This week, we are reminded that external success and internal struggle can, and do, happen simultaneously and are at the core of who we are as Jews and as individuals. For some of us, this is nothing new – we experience professional and social successes (promotions, marriages, kids, etc.) and struggle silently with anxiety, self-doubt, sleeplessness, and more. For others of us, it can be hard to fathom that someone who seems healthy and adjusted in one sphere of life might experience extreme challenges in others. Especially with the advent of social media, and the way we’ve learned to curate the parts of our lives that we share – only posting happy and exciting things and hiding struggles from public view – we often assume that the successes we see in others apply to their whole lives.
Moses, too, often looks outwardly successful. He grew up as a privileged prince of Egypt; became the son-in-law of Jethro, a priest and leader in the Midianite community; and then became God’s chosen leader for the Israelite people. He is the only one who gets a direct experience of God, ever. And is the one who receives the Torah from God who then instructs the Israelites in its ways. In his personal and “professional” life, Moses is extremely successful.
And yet, in our portion this week we get a hint of some of Moses’ struggles. He begins to buckle under extreme amounts of pressure and starts to slip in his ability to care for the Israelites. His role and responsibilities as Judge begin to suffer, and Moses’ mental health begins to go downhill. Luckily, Moses had an observant and caring family member, Jethro, who sees his struggles and suggests a way that he might move forward to rediscover his equilibrium. He reminds Moses that he is not alone and that success doesn’t happen when we wall ourselves off from support. Jethro and Moses then set up a system of judges and adjudication that took some of the burden off of Moses’ shoulders and promoted general wellness amongst the community.
As wise and caring as Jethro’s actions might be, we are also left with the question – How did no one else see how Moses, who just spent 40 days and 40 nights in direct contact with God on Mt. Sinai, needed help? How could God have not noticed?
When I meet with our B’nai Mitzvah students, we often discuss what adulthood means to them and the people around them. Often, they struggle with putting their thoughts into words, never having had to wonder what actually makes adults different from children. Eventually, and with their parents’ help, we discuss things like responsibility, independence, and empathy – all of which are key lessons they dive into during their B’nai Mitzvah preparation. But I often like to leave them with a thought – kids are relatively good at asking others for help and letting the people around them see when they are struggling. Adults are very much the opposite. Whether it’s because we’re shy or insecure, scared or socialized to never need to depend on anyone else, we adults struggle with asking for help. Unfortunately, we tend to only seek out assistance when we’re in crisis. And even then, it’s extremely hard.
Like us, Moses struggles with finding the support that he needs. Jethro practically has to force him to accept help once Moses begins to spiral into unhealthy behaviors. Like Moses, we know that life doesn’t have to be a struggle, but often we struggle with seeing life in any other way.
Especially as we enter into this year’s Mental Health Shabbat, where we acknowledge the variety of struggles we might not be so keen on showing to others and offer support and resources, I want to offer the same questions I give to our B’nai Mitzvah students: “Can you help me?” And “How can I help you?” If all of us kept practicing the questions that come so easily in childhood in our adult years, perhaps it would be easier to tell others when we need help. Asking “Can you help me?” before you’re in crisis gets you what you need and reminds you that you have a network of friends, family, coworkers, health professionals, and more that are there to help lighten your load. Just as importantly, asking “How can I help you?” on a regular basis gives those around us implicit permission to not be perfect all of the time. When we regularly offer ourselves without judgment or ridicule, we create more spaces for those we care about to be brave, authentic, and fallible.
If I may paraphrase, Albus Dumbledor, the headmaster at the magical fictional school of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series: help is always given to those who ask. It becomes our job, then, to create a world that encourages people to ask.