Esther, the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, captured King Achashverosh’s heart. He loved her so much that he would grant Esther almost anything she requested “even if it be up to half the kingdom.” But what most people might not realize is that Esther went through a great deal of suffering. She was involuntarily taken to the palace as part of the kingdom-wide beauty contest to find a new wife for the king. She had to hide her Jewish identity throughout the 12-month preparation required before future queen candidates could go before the king. She further risked her safety by secretly eating only kosher food and keeping Shabbat in the palace. Mordechai regarded Esther’s situation as very unfortunate but found comfort in thinking that perhaps she was chosen by G‑d because of true devotion. Mordechai realized Esther had to go through the torment in order to save her people.
Because Esther was the queen, she was in a position to approach King Achashverosh to save the Jews. Now that Yael is better, she also wants to help save lives in the Jewish community. Understanding first hand how tough it is to deal with depression and anxiety, Yael wants others to know it does get better. She is working with several national Jewish organizations on a mental health book written by teens for teens. By sharing personal stories, the writers hope they can show others like them they are not alone and can help eliminate the stigma many feel about mental illness.
Esther told Mordechai: “Go and gather the Jews together.” When we commemorate Purim, we emphasize community. We listen to the Megillah together. We look out for the needy together. We bring gifts to one another. These values must extend beyond Purim — and beyond the “palace walls” of our Jewish homes, synagogues, schools and organizations. We have to constantly demonstrate we care about one another — celebrating in good times and supporting one another during challenging times.
As we celebrate Purim, let us learn from Mordechai. Each day, Mordechai went to the palace to obtain news of Esther. He would walk about in front of the court of the harem to find out about Esther’s well-being and what would become of her.
While my daughter was in crisis, I struggled to manage my emotions, my career and the needs of my family. My rabbi was such a help to me during this time. He regularly called or sent me a text message: “Hi Lisa. How’s Yael? What can I do to help?” Most of the time, there wasn’t much he could actually do. Knowing my rabbi was thinking of my family and including us in his prayers gave me extra strength to deal with day-to-day challenges.
That is a lesson we can all learn: how to be there for those in our community struggling with mental illness and substance abuse. Community members need to reach out to families that are struggling to check in on them regularly. Simple things like a text, a card, a small gift would mean the world to them.
Judaism recognizes that healing and recovery is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. We have a responsibility to use the resources within our community — from Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness) to principles from our Torah of dignity and respect. Through better community support, education and awareness, we can improve the quality of life significantly and actually save lives.
Let us shift our mindset to develop a more supportive community for those fighting their internal battles with Haman. Let us work to understand invisible illnesses and pathways to recovery. Let us be aware of the signs and the things to look for in ourselves and others, so we can get or provide support. And, let us change our thoughts and behaviors so taking responsibility for our mental health is equally important to taking care of our heart, our vision or any other physical health issue. Most of all, we need to understand that mental health challenges can happen to anyone in any family at any time.
Have a happy and safe Purim!