Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. It marks the end of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of reflection and repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah.
These High Holidays are both unique and related. They are connected by prayers to be inscribed before G-d for a good life and for peace. We pray on Rosh Hashanah to be inscribed for a good year. On Yom Kippur, we pray that what was written on Rosh Hashanah will be sealed in the book of life, blessing, and peace, and good livelihood.
We pray for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. We beg G-d to forgive us for all our errors… pardon us for all our iniquities… and atone for us for all our willful sins. Our Merciful G-d forgives the sins we have committed before Him. But, for the sins we have committed against our fellow man, we must first ask their forgiveness. For any individual whom we may have wronged, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we ask to be forgiven.
Nearly all Jews spend a good part of the almost 26-hour holy day in prayer. Especially this year during a pandemic, where and how we pray on Yom Kippur will vary from one person to another.
The past year has been one where I prayed more from my heart than ever before. It was a year of personal growth from knowing I had the strength, knowledge, and faith to navigate through a serious mental health crisis. I learned about how you can be going about your daily routine, and then, oof, it all changes.
My daughter was happy too, just like your child, until one day she wasn’t. It is hard to share and I wonder if others will really understand. In truth, unless you have walked down this road, you can’t. I hope you never really will.
Thankfully, my family is in a good place now. We talk about our experiences in the past tense. Although there is always a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, we think the really tough times are behind us. We celebrate the small victories and look forward to bigger wins.
As I prepare to recite the Viduy (confession) prayer this Yom Kippur, I think about mental health through a Jewish lens. These are some of the things I learned, thoughts on being wrong, and the need for forgiveness. I will strike my fist against my chest and say the Al Chets to ask for all these sins, O G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.
For the sin that we have sinned before You without knowledge. I think back to when my cousin sent his son away to school when his teen refused to do his schoolwork or do as he was told at home. I remember thinking that if my cousin was a better parent and gave his son more attention and set clear expectations, then his family would not be in that situation. I now know first-hand that I was wrong. His parents loved him enough to send him to a therapeutic boarding school where he could get the intensive care he needed to thrive. My cousin gave me mechillah (forgiveness), even though he told me it was not necessary. At the time, I did not have any education or experience to understand his family’s struggles.
For the sin that we have sinned before You through hardness of the heart. When my daughter’s depression and anxiety got to the point that she couldn’t get to school on time, I berated her for running late. When her grades started to fall, I told her she had to work harder. My frustration and insisting she should do better only made her feel worse.
I had to learn to be softer, more patient, more accepting of where she was at in the moment. It took me a while to understand that her medical condition did not allow her to do what she could before she had a health issue. It was not her fault. I needed to show her and tell her that she was loved and accepted and that she would feel better. Loving and meeting someone where they are is often the best we can do.
For the sin that we have sinned before You with the utterance of the lips. I forgive the harsh and judgemental words people said to me. I prefer to think they were well-intentioned, but their insensitivity speaks volumes about the lack of understanding of mental health.
I confided in a respected Jewish community leader with a teen-focused medical practice about my daughter’s mental health situation. He responded with disbelief, saying “But she’s such a good girl.” I had to educate him that someone with depression is not “bad” or behaving “badly.” Not understanding how someone can be depressed when there is so much to be happy about is like not understanding how someone can have asthma when there is so much air to breathe.
For the sin that we have sinned before You by showing contempt for parents and teachers. I was angry and hurt that my daughter’s teachers did not provide the support we needed. When a child is out sick or injured, their classmates and teachers wish them refuah shelayma. Why didn’t they let my daughter know they cared when she missed weeks of school? Why did school parents who knew us for a decade not care enough to say anything or even send a simple text? I now understand that they may not have known or were afraid of saying something wrong.
There is still a stigma associated with talking about mental health challenges. Too often, Jewish families are left alone to suffer the private pain of emotional disease. The need for privacy is often a disservice to the family. Until recently, we did not share our story beyond our close circle. To respect our child’s privacy, we kept it quiet. If we had been more open, we may have gotten more support when we needed it. She is very brave for allowing her story to be told in hopes of helping others. I hope that sharing my family’s experience helps to decrease the stigma and inspires others to be more sensitive to and caring of those struggling with mental health.
At the High Holidays, we are supposed to do a cheshbon hanefesh – “an accounting of the soul.” Part of chesbon is accounting for our strengths. Our community is stronger when we support each other in meaningful ways. Our synagogues, our schools, our Jewish organizations, and our community leaders, need to do more to bring awareness and support to families dealing with mental health. We need to think more deeply about helping those who struggle with mental health with the same chesed (kindness) we give to those facing physical health challenges in our community.
May it be a year of good health, happiness, peace, and prosperity. May G-d inscribe all the children of His covenant for a good life. .גמר חתימה טובה
Lisa Ziv has a passion for supporting parents as they navigate their children’s mental health challenges. She helps identify resources and build supportive communities by connecting families and increasing awareness in schools and communities. Her reflections on Jewish holidays, traditions and texts inspire families coping with uncertain times. Lisa serves on the board of the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issues of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond. For information about workshops and community initiatives, go to lisaziv.com.