The Teshuva Process for Those Experiencing Mental Health Challenges
An excerpt from Rabbi Yonatan Rosensweig’s downloadable High Holidays Mental Health Reader
The word Teshuva means returning. Man returns to Hashem (G-d) and is sheltered in his shadow. Throughout the year we do not always have the ability to connect with Hashem or to reflect on the nature and essence of our relationship with G-d, and the Yamim Noraim give us the space to focus us on this issue. There is an expectation that this return to Hashem will be accompanied by soul-searching, but individuals with mental health challenges can focus on other ideas related to this: (a) The desire for a good life. (b) The love of Hashem for the people of Israel, and our trust in G-d. (c) A hope for complete healing as part of our closeness to Hashem during this period. All of these are merely examples, appearing both in prayer and in the words of our sages in various places, but what they have in common is a focus on the present and the future, and not the past.
The Gemara itself contrasts two contradictory sayings: one saying says that Teshuva turns malicious misdeeds into mere errors (in terms of their spiritual weight), while a second saying states that Teshuva turns malicious acts into merits. The Gemara explains that there should be a distinction between Teshuva done out of love and Teshuva done out of a sense of awe. The well-known explanation for this distinction is that awe-inspired Teshuva is not as excellent as Teshuva done out of a love and a desire to return to the Holy One and cling to G-d.
In accordance with an idea Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his book “The Halakhic Man”, a different interpretation can be offered: Teshuva from self-fear, as opposed to Teshuva from self-love. The process of Teshuva that we are used to reading and hearing about is a process in which the human self is erased, to produce a newer, purer personality. However, Rav Soloveitchik remarks that sometimes the erasure of the self is not necessary, since we must adopt a long-term vision, which sees beyond the present and looks to the future. A person’s personality is a whole: constantly changing, evolving, renewing. We need not erase the past, nor try to destroy it. Instead, we must learn from it, and use it in order to build the next stage in our spiritual journey. Instead of engaging in self-flagellation, a person can look at his personality, at their self, and see what strength lies behind their actions, even the bad ones. There are often treasures of power and wisdom there, which do not need to be hidden at all, but simply need to be redirected to the right place and in the right way.
After blowing the shofar, we tend to say, “Whether as sons or as slaves” (אם כבנים אם כעבדים). Another term we use: “Our Father, our King” (אבינו מלכנו). There are many who, when they come to the Yamim Noraim, emphasize the second part, and feel that Hashem is King, and we are G-d’s servants, “We are your servants and you are our Lord” (אנו עבדיך ואתה אדוננו). However, it is possible that the first image, that of father and sons, of love and constant closeness that does not dissipate, of a supportive and loving hand even in difficult moments, is preferable when one is in a difficult mental state.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev uses a metaphor that could be important in our case. Hashem functions as a loving father, having fun with his little boy. The little boy has no chance to communicate on his father’s intellectual and spiritual level, so what does the father do? He comes down to the level of the child, rolls around with him on the floor, makes funny noises, lets him win the games they play, and so on. The father loves his child so much that he has no problem descending from his greatness and behaving with the child according to his needs and interests.
For a person who finds it difficult to go through a tedious and arduous mental process, which can potentially harm his mental health, one can look at the day differently: He knows we are not always able to do everything, and that’s fine. We are nevertheless loved and cherished, on our level.
Finally, let us also remember what our sages asked: if Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, why do we sit down to meals together with the whole family and sometimes friends as well, laughing and having fun? Our sages replied: we are confident that the judgment will turn out well, and therefore we are already anticipating the joy at G-d’s signed and sealed positive conclusion. According to this idea, it is right and proper to move forward happily and out of optimism towards the Yamim Noraim, to try and feel (each in his own way) as great a closeness to Hashem as possible, and to find comfort in Hashem’s love for us: “You love us and you cherish us” (אהבת אותנו ורצית בנו).
Rav Yoni Rosensweig is the Rabbi of the Netzach Menashe community in Beit Shemesh, Ram in Midreshet Lindenbaum and author of several books.
The yearly cycle of Jewish holidays and fast days is steeped with tradition and custom. However, the structure of these days is not necessarily conducive to those with mental health challenges. While they want another mode of experiencing these important days, they also want it to remain connected to the traditions they grew up with. In his latest e-book, the needs of such individuals for the Yamim Noraim are taken into account, while also providing spiritual meaning to connect and uplift.