sermon · social justice

Were our prophets crazy?

There was once a magician, a wicked magician, who constructed a mirror whose purpose was that everything good and beautiful, when reflected in it, shrank up almost to nothing, whilst those things that were ugly and useless were magnified, and made to appear ten times worse than before. The loveliest landscapes reflected in this mirror looked like boiled spinach; and the handsomest persons appeared odious, so distorted that their friends could never have recognised them. 

This is the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen. I begin with this story because there was a time when this was how the world looked to me. I once saw the world as full of threats, violence and despair. 

I received a diagnosis of anxiety and was placed on medication. I began talking therapy, which I have now done on and off for many years. I changed my diet and began regular exercise. For what felt like the first time, beautiful landscapes looked like beautiful landscapes, instead of boiled spinach. Friends looked like friends instead of enemies. The world looked… normal. I felt like I could finally think.

Today is Mental Health Shabbat. Across the Jewish community, we are encouraged to spend this day reflecting on our own mental health and that of those around us. 

Sometimes, today, preachers will come up with prescriptions, about how everyone can just sort themselves out. Like how everyone needs to talk more, or we could all do with being kinder, or perhaps we just need more walks in the woods. I find these sermons quite patronising, oblivious to people’s individual circumstances, and insensitive to the realities of psychosis and personality disorders. Not everything can be so easily solved. 

One of the problems with advocating for everyone to be more well-adjusted is, well, adjusted to what? Do we not live in a world that really does pose depressing realities? Do we not see around us a society gripped by isolation and defeat? 

If we want to seriously think about mental health, we need to ask much more probing questions. I want us to think about what sanity and madness really means. I want us to ask real questions about how anyone can be sane in a society gone so wrong. 

That, I think, is part of the question our Prophets were trying to answer. Since the dawn of biblical criticism, scholars have asked whether our prophets were crazy. These great men and women of ancient times saw visions nobody else could see; wept in the street when everyone else went about their daily lives; shouted angrily at a deity that nobody else believed would listen. If they were alive today, they would surely be committed, imprisoned, or put on some very strong drugs.

The greatest of these crazy prophets was Jeremiah, whose haftarah we read today. He is so associated with depression that, as a noun, the word ‘jeremiad’ means “ a writing or speech in a strain of grief or distress.” His very name conjures images of sadness and despair; of a tortured soul who saw unfolding doom and was ignored in his predictions.

He was, in his time, treated like a madman. For the crime of speaking his prophecies, Jeremiah was placed in stocks and ridiculed. When his visions came true and Babylon besieged Jerusalem, he was imprisoned by the Judean King in the courthouse. Rulers even tried to kill him. Mocked, assaulted, tortured and imprisoned, Jeremiah was treated as a crazy menace throughout his life, and ended it weeping over the destruction of his city.

We should not be surprised that others saw him as mad. From the moment he received his first prophecy, Jeremiah was assaulted by visions of mundane objects revealing hidden messages to him. In the branch of an almond tree, Jeremiah saw the fulfilment of God’s promises. In a steaming kettle, he envisioned warmongering enemies descending from the north. Modern psychologists might interpret these as paranoid hallucinations, and perhaps it is only the holiness of the ancient text that stops us from agreeing with them.

To meet in public, Jeremiah would have been a frightening sight. He stood at the gates of the city. He ranted at the perceived sinners of the city, telling them that their carcasses would be eaten by birds; that their graves would be dug up and desecrated; and their wives handed over to their enemies.  If you heard such things from someone standing outside a train station, you, too, would likely conclude that the speaker was mad. 

But, perhaps, Jeremiah saw his society more clearly than the sane people who surrounded him. Jeremiah saw widows and orphans attacked; the wealthy hoarding all the resources; the privileged living in luxury while refusing to support those in need. 

If Jeremiah had looked upon such a society and accepted it, or tried only to tinker with it and reason with it, who would he be? We might well accuse him of being callously indifferent.

Yet that is how most of us get by. The way most of us function in this sick society, surrounded by exploitation and greed, is to ignore it. If we truly reflected on all the injustice in the world and saw how complicit we were in its continuity, we would all join Jeremiah in going mad.

So, where does this leave us? I know I’m not going to give up my medication or all the tools I have found to live a better life. I actually want to participate in society, and love that I am no longer gripped by anxiety. 

But I also don’t want to impose a world where everyone sees the same reality. People with mental health issues are often detained and restrained, rather than understood. 

The message of Mental Health Shabbat cannot only be talking more, but also listening more, especially to people who have been labelled as insane. 

I want us to hear people in their depression, in their anxiety, and in their psychosis. I want us to truly listen to what everyone has to say, even if it doesn’t conform to the worldview we know.

That doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, or never challenging it. It just means taking it seriously. Just as when we approach sacred texts, we can oppose them while recognising their holiness, so we can do with people. 

So, on this Mental Health Shabbat, I urge you: if you can listen to the Prophets, you can listen to your neighbours in their distress too.

Shabbat shalom. 

judaism · sermon

We know darkness

It was a dark, cold and stormy night. Mendelsohn, an old man, knew that the end was near. “Call the priest,” he said to his wife “and tell him to come right away.”

“The priest? Honey, you’re delirious. You mean the rabbi!”

“No, no,” said Mendelsohn. “Call the priest. Why disturb the rabbi on a night like this?”

Darkness is familiar to most of us.

In this week’s parashah, God brings a plague worse than all those that have preceded. Worse than frogs, blood, boils and locust. God brings on eternal darkness. When it’s day, it’s dark. When it’s night, it’s dark. After a while, people lose track of whether it’s day or night. Nothing grows. It’s never warm. People can feel the lack of sunlight on their skin and in their bones. They’re agitated and grumpy. It sounds a lot like London in January.

The month of January is notorious for being the most miserable. The days are so short. The nights are so long. It’s cold and wet and it feels like it will never end. Personally, I find just getting out of bed a struggle. The idea of slogging along on a bus with cold hands and feet, dripping in my raincoat with all the other commuters, just feels unbearable. It’s not a coincidence that this is the time when people can be most unhappy.

In fact, this coming Monday is said to be the most unhappy day of the year. Perhaps consequently, today is Mental Health Shabbat. People are broke. We’re at our coldest. Our bodies are aching. The darkness feels like it will never end.

A few years ago, the darkness started driving me to distraction. I couldn’t sleep when I needed to, and when I needed to be awake, I felt constantly tired. I was itchy and irritable. I have a spine disease, which fuses the joints in my back, and this was the worst year I’d had for pain. I could barely move. All that pain made sleeping even harder, being awake even more tiring, and my mood even worse.

I tried all sorts of things to get my body back on track. I tried upping the dosage of painkillers. I started drinking camomile tea in the evening to soothe me. I invested in one of those SAD lamps that slowly lights up, creating a synthetic dawn in my bedroom. Still, I felt hopeless.

I tried something else as well. I tried praying. I got up in the morning and said a few words of gratitude. Thank you, God, Creator of the Universe, for giving me this day. I wrapped tefillin on my head and arms and took a few moments for reflection. It was a struggle. It required discipline. I forced myself to say thank you even when I felt like I had nothing to be thankful for.

But that discipline did something new to me. It made me reflect on what was good in the world. Even if everything was dark and cold and painful, I was still alive. That was enough.

I realised, with time, that I’d been trying to push myself to be something I wasn’t. I was cursing my body for being disabled. I was trying to pretend that it was dawn when it wasn’t. I was angry, all the time, at the way the world was. And I was angry at myself just for being angry.

I couldn’t handle that it was cold and dark because that was just the way January was meant to be. January was the way it was meant to be and I was the way I was meant to be. I was comparing January to July, when they’re completely different months. Neither of them are meant to be like each other.

I was comparing myself to healthy people, with all the mobility, flexibility and energy they had. That wasn’t the body I had. That wasn’t who I was. The problem wasn’t me and the problem wasn’t the month. The problem was that I was comparing everything to an artificial standard. As if there was one ideal body, one ideal night’s sleep, one ideal mind, one ideal season, one ideal month, one ideal day. No such thing exists.

Prayer gave me permission to stop trying to live up to false standards. When I pray in the morning, thanking God that I’m alive, I’m not asking to be any different. I’m not saying thank you for things I don’t have or wishing for things I did. I’m just acknowledging one reality: that I’m alive.

We live in a system that teaches us that we have to always live up to this perfect standard. Capitalism requires us to be productive. We internalise that attitude so that we worry when we’re not efficient enough. We can even take that attitude home with us, striving for an ideal of a perfect home that we can never quite attain. And we can’t attain that ideal because it’s impossible. It’s somebody else’s standard.

Judaism teaches us that we are created in the image of God. We are, each one of us, a mirror of the Divine. So, no matter what cards we’ve been dealt, we are the standard. Just by being alive, we are living up to the standard that God set for us.

That’s what’s enabled me to deal with the darkness. When things are at their worst, I remind myself that things can’t always be perfect. I cannot live up to somebody else’s expectations of me. All I can do is accept myself for who I am, and give thanks that I’m alive.

January is a difficult month. This week may feel unusually hard. But I believe that we can get through it. If we are willing to love ourselves for who we are, and accept what we are not, we can make this darkness a little easier.

Shabbat shalom.

rainy london

I gave this sermon at Mosaic Liberal in Harrow for Parashat Bo on 12 January 2019.