If there’s one thing I’ve heard in rabbinical school more than anything else, it’s, “remember, you’re a rabbi, not a therapist or mental health professional.” Often one of the biggest sources of trouble for rabbis and worshipers going through difficult times can be that rabbis come out with a lot of goodwill to deal with issues that rabbis are not professionally equipped to handle. Whether it’s marital problems, eating disorders, difficult grief, or other issues, rabbis might be tempted by sympathy to exceed their professional abilities, and people in distress and need support might rely too much on rabbinical support when, in fact, someone more professional is needed to deal with the situation.
As rabbis, as community leaders, must recuse themselves from individual situations, we can no longer remain on the sidelines of what is happening to humanity at large, to the United States as a country, and to our own Jewish community. . As rabbis, we know better than anyone that people shouldn’t live in isolation, but they often do.
If you’ve ever been asked where you were on 9/11, you’re probably adult enough to know that over the past twenty years – as we’ve all lived through adulthood – suicide rates in the United States have increased from a staggering 25% – a quarter. Suicide rates have been steadily rising since 2011. Over 2.5 million (!) young Americans are struggling with depression, and many more are struggling with addiction. Millions of people have suffered from burnout and many have left the workforce.
Already 12 years ago, a 2010 study based on 148 different studies concluded that strong social relationships were more important to your health than not smoking or exercising. People with strong social relationships are 50% more likely to survive the 7.5 years of follow-up than those with weaker social relationships. The American Heart Association also published a study showing that isolation causes a 30% increase in heart attacks. Over the past two years, 1 in 4 people have seen their social circles shrink along with many other negative measures of how we are doing as a society.
Although this may be the subject of many lectures and courses, it is also an integral part of Yom Kippur.
One of the most beautiful scenes depicted in Yom Kippur is the Kohen Gadol – the service of the high priest in the Beit Hamikdash. “Indeed, how splendid was the image of the Kohel Gadol as it emerged from the Holy of Holies.” This glory did not come in a vacuum. “Vehakohanim Ve’ha’am“The Kohanim and all the people of Israel bowed down upon hearing the name of God, bringing the service to a climax as they saluted the High Priest to celebrate the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service.
Yet, as required by the laws of Beit Hamikdash, the service at a recognizable time interval away from sunset. So what did they all do as the service ended in the Beit Hamikdash, and the day was not over yet? The rabbis teach us (at the end of the Tractate Taanit) that there were no better days for Israel than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On both days of the year, young Jewish men and women would go to the vineyards around Jerusalem, dance and find someone they thought they’d marry. As we sit here in deep reverence for the prayers of Ne’ila, the youth of Jerusalem went into the vineyards to find love. While Tu Be’Av is a beautiful day in the middle of summer, it must be nice to step out into the vineyards for a singles event. Does this make sense for Yom Kippur? Not that much. Couldn’t young singles in Jerusalem find a better time to socialize than the afternoon of Yom Kippur?
To answer this, we must understand that Yom Kippur is about repairing relationships and thus building community. On the first Yom Kippur, when God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, God also restored the clouds of glory to the Jewish people, which is why Sukkot follows the Yom Kippur holiday. It is our ability to forgive others that sets the stage for community building and restored socialization.
On Yom Kippur, as we stand before God and ask Him to forgive us, we also ask others to forgive us. We also ask ourselves to forgive others, and above all, God asks us to forgive ourselves. To rebuild a community, we need forgiveness. To recreate relationships, we need forgiveness. To recreate common spaces, we need forgiveness. To restore and strengthen family ties, we need forgiveness.
The Rabbis teach us in the Midrash on Beresheet that God sought to create this world with strict justice and judgment, but then He saw that with pure judgment and justice this world could not exist. Our sins would not be tolerated for a moment. So God created this world with compassion too, and that’s how we exist. There is no world, community, family or friendship without forgiveness. Our call on this Yom Kippur
The great philosopher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught so many valuable intellectual lessons through his many books and lectures. Yet one of his most valuable lessons came from a story he had shared. On one of the only occasions he visited Israel, he was taken to Kibbutz Kinneret in Israel.
At the time, the kibbutz had rock-solid socialist and even Stalinist affiliations, which included strong opposition to religion. Although they weren’t thrilled to see a rabbi in their kibbutz, they treated the American guest with respect. They offered him something to eat, and he politically refused as he assumed the food was not kosher. They then offered him locally grown grapes, which they said would be less of a problem, but he also refused them. Eventually his hosts at the kibbutz asked him why he wasn’t even eating grapes. Rabbi Soloveitchik explained that since fruits and vegetables in Israel required tithing, eating them before those tithes were ritually separated was as forbidden as eating any non-kosher food. Members of the kibbutz then explained to him that once upon a time, decades earlier, in the 1930s, then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook came to visit the kibbutz as part of his farm tour. and Jewish communities to the north and spent Shabbat in their kibbutz.
Since the kibbutz was not kosher at all at the time, the rabbi brought his own Challah and a bottle of wine with him and went to the common dining room (“cheder ochel”) with his Challah and his wine. As Rabbi Kook sat there, he was mostly ignored, people turned lights on and off in front of him, and laughter was heard from everywhere. The same scene repeated itself on Shabbat morning. At the end of Shabbat, they organized a gathering of the whole kibbutz. The rabbis danced with them, told them stories about his childhood, and said nothing about religion or their conduct.
Sunday morning as Rabbi Kook left and said goodbye to everyone. As they left, the rabbi wished them luck and said goodbye with a smile, wishing the kibbutz members only one thing: to make sure they always eat at least one meal together in the communal dining hall – le’echol be’yachad”. Not a word about religion, kosher or anything like that. That same day, the kibbutz decided to turn all of its kitchen upside down and make it kosher, they told Rabbi Soloveitchik.
As rabbis and communities, we often spend our days and nights talking to people about the importance of the laws of Shabbat, kosher, prayer, etc. Yet in these times, more than ever, we need to make sure we restore communities. It is time to fight to restore our public space, whether in families, communities or society as a whole. It’s time we take the term Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazah– all Jews are responsible for each other – to be invoked only in times of international crisis and to begin to invoke it in our daily lives. It’s time to recreate friendships, family ties and community and make sure we care for the vulnerable. Whether it’s inviting more friends over for Shabbat dinner, going out for coffee with a friend again, checking in on others more often, doing more for our own mental health and our social life or that of our children, and to do all we can to recreate a world that is a little more forgiving, a little more compassionate and more in the image of God described in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.
So, are rabbis therapists or mental health professionals? Usually not. Yet rabbis, lay leaders and every member of the Jewish community have an obligation to raise the banner for a restored sense of happiness, security, community and to create a world a little more compassionate, a little more forgiving and a little a little friendlier.