The following is the introduction to a Refuat Hanefesh column “Struggling Together: Mental Health in The Torah”. In this column, Tzivia Appleman draws on her time studying in Israel, as well as her passion for enhancing society’s mental health views, to propose ways we can understand the emotional state and struggles of the characters and leaders of Tanach many of us grew up with. The opinions shared in this column as they relate to characters in Tanach are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Refuat Hanefesh.
Changing The Book
Imagine opening up your favorite book. You’re smiling at those familiar pages, aren’t you? How many times have you read it? Be honest.
All of the previous times in which you have read this book, your favorite characters were fictional heroes who you revered and of whom you were in awe. In the past, you never felt so close to them, because how could little ole you ever match their esteemed level? How could you, a crazy, mental, overly-stigmatized individual ever be able to relate to their greatness?
Familiar feelings rush through you as you read this book again. But this time, you are looking through a much different lens. You notice that the characters are more relatable than ever before. They also had issues and struggles, maybe not identical to yours, but quite similar. Now, how much more do you appreciate that book?
The “book” I’m referring to is the Torah. Although it is not a history book nor a story book, there is a great deal we can learn from its “characters.” We hold our forefathers to a very high standard, and reasonably so. The extent to which we describe and relate to our ancestors is actually a debate among great Rabbis: Rav Aharon Kotler held that the Avot were perfect, so we cannot state any deficiency about them. However, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch said that they weren’t “perfect”, and we should indeed learn from them.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that they were people, too. They were human beings with feelings, emotions, and lives of their own. They suffered through tragedies, loneliness, depression, barrenness, and other issues which we are also privy to. They were real people with real life struggles.
I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a revered Torah scholar. I don’t feel comfortable diagnosing Torah characters with mental illnesses. But I do believe that it is important to learn from their lives and to be inspired by the way they overcame their personal struggles. Acknowledging the mistakes of the Avot does not diminish their greatness; it enhances their strength of character. Generations of old are whispering gently to us that we are never alone.
In Devarim, 4:9, God commands us the following: “רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד”, meaning “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” Many commentators take this to mean that we must take care of our health. This is our responsibility and our mission. What better way to take action than by analyzing the role models provided by the Torah itself?
With that being said, we are launching a column where we will focus on specific Tanach characters and mental health topics. In order to understand our present issues and look towards the future, we must take a glance back at the past to gain a better perspective. We are very excited to go on this journey through time together, as a community.
If you have any suggestions or requests for a specific character or topic, please leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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Please click here to read other pieces pertaining to Torah and mental health
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