May is Mental Health Awareness Month. And of course, just like every day should be Earth Day, every month should be one in which we are mindful of the importance of mental health. But tragically mental illness is not only frequently ignored, it is often stigmatized. And so I am grateful for the opportunity to be reminded that our mental health matters.
Especially in a world which feels increasingly broken. We are bombarded with bad news and we may feel anxious, sad, scared, and angry. Those are understandable and natural responses. But when they become persistent and paralyzing — when they interfere with our ability to do our work in the world, or be present for friends and family, or sometimes even get out of bed, it is time to get help. If this sounds like you, please reach out to a trusted friend or family member, to a mental health professional, check out jhelp.org or reach out to a local clergy member to let them (or me) know you’re struggling.
At least 20% of adults will experience mental illness, which translates to well over 100 people in our congregation, and far more in our extended synagogue family. We have now all lived through two years of a global pandemic and it has unfairly caused tremendous suffering for some of us, and shaken all of us. Please take time to check on one another and encourage those who are struggling to get the help they need.
May is also Jewish Heritage Month. And while that is generally a cause for celebration, the confluence of these two themes for May is particularly poignant in a week that has centered the conversation about reproductive rights. We will all speak about this passionately and I hope civilly in the days and weeks ahead. I want to make sure that Jewish law and practice are included in the discussion. While rabbis may disagree (we often do) about some elements of this debate, it is clear that in Jewish law full personhood begins at birth when the head (or perhaps shoulders) have emerged, not at conception. And if the health of the mother is threatened, an abortion is not only permitted, it is sometimes required. Restricting reproductive rights can also restrict the religious rights of Jews, as put so beautifully by the Orthodox Union (OU):
“Jewish law prioritizes the life of the pregnant mother over the life of the fetus such that where the pregnancy critically endangers the physical health or mental health of the mother, an abortion may be authorized, if not mandated, by halacha and should be available to all women irrespective of their economic status,” the OU said in statement, and added, “Legislation and court rulings — federally or in any state — that absolutely ban abortion without regard for the health of the mother would literally limit our ability to live our lives in accordance with our responsibility to preserve life.”
This is a challenging time in many ways. So I want to conclude with the reminder that mental health is more than just the absence of a clinical mental illness. There is no question that we need to work passionately to ensure a better future. But even in the midst of grief, and political turmoil, and a pervasive lack of empathy, even when we feel like our bodies, our planet, our religious rights and our future are being threatened, we need to cultivate moments of gratitude and joy and peacefulness. That is also deeply embedded in our tradition. I hope that this month serves as a reminder of its importance.