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Machshavot | Parashat Bo

January 11, 2019 Andrew Shaw
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This Shabbat has been designated ‘Head On – Mental Health awareness Shabbat’ in partnership with Jami.

As it said on their website jamiuk.org ‘Head On aims to raise the profile of mental health in the Jewish Community. It is an opportunity to encourage people of all ages to be more in touch with their own mental health and wellbeing, and to raise awareness of mental health and mental illness in the local and wider community. Head On falls annually on the Shabbat when the weekly Torah portion of “Bo” is read, which tells about the Plague of Darkness. The description of the plague of darkness has particular resonance with mental illness – the darkness was so intense that people couldn’t move from their position. This has parallels with descriptions of mental illness.’

I decided to not only visit the Jami website in preparation for this shabbat but also the Mental Health Foundation of the UK www.mentalhealth.org.uk.

On their website they have a short survey to calculate your own mental health score. As the site says ‘The survey is not indicative of whether you are living with a mental health problem, like anxiety or depression, but rather your levels of positive mental health – the ability to cope with everyday life.’

I took the survey

The survey presents you with seven statements:
1. I have been feeling optimistic about the future
2. I have been feeling useful
3. I have been dealing with problems
4. I have been thinking clearly
5. I’ve been feeling close to other people
6. I’ve been able to make up my own mind about things
7. I have been feeling relaxed
And then for each statement, it gives you five choices ranging from ‘none of the time’ to ‘all of the time’
It then calculates a score based on your answers.

The survey makes you realise how simple things can be really problematic for some people – that is why we need the support and guidance that we have through organizations like Jami.

However, I looked at the six statements again and realized something quite powerful.

Each of these statements actually covers an area of Torah and Jewish life.

I have been feeling optimistic about the future– so much has been written in Jewish thought about the concept of ‘Gam Zu L’Tova’, that everything that happens is for the best. On top of that, the whole of Jewish history, despite the persecutions, the pogroms, the expulsions- we never gave up hope and as Zechariah prophesied, ‘This is what the Lord says: “I will return to Zion and dwell in Jerusalem”. So much of Machshavah, Jewish thought encourages us to be optimistic about the future.

I have been feeling useful– I remember the feeling of waking up on a cold winters morning and really wanting to turn over and go back to sleep in my nice warm bed, but one needs to get to minyan, so you force yourself out of bed and head eventually to shul. Once in shul you feel a sense of purpose and achievement that you overcame the easy option of staying in bed. This is the life of a halachic Jew, so many times the observance of the Halacha can be difficult or inconvenient, yet we comply as that is what we were commanded to do. It infuses our lives with meaning and makes us feel very useful indeed.

I have been dealing with problems– I remember Rabbi YY Rubinstein being introduced many years ago and the speaker said ‘This is the best name for a Rabbi – Why Why! – Jews have always asked questions and strived to find the answers’. If you have ever been in a Bet Midrash you will know what the search for truth sounds like. Limmud Torah is all about dealing with problems, and realizing that finding a problem is the beginning and not the end.

I have been thinking clearly– Rabbi Twerski once told me that Tefilla is a wonderful time to step outside of the daily stresses and focus on our relationship with Hashem and focus on what is important and what is not. Three times a day we have the opportunity to close our eyes in the Shemone Esrei – the Amidah and think clearly.

I have been feeling close to other people– One of the things I have noted over the years, is the size of a crowd at a levaya. It is not simply based on the size of their family and friends but also how involved they were in the Kehilla. A shul is not called a Bet Tefilla – a house of prayer, but rather a Bet Knesset – a house of meeting. It is with the Kehilla that you become part of something greater than yourself. We daven together, we eat together, we celebrate together and we mourn together, Kehillot create feelings of closeness that is remarkable to behold.

I have been able to make my own mind up about things– One of the most remarkable stories of Jewish history is how while the world was illiterate and reading was on for the elites, most Jewish children could read. We say every day ‘V shinantam levanecha’ – ‘and you shall teach your children’, education, education, education. If you want to be able to make up your mind you have to have the knowledge to allow you to do that.

I have been feeling relaxed– The seventh statement perfectly reflects the seventh day, Shabbat. A day to switch off from the world all around us and switch on to the beauty, holiness and serenity of Shabbat Kodesh.

Remarkably these seven statements cover Machshavah (Jewish philosophy), Halacha, Talmud Torah, Tefillah, Kehilla, Chinuch and Shabbat.

We can and maybe we should create a programme of these seven areas not for mental health but for spiritual health as well.

Parashat Bo may well have the plague of darkness, but it also contains the miraculous redemption from Egypt where we made our way to the most important rendez-vous in history – Har Sinai and Matan Torah. Where the light of Torah was presented to the world via the Jewish people.

I think we tend to sometimes forget the remarkable way of life that is Torah and we should be grateful that we have such a meaningful, fulfilling way of life.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Andrew Shaw

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