Rabbi Brian Immerman
Kol Nidre 5782 – September 15, 2021
(Ted Lasso spoiler alerts below – skip to paragraph 3)
Ted Lasso seemed to be the show that we all needed in this moment. Streaming on Apple TV, Ted Lasso is an American college football couch from Kansas City hired by a British football team (that’s soccer to us Americans). Initially hired to destroy the team, through a combination of positivity, tenacity, love and belief, Ted becomes a beloved coach by the players, fans and viewers alike. When all civility in our world seems to evaporate, we find Ted, reminding us that being kind and working together are paramount.
From the first episode we learn that while Ted seems loved by all, there is one person who has fallen out of love with Ted, his wife. We begin to see Ted struggle as they divorce and watch Ted’s heart break as he attempts to connect to his son living a thousand miles away. The writers devote so little time to this plot line that it seems insignificant, until season two when we learn that while Ted seems just great on the outside, he is not doing so well on the inside. Eventually we find him walking off the field and curled up on a ball on the team therapists couch “I want to make an appointment,” he says.
Growing up in the Midwest Ted was taught that we are supposed to bury our emotions, not work through them. He has a gift for knowing exactly what to say to everyone else in his life except himself. Throughout the show, beneath his smile, southern drawl and embrace of everyone around him, Ted is suffering. He is the head coach of a well-known soccer club in England and I’m sure getting paid a hefty salary. Its hard for him to admit that he isn’t OK. It’s harder for him to admit that it’s OK to not be OK. Admitting that it is OK to not be OK allows him to accept help from friends and professionals.
It can be hard for us to admit that we are not OK. It can be harder still for us to admit that its OK not to be OK. And it can be even more difficult to seek help.
This has been a hard year. Tonight we come to bear our souls after a year in which we have all suffered, to some degree or another. In which we have either lost a loved one or know someone who has lost a loved one. A year in which we have quarantined, felt the whiplash of the pandemic subsiding and then roaring back, a year in which we have agonized, and continue to do so, over whether to send our children to school, to go back to the office or even to attend services on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. These challenges and the decisions we made have taken a toll on all of us.
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, “For many Americans, this challenge has been overwhelming, affecting their mental health…A notable fraction of people will develop chronic symptoms severe enough to meet criteria for a mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depressive disorder. People who experience more severe stressors, such as…people with more prolonged disruptions are more likely to experience enduring symptoms that would benefit from intervention.” We take so many measures to protect our physical health and those around us – we quarantine, we eat outside, we wear masks, we get vaccinated, we stay apart from others, we connect via Zoom and FaceTime. We need to take care of mental health as well.
Many of us, like coach Ted Lasso, have worked hard to focus on the positive in life – what we call hakarat haTov – so that no matter the challenges we face as individuals or a community we keep our heads above water. Even as we face a seemingly endless pandemic, we can cultivate gratitude. We appreciate the fact that we can now get food delivered from any restaurant including the “we will never deliver” Sally’s and Pepe’s. We are grateful for the ability to connect with community, friends and loved ones online, we are grateful that we live in a state where most people decided to get vaccinated and wear masks. We are grateful for DoorDash and GrubHub, grateful for the essential workers delivering our groceries. It’s wonderful to work toward gratitude so long as we also admit to ourselves when we are struggling.
I have heard so many in our community engage in the hakarat hatov, recognition of the good, so much that sometimes I am concerned. I often hear a phrase that I say myself: “It’s hard, but I’m grateful for what I have because I know that others who have fewer resources have it worse.” This might be true for some, but if repeated might cause us to say “I’m OK,” when in reality we are not OK.
It’s OK for us not to be OK. We don’t want to find ourselves sidelined for the important game, whether that’s being their for those who rely upon us or for when we re-engage fully in our society.
Tonight, on Yom Kippur we engage in teshuvah, repentance. According to Maimonides, a 12th century rabbi, teshuvah begins by admitting that we are human and vulnerable. We admit our failings tonight not to feel bad about ourselves but so that we can work to be better people. Taking care of ourselves, both our physical and mental care is no different.
Mental illness is not confined to COVID either. Life always presents challenges, such as the loss of a job or a loved one, added stressors at work or in our personal lives. Even joyous moments, such as having children, retiring, or a big birthday can cause stress. We can seek care when we need help processing something or when we are suffering through a diagnosed condition such as depression and anxiety. No matter the reason we should never feel ashamed.
