Woman raising her hands to a sun-lit sky.

Rejoicing When You Can’t Rejoice

Mi’she, mi’she, mi’she, mi’she, mi’she’ nichnas Adar 
מש, מש, מש, מש, משנכנס אדר 
As the time of Purim nears, I have memories of my daughter coming home from her Jewish day school and singing — over and over and over again — this phrase from the Talmud: “From when Adar enters, one should increase in happiness.” Adar is the month for Purim, for feasting: for drinking, eating and exchanging gifts of food with friends. It is a time for giving gifts to the poor and for the most visible mitzvah: reading Megillat Esther – with cheers and boos and dressing up in all sorts of costumes.

What happens when you have no joy, when depression, addiction, bipolar disorder and so on prevent you from finding happiness? How can I “celebrate” when despair is pushing me down?

I have had years when I delighted in fulfilling the mitzvot of Purim: My daughter and I would make hamantaschen, fill gift bags for friends and dress up with glee. I would usually wear my wedding dress for Purim, and the remembered joy of that outfit would fill me with joy. The photos show years of me in my dress and my daughter in different costumes as she grew. (My husband was the photographer, so we don’t have a record of his costumes!)

And … I have had years when doing these things feels impossible. When I sit in my bed, reading or watching TV and knitting. I reproach myself: Just get up and do something! Stop being so lazy and self-indulgent. I am a rabbi; I should be a role model! Yet, nothing. I just couldn’t. And I hated myself for it.

Perhaps, though, there is another way to look at it. It starts by taking myself seriously. Instead of berating myself for what I haven’t done, what I can’t do, I might begin to trust my own experience.

If I am exhausted, then a nap is in order. A massive migraine? Medications and a quiet dark room. Depression? Understand how hard it is to do things, and give myself a little credit for what I can do.

When all the mitzvot around Purim feel too much, I can concentrate on things that feel doable: No home-baked hamantaschen this year? They are available at stores! Bags of mishlo’ach manot too hard organize and create? Then I can purchase some through a local shul. One year, unable to dress up but determined to take my daughter to hear the Megillah, my costume was. . . PJ’s and a bathrobe. It was like bringing my depression to Purim.

No matter what your health issues might be – depression, anxiety, OCD, chronic pain, a flare-up of MS (the list goes on and on) – bringing yourself as yourself to your community is a start, for us, and for our communities.

It is hard, when the rabbi or a friend asks you how you are, and the answer is, “ not well,” “feeling ill” or “wretched like you couldn’t believe.” We certainly don’t want to destroy the silly service and raucous play-acting that goes on at Purim. But saying you are having a hard time is not, in fact, oppressive to others. Rather, it gives our community the chance to include us as we are, not as we think we should be.

Showing up at my shul in my bathrobe felt so vulnerable. Looking back, I think it was the beginning for me. I stepped out of my “all or nothing thinking,” and did the best I could. I both believed it all was too hard and decided I could do this one thing. It was a huge effort, and I can be proud I tried, rather than shamed for all I did not do.

Some years, we can’t manage anything beyond a “Happy Purim” to family members who are going off to shul without us. We stutter out a “thank you” when someone stops by with their mishlo’ach manot and feel naked, standing there with no basket of food in return.

But honoring your experience is not the same as wallowing, and it doesn’t mean next year can’t be better. Really bad illnesses take their toll; not listening to yourself to determine what you need will only make you feel worse — physically, mentally, spiritually. Self-acceptance can help.

This year, when those around you are acting in Purim spiels and scarfing down hamantaschen (or sufganiot/donuts), do the best you can — one thing, many things, nothing. And then, stare your psyche down and forgive yourself.

How do you rejoice when you can’t rejoice? By accepting your experience and being gentle with yourself. You can use the joy around you to help you be kind to yourself. Allow for the possibility that you may eventually feel better, just not today. And that, my friends, will let joy in.

Forgive yourself. After all you, have done nothing wrong.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen is involved in mental health outreach, offering workshops and scholar-in-residence programs on creating caring communities. She also teaches Jewish texts and offers pastoral care in Denver, where she lives with her husband, Ben.

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