STRENGTHEN ONE ANOTHER: REFLECTIONS ON MENTAL HEALTH FOR SIMCHAT TORAH
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 to cope 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, go to lisaziv.com.
Page image credit to Israel Orange Studios.
Simchat Torah, observed on the last day of Sukkot, is the Jewish holiday of rejoicing with the Torah. Simchat Torah means “the joy of the Torah.” It celebrates the completion and restarting of the Torah learning cycle. The final portion of Deuteronomy is read in synagogue followed by the beginning of Genesis. Simchat Torah conveys a clear message about the centrality of the Torah in Jewish life. Men, women, and children come together to read from and dance with the Torah.
Unlike many other holidays, the observance of Simchat Torah is centered in the synagogue and community. Celebrations this year will be tampered by COVID-19 safety protocols. Synagogue festivities will likely draw fewer crowds, be socially distanced, take place in small gatherings, held outdoors, or canceled in some communities. COVID restrictions have caused feelings of isolation and loneliness in people that did not struggle with those emotions in pre-pandemic days.
Simchat Torah is a celebration of our personal and communal connection to the Torah. Not everyone finds joy in the day. Many feel disconnected and alone. Some members of our Jewish community struggle with mental health challenges — not just during this COVID year or only during the holiday.
The Torah teaches us ve’samachta be’chagecha, to rejoice in the holiday. ושמחת בחגך והיית אך שמח. “You shall rejoice on your festivals, and should be fully happy.” (Deuteronomy 16:14). Renowned eighteenth-century scholar, the Vilna Gaon, said that this is the most difficult commandment in the Torah.
Really, of all the commandments ‘to be fully happy’ on the holiday is the most difficult? I never fully understood nor appreciated that challenge until my family was hit with a mental health diagnosis.
Last Simchat Torah, I was barely holding it together emotionally. My daughter was suffering from acute depression and suicidal ideation. Seeing her struggle was difficult for me. In hopes of offering sympathetic support, my rabbi told me “A parent is only as happy as their least happy child.” I nodded in agreement.
With the clarity that time can sometimes bring, I believe the idea that you are only as happy as your most unhappy child is a parenting myth. Although it was heartbreaking to see my daughter suffer, her struggle did not totally define my happiness. Without a doubt, when my child was hurting, my ability to enjoy happiness was limited.
What parent could be happy if their child was not? It is easier to feel happy when life is going well. It is easier for a parent to be happier when they are less worried about their child. During the years of mental health challenges, I had moments of happiness. But, the looming fear of not knowing what the next day would bring was almost always on my mind.
My children can detect my emotions like radar. Sometimes they sense I am stressed just by my breathing pattern. For my emotional health and the overall health of my family, I had to make a conscious effort to not let my daughter’s diagnosis determine my mindset. If my daughter saw that I was unhappy, it could worsen her depression and make her feel like more of a burden on the family. She did not need the extra burden of carrying my unhappiness on top of working through her challenges.
On Simchat Torah, children add to the holiday’s joy. Judaism uniquely claims a generational experience of G-d’s commandments being passed down from generation to generation. Parents lift their children on their shoulders to dance around the Torah with them. Children are called up to the Torah for the annual “Kol HaNe’arim” (All Youth) ceremonial honor where they gather under a large tallis for the blessing. Some communities throw candy at the children to celebrate the completion of the Torah. At these moments of parental pride, I faked a smile for other families with happy children. My daughter did not have the emotional strength to be part of the holiday celebrations.
It is a very Jewish concept to acknowledge moments of sadness during times of joy. During Jewish weddings, we break a glass to remember the destruction of the temples. The ritual reduces happiness and allows for a moment of reflection.
In keeping with that idea, one cognitive-behavioral treatment, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (“DBT”) helps people deal with balancing opposites. Learning DBT skills helps individuals find ways to hold two seemingly opposite perspectives at the same time. The patient learns to develop a ‘both-and rather’ perspective and avoid the ‘all or nothing’ thinking that can hinder recovery from depression, bulimia, binge-eating, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, and substance abuse.
For families experiencing pain, it is difficult to be ‘fully happy’ on Simchat Torah. It is hard to experience the joy of the Torah when worried about finances, family, physical health, mental health, identity, shalom bayit (peace in the home), dating, marriage, fertility, children, and other issues that weigh heavy on the heart.
How can you fulfill the Torah commandment ‘to be fully happy’ on Simchat Torah? And, how can we as a community experience full joy this holiday?
The core joy of who we are as a people is the gift of the Torah. After the final verse of the Torah is read in synagogue on Simchat Torah, everyone rises and shouts out in unison, “Chazak chazak venit’chazek!” “Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen one another!” Strengthen One Another should be our guiding principle throughout the year.
Simchat Torah is the day on which the whole community gathers to come into direct contact with the Torah and to express our joy. While this year’s celebration may be physically distanced, let us strive to be more spiritually and emotionally connected.
May it be a joyous holiday for all and the start of a year of greater reflection and support for mental health in our community. Chag Sameach!