Several years ago I engaged in a community organizing effort to learn why people, especially in the Jewish community, do not seek professional care. After dozens of 1:1 conversation, several large community meetings and surveys, two clear reasons emerged significantly more than others.
One was the cost of care, and the other was stigma. Fortunately, in the past few years, the cost of healthcare has been ameliorated at least in part in Connecticut and other states through parity laws that require insurance companies to cover mental healthcare the same as physical healthcare. Two years ago Gov. Lamont signed the Mental Health Parity Act. While signing he said that “Diseases of the brain should not be treated any differently than diseases of the body…” While it can still be difficult to find providers that accept insurance, these laws will hopefully make care affordable for most people.
Reducing stigma, however, requires much more than a stroke of a politicians pen. Gov Lamont also noted that “By signing this into law we are taking a major step forward toward removing the stigmatization that so many people with mental health and substance use disorders face.” Mental Illness and therapy, even for undiagnosed help such as coping with COVID stress, or grief counseling are stigmatized in our society. We might be made to feel as if we should be able to handle everything life throws at us on our own.
Studies have shown that the rates of mental health issues in the Jewish community occur at the same rate of others, and yet we tend to seek less care because of stigma. Stigma is often the largest factor in someone choosing not to access needed care. Stigma even made me consider about whether I wanted to say publicly that I have been in therapy for over a decade, and therapy makes it possible for me to process and face difficult situations.
Instead of recognizing that someone is suffering and in need of help, stigmatization of mental healthcare might lead people to label others as crazy or “off.” Sadly this often leads to friends and family disengaging. This is the opposite response we see in our community when someone is suffering from a long-term physical illness such as cancer or recovery from an accident. In those situations, people ask to have their names read out-loud on the Mi Shebeirach list and receive calls and support from the community. Yet even though our prayer asks for a r’fuah shliema, a complete healing of nefesh and goof, soul and body, rarely do people seeking mental healthcare tell me at all or ask to be on the Mi Shebeirach list for fear of alienation from the community. Stigma pushes us away from seeking the professional and communal care that we might need. Stigma makes us feel as though we should be tougher, stronger, and more resilient. We don’t expect cancer patients to toughen up instead of seeking care, why would we do the same with mental illness?
On Rosh Hashanah we read about the stigma of mental health that existed even in ancient times. We read about Chanah praying so intensely to God that “her lips moved even though she was silent.” Instead of approaching her with compassion, Eli the priest called her a drunk and told her to leave. This left Chanah needing to defend herself. Alone in the Holy Temple in Jersusalem, Chanah was left feeling ashamed and embarrassed instead of loved and embraced. She was calling out to God from the depths of her heart and was told to leave.
Traditionally during the yamim nora’aim, the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we recite psalm 130 before the Sh’ma – “Out of the depths I call You, O God. God, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…” The Baal Shem Tov teaches about this psalm that “When a person prays from the depth of his soul, digging deep, opening themselves up, something changes in the person themselves, altering them entirely.”
When we reach out, to God, professionals or our community and ask for help something can change in us – we can find ourselves better able to engage with our world and cope with difficult or stressful situations.
Rabbi Harold Kushner emphasizes this point in his seminal work When Bad Things Happen To Good People. “If God is a God of justice and not of power, then God can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. God can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of God’s doing, and so we can turn to God for help. We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.“
We pray that we not only turn to God but to our community, to our friends and family and to professionals if we are struggling to cope with our lives. We pray that when we turn to them, like we turn to God, we will not be judged, but instead strengthened and comforted.
We enter Yom Kippur with full and open hearts, trying to be the best versions of ourselves. We pray that God will provide strength and comfort, and the courage to seek additional help in therapists, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists when we truly need it.
Last year I shared the story of King Solomon’s search that led him to learn the phrase “Gam Ze Ya’avor, that this too shall pass.” Now and after COVID, when we are struggling, may we find the strength to say it’s OK to not be OK, and that this too, shall pass.
G’mar Chatima Tovah, may you be written for blessing in the book of life. Shanah Tovah.
 Kushner, Harold. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. p.44