Sharing the Burden: Reflections on Shavuot and Mental Health From a Parent’s Perspective
Shavuot, or the “Festival of Weeks” in Hebrew (חג השבועות, Chag HaShavuot), occurs fifty days after the second day of Passover. Although the holiday’s origins lie in the ancient grain harvest in the Land of Israel, Shavuot has long been identified as the day of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago.
Much of the observance of the holiday centers on the synagogue and its rituals. Some people stay up all night on Shavuot studying Torah. We also read the Book of Ruth (מגילת רות, Megillat Ruth). The book talks about Ruth’s conversion to Judaism, which we can compare to the entire Jewish people entering into the covenant of the Torah.
The Book of Ruth is a fairly simple story with profound and timeless messages. The Jewish people accepted the Torah in fear of G-d’s overwhelming power. But Ruth accepted it out of love and loyalty. This is the message that most resonates with me.
With the holiday observed just a week after Mother’s Day and during May Mental Health Awareness Month, Ruth and Naomi’s story represents the deep emotions of the mother-daughter bond. While most parent-child relationships experience some conflict at times, there remains an inherent desire to love and support one another. I know how fortunate I am to have a mother who was my rock during the turbulent mental health storm I weathered with my daughter.
Na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do, and we will hear and understand — are two of the most celebrated words connected to the giving of the Torah (Mishpatim 24:7). Tradition teaches us that when the Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, each of us heard it in a language we understood. This is a powerful concept. We were not just idle bystanders but rather active listeners in hearing and understanding the words of G-d.
We can apply this idea to the modern day. When someone is struggling with their mental health, they often use vague language or hidden words to hint at their state of mind. It takes someone who truly listens to understand. When my daughter said, “I don’t want to be here anymore,” it was codespeak for her suicidal ideations and thoughts of wanting to die. When she said, “I’m not afraid of death, and I’m not afraid to hurt myself,” it took a great deal of emotional strength to understand the seriousness of the situation. Not everyone verbalizes their feelings. Sadly, a caregiver’s instinct is not always enough to pick up on innuendos. In the past year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a 200 percent increase in serious suicide consideration by U.S. adults. For U.S. teens, research showed a 99 percent increase in intentional self-harm, with a 340 percent increase in nonsuicidal self-harm in the Northeast region during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parshat Yitro, the Torah portion with the first reading of the Ten Commandments, contains a statement by the elders, which says: “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do and we shall listen.” This Torah portion also describes a lot of people coming to Moshe to tell him about their challenges and shows how he listens to each person. Yitro, his father-in-law, asks, “What is this thing that you do… to listen to …. The thing that you do is not good, for you will not be able to do it alone.”
In Parshat Behaalotecha, Moshe is challenged by the complaints and demands of the Israelites. He cries out to G-d for help. G-d’s response is to gather seventy elders to “share the burden with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” The Torah portion is commonly related to Moshe’s leadership and dealing with the complaints as the Israelites adjust to freedom. I believe it also represents another idea: the need for community-wide mental health support.
When a loved one shares their burden with us, we want to be the primary person to help them. But as much as we care, we might not be able to fully help. We might not hear everything the first time we are told. And we might not get told everything we need to know. Especially as parents, we bear that overarching responsibility to help our children. Na’aseh — we will do. We have to learn to seek help and build a support system of mental health experts and those we trust to help us help others.
We will do, and we will hear. But how can we act if we don’t know? The fact is, we won’t always know, and sometimes we have to act before we know. We only have the information we have to make choices. We must depend on our resources, like elders and counselors. The answers are not always clear, and knowing how to help someone is not intuitive. You might not have the “right” answer, so you may need to course-correct. I’d like to think the answers will come, but there are no guarantees.
Ultimately, I believe it’s in G-d’s hands. But he gives us free will to make choices — and choose we must. We must always try to help someone in need. And as my father, of blessed memory, used to say, if you don’t make the “right” choice, then make another one, and another one after that if it’s still not “right.” As his father often said, “If you do your best, then that’s good enough.” In the merit of my father, his father and all the wisdom passed down to the Jewish people from Mt. Sinai to today, may we be blessed to make good choices and pass down our teaching from one generation to the next.
Loving-kindness (chesed), a major theme of the Torah, plays a central role in the Book of Ruth. I pray the Jewish community — leaders of our congregations and organizations — have the courage and wisdom to listen and do what is necessary to support our community’s mental health needs. I pray our Jewish community professionals and individuals will offer helpful services and perform chesed for families struggling with mental illness and substance misuse. More than ever, we need to find ways to connect with our community. No one should feel alone or without the information, support and help they need. I genuinely hope those who have serious mental health challenges find the support they need from wherever it may come.
Chag sameach. Wishing everyone a meaningful Shavuot!
Lisa Ziv has a passion for supporting parents as they navigate their children’s mental health challenges and building more supportive schools and communities. Her reflections on mental health and the Jewish holidays inspire families to cope with uncertain times. Lisa is chief strategy officer at the Blue Dove Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses the issues of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond, and an advisor to the National Alliance on Mental Illness FaithNet National Committee. For information, go to lisaziv.com.