This year, I lost a friend. He was the coolest kid in the class: a fantastic footballer, a talented guitarist and a brilliant writer. He was kind, witty and charming to everyone and to me, he acted as an older brother, supporting me through those awkward teenage years.
Yet, in a cruel ironic twist, the man who saw the best in everyone else was devastated by mental illness which stripped him of the ability to recognise the beauty of his own soul.
His suicide was a powerful reminder that mental illness does not discriminate between the rich, the poor, the clever and the foolish. At its worst, it can be so overwhelming that even the finest medicine and the greatest family love are no match for it. It is an uncomfortable subject and which was taboo in many circles until Princes William and Harry spoke of their own suffering, but our rabbis recognised it thousands of years ago.
The Talmud discusses its legal, social and spiritual implications and Chasidic rabbis were particularly attuned to the agony it can cause. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) wrote with striking sensitivity about depression, counselling us to serve God with joy. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin (1740-1792) advised that all of us warrant high self-esteem because we are all children of the Divine King, bearing a royal pedigree.
This year, during our festival of Succot, we will mark World Mental Health Day (Tuesday), giving us an opportunity to reflect further on the importance of preserving our mental health.
Succot is a celebration of prosperity and a festival of joy, but it’s also the time when we leave our houses for fragile shelters in remembrance of our ancestors’ 40-year trek through the desert. It’s a strange dichotomy, but celebrating a joyous festival in a simple shack reminds us not to base our happiness on external factors such as comfort and prosperity.
They may make life easier, but, ultimately our contentment and our mental health will depend on inner peace. Our sages put it succinctly: Who is rich? Anyone who is content with what they have (Ethics of the Fathers 4: 1).
This too is the theme of the biblical Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) which we read on Succot. In it, King Solomon reflects on how the incredible wealth that he amassed never brought happiness. True and lasting contentment cannot come from physical riches; we also need the spiritual tranquillity that comes from the knowledge and recognition that we are living worthy lives.
Our ability to develop that self-esteem may be supported by the Succot custom called ushpizin, or “guests”. Each night of the festival, we read a prayer welcoming one of our biblical ancestors to join us at our festive meal in the succah. It’s strange to invite the souls of people who passed away thousands of years ago to share our table with us. But, my teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat offers the following beautiful, modern interpretation of this tradition, which connects with the theme of mental health.
We are privileged to live in an age of television and social media, but not everything that enters our homes through our screens is healthy. Celebrity culture exposes us to endless photo-shopped images of models. Their skinny bodies set impossible standards for young people, who are dragged into dangerous eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
The pressured, competitive atmosphere in some offices drives young professionals to work impossibly long hours, denying them time for family or friends. This can evoke feelings of inadequacy and depression. One result of this is that around 6,000 people commit suicide in Britain every year, making it the most common cause of death for young men.
Rabbi Riskin suggests the ushpizin offers us an alternative paradigm. Instead of absorbing whatever role models our screens and bosses put in front of us, we should choose our own mentors. We can select role models who inspire and challenge us, not in ways that diminish our self-esteem, but in ways that affirm our identity, warm our hearts and encourage us to be better people.
This is the role of our biblical family whom we welcome into our succah this week, whose stories we tell around the table and whose spiritual presence is an inspiring example to Jews everywhere.
Our focus on these figures during Succot and World Mental Health Day offers an opportunity to promote self-esteem and serenity. It reminds us to support those who are unwell, the families who care for them and the charities that help them. By meeting the challenges of mental illness we can avoid losing more wonderful friends in tragic circumstances.
Gideon Sylvester is the United Synagogue’s Israel rabbi