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

Pharaoh’s hard heart

Pharaoh had a hard heart. The Torah tells us so in many different expressions.

God says: וַאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.[1]

וַיֶּחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה

Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.[2]

וַיַּכְבֵּ֤ד פַּרְעֹה֙ אֶת־לִבּ֔וֹ

Pharaoh weighted his heart.[3]

וְלֹא־שָׁ֥ת לִבּ֖וֹ

Pharaoh refused to concern his heart.[4]

Every time, the Torah uses a different verb: Harden, stiffen, weighted, turned away. Every time, the Torah uses a different grammatical form: passive, active, reflexive, causative.

The distinctions are so significant that their similarity can be lost in translation. English versions will tell you that Pharaoh was stubborn, indifferent, callous. They will elide that in every one of these Hebrew idioms, the common word is Pharaoh’s heart.

We are supposed to imagine a heart that has long been bolted shut to cut himself off from the feelings of others. In the ancient world, the heart was considered the seat of all thoughts and feelings, much in the same way as we think of the mind today. A hardened heart is one that won’t permit any thoughts or feelings but one’s own.

That was Pharaoh. That is how the Torah describes Pharaoh every time it explains why he would not let the Israelites go. Pharaoh would not let people out because he would not let people in.

Over the last year, I have come to relate to that hard-heartedness. The pandemic and lockdown have been a stressful experience. Personally, I think I have turned inwards, focusing much more on myself and my family than on others and their needs. I have looked forward, determined to get through the crises, but I have not looked around at others and made the conscious effort I should to empathise.

A heart that can’t let anyone in also isn’t ready to let itself out. I wonder how the last year will affect people’s psyche. Has the last year, with its necessary focus on isolation and separation, prepared us for the hard emotional work of returning to being in community? What kinds of people will be when we emerge from this year? Will we have the empathy we need to let our people go?

This is Mental Health Shabbat. It is a time for us to reflect on the state of our hearts. We do not want our hearts to be hard, like Pharaoh’s. It is a time to open up our hearts, so that we can let our own feelings out, and the feelings of others in.

This was a short sermon for Friday night at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue.


[1] Ex 7:3

[2] Ex 7:13

[3] Ex 8:28

[4] Ex 7:23