Mental Health Awareness, and Awareness of Holiness

April 28, 2023

Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness month in the United States.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is at the forefront of raising awareness about mental health, fighting stigma and providing education and support to help alleviate the suffering of the millions of people impacted by mental illness. Despite the major strides made in awareness and education around mental health in the past decades, the mental health care system is profoundly inadequate in our nation (with many of the same issues as our health care system in general – especially accessibility and affordability), and so many individuals and families in need of mental health support are not able to receive the care that they need. (We are very fortunate to have many resources in the Greater Boston Jewish Community, which have been established or expanded in recent years. For information on some wonderful resources offered by Jewish Family & Children’s Service, see this link).  

We can and should raise our voices to bring policy change at the national level to make mental health care and support a priority (you can find resources to help you do that here), but there is also so much we can do at the local and individual level. It is easy to become overwhelmed and to feel helpless, as most of us either know and love someone in need of mental health support, or we are in need ourselves. Knowing that the system on the societal level is broken and inadequate, what can we do to tend to those affected by the epidemic of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions? 

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (part of the double parashah of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim read this week), gives us one of the core mitzvot (sacred obligations) of our tradition: 

 קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶֽם 

 “Kedoshim tihiyu – ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2)  

We translate “Kadosh” as “holy” – but what does “holy” mean, and what does it mean to “be holy”? The Hebrew word “kadosh” connotes being set apart for a special purpose, but there is also a more expansive way to understand this word. To be holy means to live with the awareness that you are connected to all of creation – to every individual, to every living thing; to everything that ever was, is, and will be; that you are an essential part of a sacred wholeness; that what you do – your choices, your words, your deeds—have far-reaching impact; that you are a necessary part of this universe, and that you are responsible to others with whom you share this world, and to those who came before and will come after you. I understand the command to “be holy” as one that encompasses within it the essence of all of the 613 mitzvot (“commandments,” or as I like to translate this word: “sacred obligations”). All of them, no matter how seemingly mundane or minute, are there to remind us of our connection and our responsibility for one another. Ultimately, they are there to remind us that we are not alone. A feeling of loneliness and disconnection is often at the core of mental health conditions such as depression, and reminding one who is suffering that they are not alone – reaching out to connect even if it feels like you “aren’t doing much” can have a profound impact.  

Depression and other mental health struggles often cause us to turn inward, which then fuels our sense of disconnection and loneliness. Whether we are suffering or we know someone who is suffering, reaching outward toward another person even just with a phone call or a text, a smile or a hug, reminding them that their unique, precious soul has an important part in this world, can bring us toward healing. To “be holy” is to live in the awareness that we are connected to one another, that we are interdependent and interconnected. Each of us is “made of stardust” and made in the divine image – each of us is an infinitely unique manifestation of a divine force and source of life and love. Especially in our disconnected, individualistic, and digitized society, it can be too easy to forget these truths. During this Mental Health Awareness month, may we commit to “being holy” in this way – reminding ourselves and others even in the seemingly smallest of ways, that we need each other. May we “be holy” and bring the world toward healing and wholeness, by responding to the call of our ancient sages: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh” – “all the Jewish people are responsible for/bound up with one another” (Babylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a) knowing that this truth holds for all humanity.  

Kedoshim tihiyu” – “You shall be holy” – these words are inscribed above the ark in our chapel. Our synagogue, where we gather in learning, prayer, music, song, sorrow and celebration – is a home for holiness because we are a community. We are here with and for each other – and while we work to create a society that better cares for those who suffer, we can reach out with a hand, an open and listening heart, a kind smile. I’m so glad that each of you is a part of our community, and hope to connect with you soon. 

Rabbi Audrey Berkman