Healing the Soul: Judaism & Mental Health
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once told the story of a prince who thought he was a rooster. He took off all his clothes, got under the table, ate crumbs off the floor, flapped his arms like wings, and crowed. Healers, and doctors, and advisors were called – but none could relieve him of his madness. Until a wise man came and said “I can help.”
“I’m a rooster too.”
The first thing the wise man did was take off all his clothes and get under the table with the prince. He put his arms out like wings and crowed. He told the prince “I am a rooster too.”
Rabbi Nachman lived in an age before therapy. But it is clear from this and other parables he wove that he believed in the importance of recognizing and managing mental health conditions.
We know this because the first thing the wise man did was to meet the prince where he was. When he said “I am a rooster too,” he invited the prince to trust him. He told the prince that he understood. He told him that he would not be judged.
As time went on, the wise man gave the prince tools to change his behavior. “Wearing clothes,” he said, “does not mean we are not roosters.” Eventually, the boy learned that roosters could stand up straight, eat at the table, and speak with people.
The prince went on to become a wonderful king. But… he never forgot that he was really a rooster.
“The lesson we learn is that for the one in four of us who are experiencing mental illness right now, there is hope.”
Many modern scholars believe that Nachman himself suffered from mental illness. He wrote powerfully about depression so intense that one cannot find the strength to move. Perhaps this is why he emphasized empathy over judgement in his stories. Why he taught about the tools of healing rather than the suppression of symptoms.
The lesson we learn from Nachman is not to suppress mental illness. It is rather to learn to manage mental health. It is to build on existing strengths and develop the skills to replace harmful patterns with healthy behavior. The lesson we learn is that for the one in four of us who are experiencing mental illness right now, there is hope. There is hope because in our community, there is help.
Jewish Family Services agencies throughout the country serve individuals and families facing mental illness and other challenges. In Delaware, JFS’s therapists provide more than 13,000 counseling sessions to families and individuals a year. Those 13,000 sessions enable people facing trauma, mental illness, or substance abuse to recover. Those 13,000 sessions are vital to the health of our community.
In the Jewish prayer for healing, we ask for refuat hanefesh and refuat haguf, a complete healing of both body and soul. After all, a healthy body and a healthy mind are equally important to living a full and satisfying life. Yet the stigma of mental illness pervades the Jewish community. When we are afraid to utter certain words aloud (depression, panic, bipolar, breakdown…), those who are suffering, suffer alone.
“If our biblical heroes could have named their mental illness or sought help in managing their mental health, how might their lives have been enriched?”
The Torah itself is full of characters struggling with their mental health. Saul suffered from bouts of depression and insanity, perhaps brought on by bipolar disorder. Hannah struggled intensely with the emotional toll of her infertility. After the trauma of nearly being sacrificed, Isaac likely suffered from PTSD and remained primarily silent and passive for the rest of his life.
If our biblical heroes could have named their mental illness or sought help in managing their mental health, how might their lives have been enriched? Perhaps the answer can be found in the story of Ruth and Naomi.
Ruth was the wife of Naomi’s son. When both women lost their husbands, they grieved together and cared for one another instead of going their separate ways. They developed a supportive and loving relationship that empowered them both.
“It’s hard, but it works.”
I am proud of Jewish Family Services’ quiet yet constant work to improve mental health in our community. As one young client reflected, “this is the best thing for me and for us [my family]. It’s hard, but it works.”
We are all created B’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. Whatever your vulnerabilities, you deserve to be treated with dignity. Whatever burdens you carry, you deserve support that aligns with your values. That is why JFS exists. And as the CEO I feel privileged every day to help ensure that there is – and always will be – a safety net of support for this Jewish community.
By Dory Zatuchni, CEO
My thanks to Rabbi Michael Kramer for introducing me to Nachman’s story of the Rooster Prince. Descriptions found in the Torah of the biblical leaders mentioned in this article can be interpreted as struggles with mental illness. Saul (1 Sam. 10:19-23; 11:5-7; 16:14); Hannah (1 Sam. 1:2 – 1:19); Isaac (Board of Rabbis of Southern California; based largely on his silence and passivity and his pension for seeking solitude); Ruth & Naomi (Ruth 1-3).