“Homes, Veterans, Mental Health, and Jacob“
by Rabbi Rick Brody
Over the past two weeks, the Austin community has engaged meaningfully with several key issues of social concern–issues that affect the overall wellbeing of our city and of the lives of so many who live here. They are also issues that relate deeply to the powerful narratives from Genesis that we encounter at this time of year in our Torah-reading cycle.
Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters approved an important housing bond that will make our city more affordable. As I have written about in a separate post, this successful vote was a victory for Jewish values of hospitality, inclusion, and justice, and a powerful step in fighting poverty; it’s also a great way of improving the economic health of our city. Yet, there are several other social concerns that interact directly with the issue of housing. A very important category of people who need affordable housing are those with various disabilities, including disabilities that can be classified as mental illness. And an important category of people with disabilities—including mental illness—are our military veterans. Finally, we all know too well about the preponderance of homeless veterans. So these three issues are deeply intertwined.
In the past week, our nation observed Veterans Day to honor those who have served our country in the armed forces, especially those who have seen the horrors of war. And here in Austin, this past Wednesday, an inspiring interfaith gathering took place to address how religious communities can respond appropriately and compassionately to those suffering with mental illness and their loved ones affected by their struggles. Jewish communities worldwide are in the midst of the cycle of stories that focus on our patriarch, Jacob. Key events in last week’s and this week’s parashot (portions), Vayeitzei and Vayishlach, draw attention to these same concerns.
Jacob’s journey involves a danger-filled departure to foreign soil that—while not a military situation—bears similarities to what our (mostly) young men and women face when they go off to serve in the armed forces. Jacob must learn to grow up quickly, experiencing various hardships—including two episodes of temporary homelessness on either side of protracted misfortune at the hands of an unscrupulous landlord. After fleeing from his manipulative father-in-law, Jacob faces his greatest challenge yet—the possible confrontation with the army of 400 men that his brother, Esau, has amassed. Jacob has been running from this challenge for 20 years while he has been in Charan, avoiding the issue of his brother’s anger for Jacob’s theft of their father’s blessing. Upon learning of Esau’s approach, Jacob becomes terrified: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:8). Like a soldier thrown into combat, he fears for his life—yet Rashi suggests that the use of two words to describe Jacob’s mental state signifies that he is afraid not only of being killed but also of taking the lives of others. This moment leads to the emotional climax of our story and indeed, of the entire Jewish story.
While there is no reason for us to see Jacob as suffering from an ongoing mental illness, it is clear that at this moment in his life, he is depressed. He feels utterly alone, completely unsure of how to handle this overwhelming situation. In fact, his response to his fear is to send everyone else away and be fully alone. And at that moment, a mysterious man begins wrestling with him; this encounter is understood by many commentators to be a manifestation of his own struggles with his self—his sense of purpose, guilt, and destiny. What he learns is that life is struggle. This struggle is also depicted explicitly as one with divine implications: the man, referred to elsewhere in Biblical and Rabbinic literature as an angel—is clearly a messenger from God, blessing Jacob on God’s behalf and indicating in Jacob’s name-change to Israel that the patriarch has endured in struggles with God and men.
What struck me at the gathering on Wednesday night, sponsored by the New Milestones Foundation, was how the feeling of being alone is so characteristic of mental illness—both as part of the disease itself but also in the experience of alienation from one’s community, including one’s faith community, as a result of the illness. Similarly, that feeling of inner struggle, something we all encounter at times, is so much more pronounced and painful for those with clinical disorders. One sleepless night of wrestling is for some a daily experience without the release—or blessing—that Jacob experiences come daybreak. It remains night for these members of our community. It is our duty to try to help bring the daybreak for those caught in the hold of a mysterious invader that undermines their wellness. It is up to us to be the ones to offer the blessing for the one in four among us who suffer in such ways. The strongest message of any faith community is that, no matter what we feel, we are not alone.
May violent wrestling turn to loving, blessed embrace for those afflicted with mental illness in our midst, be they veterans, homeless, or anyone else. May we all prevail, like Jacob did, and find our way back to home and to wholeness.