Building an Inclusive Community

Rabbi Daniel Schaefer

Last night I had the privilege of attending an event with members of our synagogue inclusion committee and the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project. The Ruderman Foundation has supported our inclusion work here at TOS and they’ve recently expanded their inclusion work to mental health, as well.

Unfortunately, we know from studies and personal experience, that more and more people, of all ages and backgrounds have been experiencing depression and anxiety. We’ve all felt sad, but it’s often a manageable amount of sadness that lasts for a relatively short amount of time. But some of us have felt unbearably, overwhelming sad, and it’s not a sadness that goes away quickly. We’ve all also felt worried or overwhelmed, but some of us have felt so anxious that we can’t leave the house or get out of bed in the morning. Many people in this room have experienced or are experiencing depression or anxiety, and many more know and love someone who is dealing with it.

It’s easy to not realize how many people are affected by depression or anxiety, because in many ways they are invisible illnesses. If you cut your hand and need a Band-aid or break your leg and use crutches, people know that you’re hurting and will ask you how you’re doing. But if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, most people won’t be able to tell.

But I want you to know that if you are feeling incredibly worried, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, you are not alone. There are many people in this room who understand and it’s surely an experience that the Torah understands as well.

We’re not often given much insight into the inner lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, is an exception.

Jacob, having fled for his life from his brother, Esau, arrives in Haran, and falls in love with the beautiful Rachel upon meeting her at a well. He labors seven years for his uncle, Lavan, in order to marry Rachel, only to have Lavan trick him on his wedding night into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah. So Jacob works another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well. After fourteen years, there are now two sisters married to the same husband.

While this is certainly unfair to Jacob, it’s even more unfair to Rachel and Leah. They are pitted against each other in a competition for their husbands time and affection.

Spoiler alert: it does not go well.

It’s hard enough for us to grow up and figure out who we are and what we care about, without comparing ourselves to others. But of course, it’s easy and natural to look at our peers and feel jealous and insecure. We often want what others have and struggle to be content with who we are and what we have. We judge ourselves and others, which leads to unhappiness and isolation.

At least, it did for Leah and Rachel. We know this, because we get a glimpse into the lives of the sisters when they give birth to children or struggle to become pregnant.

Jacob loves Rachel more, which has to be so painful for Leah. When Leah gives birth to Jacob’s first child, she essentially shouts her pain and sadness from the rooftops, communicating it through the naming of her son.

We are told that, Leah, “named him Reuven; for she declared, “[Reuven] means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; [and] it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” (Genesis 29:32)

(BTW – This is not a communication strategy I recommend to couples).

Her husband apparently did not hear her cry and her suffering continued, because we are told that, “She conceived again and bore a son,” whom she named Shimon, “because the LORD heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” (Gen 29:33)

Ughhh. Heartbreaking. And we’re not done…

Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. (Gen. 29:34)

Sadly, even after bearing him three sons, Jacob ignored her. So Leah is miserable, and she is essentially putting up posters around camp to say how she is feeling with each successive birth. If Leah is feeling so sad, that must mean that Rachel is doing great, right? Uhhhh. No.

The Torah tells us that: “When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die.’” (Gen 30:1)

So both sisters are miserable. Their father put them in a horrible situation and their husband is not helping matters. Even though they are sisters and have maidservants, they are both unhappy, both wanting what they don’t have, and feeling utterly alone.

Of course, the tendency to compare ourselves to others is not the only cause of stress, anxiety, and depression, but it can be a major factor. I would hate to know how much worse it might have been had Rachel and Leah been alive today and on social media. “Just had my fourth child with Jacob. #blessed” The FOMO would have been off the charts.

I wish I could snap my fingers and stop everyone, including myself, from comparing themselves to others, but I know it’s not that easy. What I can do, is remind you that if you are feeling down or overwhelmed, you are not alone. Rabbi Berkman and I hope that our community brings you the feeling of connection that is so essential to mental health. Your rabbis, teachers, and staff are here to support you through any struggles you may be experiencing and can help guide you toward mental health resources. Mental health is also a core focus of the social action work we are doing with GBIO, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, as we push for reform to lower costs and increase access to quality healthcare.

Because we are committed to creating and sustaining a community that cares for one another in many ways, we are working to strengthen and expand Kayla’s Caring Community – our chesed(or loving kindness) committee – If you are interested in helping Ohabei Shalom, become a more inclusive and supportive community for those dealing with mental health, please reach out to Rabbi Berkman. We are eager to welcome new people to join this revitalized initiative.

Finally, I want to say that while we are generally a warm and welcoming community, but no person or place is perfect. We all make mistakes and we can all grow as individuals and as a community. Last night’s featured speaker, Rabbi Brad Artson talked about how a world that is broadly inclusive is the only kind of world to aspire to. He said, “It’s effortless to have the inclusion policy. It’s about being a place that is come as you are. No matter how you look or act we want you here. Wouldn’t it be nicer to be yourself in the world as you want to be? Wouldn’t it be nicer to have people smile at you just as you are?”’

I want you to know that each of you are welcome at TOS as you are: as you are dressed, as you are feeling, or as a family with or without a cranky baby. We are not a community without you. Shabbat Shalom.

Thank you to Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman and Shari Churwin for their contributions to this d’var Torah.