Mental Illness and Yom Kippur

Image: A well-dressed woman sitting bent-over on a bench. Photo by RyanMcGuire via

Before I learned to read Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. What should have been a holy day became a spiritual battle.

For me, and for others who suffer from a mental illness or affective disorder, holy days and holidays can carry an extra punch. There’s no shame in that; it’s also true for anyone who has had a recent trauma or whose close friend or relative has died.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting,  or call your therapist, DO IT.

FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (Really, they should not be quizzing you anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!

MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them properly. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, eat or drink. Medications do not solve everything, but they can be a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and I say a blessing when I do it.

LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. The first is to schedule some time with your rabbi (after the holy days!) to talk about “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations.

DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.

Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some mental health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.

This is an updated version of a post I wrote three years ago.

Bipolar Meltdown

Image: Cactus. Photo by MikeBirdy at

I share this extraordinary post with the permission of the writer. He takes the reader inside his experience of a manic episode.

Millions of people worldwide suffer from bipolar disorder. It isn’t a joke and should never be trivialized. I have watched my own son battle with it for the ten years since his diagnosis, and for many years before that, when we knew there was Something but had no name for it.

We are each made in the image of the Holy One. That includes bipolar sufferers. As this writer points out, bipolar is part of who he is. Until we can appreciate that all who suffer with mental illness participate equally as holders of the divine spark, we are probably doomed to mistreat and fear them.

So I invite you to read and get to know this young man. He reminds me a lot of my son.

Down but Not Out


This is my view at the moment. Jojo and Gabi watch over me as I work to get over another bout of sciatica. That’s the reason my posts have been sparse of late; sitting aggravates the nerve and makes things worse.

Illness is a spiritual challenge. Questions are natural: why me?

Our ancestors struggled with these questions. They played with many possible answers:

– Maybe illness is a punishment for sin?
– Maybe illness is a test from God?
– Maybe there are demons that cause illness?
– Maybe God isn’t paying attention?
– Does God care?

Today science explains the sources of some illness, but it doesn’t answer our spiritual questions.

I don’t believe that illness is a punishment or a test. Nor do I think it is a contest. My concept of God is a God who does not interfere with nature, a God who manifests in the the Unity behind Nature.

I am aging. I have old neglected injuries. Sometimes they are going to bother me. These are facts that I cannot change.

Besides these facts, I have choices. I can choose to be a mensch. I can choose to do my exercises. I can choose to use my time to study and rest.

Yesterday I learned a story. Prisoners in one of the Nazi camps asked a rabbi: “Since we are enslaved here, should we say the morning blessing thanking God that we are free?” The rabbi paused to consider. “Yes,” he replied, “Whatever they do to our bodies, our souls, our spirits are free.”

As our Festival of Freedom approaches, let us all think about the gift of freedom. What shall we do with it?

Help: the Prayer Book is Too Heavy for Me!

Image: A Reform prayer book. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A reader asked:

Please, PLEASE post about whether us disabled people who can follow along more easily via electronic devices than by hoisting heavy (for some of us) books is OK. Since reading your posts on this subject, I’ve been feeling like I have been a nasty, red carbuncle in the congregation when I’ve shown up to worship alongside my loved one who has an upcoming bat mitzvah, and I’ve actually held back from going at all. I don’t want to be a blot on my loved one’s special day when that day comes!

Congratulations on the upcoming bat mitzvah service!

There’s no problem with using a tablet or smartphone app on a weekday. It would be rude to check email or follow the stock market in services, but of course it is fine to use a prayer book app or a  Tanakh/Chumash app.

Shabbat is different. For a “Shomer shabbes” Jew, using such a thing in synagogue on Shabbat would be deeply offensive. Your options break down by movement:

Reform: There are several good apps available for a Chumash (Torah portions and readings from the prophets.) If anyone questions your use of the tablet, just explain that it’s due to a disability and that should be the end of it. (As for the siddur, I’ve been informed that there’s a problem with the app, but I’m going to research that and update asap.) There is also a small, lightweight “Traveler’s Edition” of Mishkan Tefilah available.

Some congregations project the pages of the siddur and other service materials on the front wall or a screen. If the synagogue offers that sort of arrangement, you’re in luck!

Conservative and Modern Orthodox: They are unlikely to be open to the use of electronics on Shabbat, but if you call ahead and speak with the rabbi, it may well be that they have alternative accommodations to offer. One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, reminded me that there are pocket-sized siddurim (prayer books) easily available, and perhaps getting your own lightweight copy is an answer. Certainly you can ask to use one at the synagogue, if you don’t own one.

Renewal and Reconstructionist: Call ahead and ask; the answer will differ from place to place.

When I made the original post (More Etiquette for Bar & Bat Mitzvah Guests) I was thinking of the people who come to a bar mitzvah and pull out the phone out of habit and begin checking email. That’s very offensive, and would be so on any day of the week. Using a tablet to follow the service is in the same category with using an electric wheelchair, and is OK on a weekday anywhere, and on Shabbat in some synagogues but not others.

In synagogues where using a tablet or smartphone isn’t an option on Shabbat, and there’s no lightweight option available, I’d arrange to sit next to an able bodied person who is willing to share, to hold their book where you can see it. You will then have the added bonus of a knowledgeable page turner, which can be quite helpful. Since one cannot know who is able by looking at them,  I’d phone ahead (WELL ahead)  to the synagogue and ask if they might be able to find a volunteer.

Another option: if you are not familiar with the service, you may find the prayer book more frustration than help, anyway. Give yourself the option of simply sitting and listening. If someone presses a prayer book on you, just say, “No, thank you.” There are many ways to be in a Jewish service – for more about that, see New to Jewish Prayer? 9 Tips for Beginners.

