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Reflections on our mental health during Pesach

By Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked

Before Pesach all of us are called to
prepare ourselves for the task of
cleaning before the festivity.

Yet, for some of us, the task which
should have been uplifting, becomes a
burden, an overwhelming experience of
never ending struggle against the dirt
and mess in our lives.

This is but one example of how we feel inside affects how we carry out religious traditions. Does the religious practice contribute to one’s mental health or put it at risk?

Judaism is a practical faith. Its organizing principle is not a set of beliefs but a set of deeds, repeating themselves depending on the week, the month and the year. In this sense, Judaism is equipped to provide predictability and continuity. Those two elements help in the creation of healthy routines. A main question in the Jewish tradition is – “Has the duty been fulfilled?” Sometimes, however, the deeds that are required – for example, the daily prayers, the keeping of the Sabbath, waiting between eating milk and meat, can create anxiety and distress if one feels they can’t conduct what is required.

One can certainly be assisted by clergy, who have been trained or ordained to help others put their issues within a religious context, yet – at the end of the day – making sense of your life is a task for the individual. How can religious life be of value to those who struggle with mental health?

The first step is to acknowledge that mental distress is part of being a human. Just being aware of how fragile and vulnerable we are, and the harsh conditions or experiences many of us have been through – all these are valid reasons for mental health conditions to develop. This is common. It’s not an indication of your personality. It is, however, an indication of your current resilience.

The second step is to realise that these hard patches are not a mistake but fundamental aspects of one’s journey. It doesn’t make it fun or easy, but it makes it bearable, as it gives the suffering a context.

I can’t promise you that everything will work out for the good, but surely,we can ask for Divine help and guidance. Beyond all the obstacles, all the distractions, there is in us a living spark of the Divine light, even if at this moment I can’t feel it. It is there, and it guides me, as the path guides the wanderer. I can’t emphasize enough the healing power of this conviction. In the meantime, the only thing I can take responsibility for is my mental and emotional condition. It’s not easy or fun, but it is doable.

The Psalmist says – “My sacrifice, O God, is my broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.” (51:17). Jewish mysticism teaches us that nothing is more complete or whole than a broken heart. It is in this perfect imperfection that God calls us to wake up, it is in this brokenness that God calls us to reveal His light, bringing healing, comfort, stability, and strength to ourselves and to those we love

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