I hope that you are able to find arrangements that work for you, so that you can enjoy the occasion.

What if it Hurts to Stand in Services?

Image: Eight blue walking sticks against a background of green grass. Photo by

And the sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. – Genesis 32:32

Aging, illness, and accidents are part of the human condition. We know that two of our three Patriarchs had disabilities. Isaac was blind and Jacob walked with a limp.

When chronic pain issues from some old injuries began to give me trouble my primary impulse was to hide my disability. Especially in services, I felt that it was important to stand whenever the congregation stood. That was even more true if I was the one leading services. So I stood, sometimes drenched in sweat from the pain. When anyone commented about the fact that my clothes were soaked and my hair was dripping, I’d change the subject.

To make a long story short, that was a sad and stupid “solution” to my problem. I have since acquired a mobility scooter and learned how to pray sitting down. I encourage my students to be gentle with their bodies: if a temporary or permanent situation makes a particular posture painful, the answer is simple: don’t do it. 

Pain doesn’t enhance Jewish prayer. I did not get extra points from God for sweating and trembling my way through the Amidah. Clinging to the furniture in front of me and trying not to cry did not make me a better Jew. Now that I sit when I need to sit, my prayers are more focused, more conscious, and I am better able to pay attention to the “still, small voice” within. (1 Kings 19)

Here are my suggestions, if standing for prayer is painful for you, or if you have any other disability that sets you apart from the congregation at prayer:

  • Own the disability. Hiding or denying disability won’t make it go away. As the brilliant blogger at The Squeaky Wheelchair wrote recently, “You can’t ‘do anything you set your mind to.'” I cannot sprout wings and fly. I cannot read minds. And at this stage of my life, my body cannot stand for more than 3 minutes without pain. Owning the things that are impossible means that we are freed to take on other things – things we can do.
  • Care for your body. Caring for the body is actually a mitzvah. Usually people envoke it to talk about eating right, getting checkups, and getting exercise, but it’s also about not abusing the body. Praying in postures appropriate for your body is indeed a mitzvah.
  • If you need help, ask. People like to help. After all, helping is a mitzvah. You deserve to get what you need to attend services. And if you need a ramp or whatever, talk to the leadership. Maybe it isn’t possible immediately, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
  • If you don’t want help, be as firm as you need to be about it. Sometimes people want to help, but they are inappropriate. I have learned to say “No thank you” firmly. Sometimes I have to escalate to a louder “NO!” or (rarely) even a very very loud “NO! STOP IT!” It’s sad that some people can’t learn from the first polite “no thanks,” but it is perfectly appropriate for me to be firm in taking care of myself if need be.
  • Use other ways to mark standing times as different. I put my tallit [prayer shawl] (when I’m wearing it) over my head when I pray the Amidah. I cover my eyes for the Shema. I sit near the aisle, so that I can touch the Torah as it goes by.Just because I’m sitting down, doesn’t mean I can’t use my hands or even my feet. With other disabilities, you may have different options, but explore those options to get the most out of prayer!*
  • You don’t have to be consistent. Some days I feel better than others. I used to worry that if I used the scooter one day, I couldn’t come in on just a cane the next. Or if I stood for the Torah service one week, I couldn’t sit down the next week. Guess what? No one gets to judge your disability, and you are not “faking” because you have a few good days.  Do what you need to do. If someone foolishly comments on it (“Oh! You are getting better!”) I generally say, “I have better and worse days. This is a pretty good one.”

*Readers, if you have different disabilities, but can offer suggestions on what you’ve done to more fully participate in parts of the service, I’d love to hear from you in the Comments. I can only speak from my own experience, and I’d very much like to learn from yours.





A Fragile Home


My body is a sukkah
A fragile home
It trembles and sways
But the beating heart endures.

Ufros aleinu sukat shelomecha
Shelter us with your peace
In these frail bodies
Shelter us with love
That anchors us to earth
Shelter us with knowledge
And wisdom
Shelter us


I am not going to be able to put up a sukkah this year, since I spent much of this past week in hospital. I am home now, recovering and thinking about the fragility of life.

The Inclusion Confession

I am reposting this vidui from Zeh LeZeh, the Ruderman Family Foundation blog, by permission of the writer. There are many reasons I am proud to call Rabbi Schorr my colleague, but none more than this prayer. If you are interested in Judaism and disability issues, I strongly recommend Zeh LeZeh (For One Another) as a wonderful source of learning.   – Rabbi Adar

By: Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

The central section of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the public confession known as the “viddui.” Originally patterned after the priestly narrative of Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16, the current iteration, with its poetic catalogue of sins, is the work of our rabbinic sages, who believed that the best way to have mastery over our behaviors is to recognize, name, and internalize our wrongdoings. Only then can we hope to overcome them. Following the traditional rubric, this new viddui is meant to help us recognize, name, and internalize the many ways we continue to exclude those in our community whose abilities differ from ours.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have  sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by failing to include every member of our community.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by making it difficult for those who are different to find their places in our synagogues, schools, and organizations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for thinking that we are doing all that we can.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by building ramps without widening doorframes.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for dedicating seats for those with mobility difficulties without constructing accessible bathrooms.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for installing assisted hearing devices and allowing speakers who believe themselves to have loud voices to speak without using the sound system

and for the sin that we have sinned before You for believing we are being inclusive when we don’t truly include all.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by using words to tear down rather than build up.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by not removing words from our vocabulary that are outdated, outmoded, and unacceptable.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for standing idly by while our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers use words like “retard” or “retarded” to describe a person or situation

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not speaking out when these words are  bandied about by rock stars, sports figures, and pop icons.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for staring at the child having the public tantrum and assuming he needs better discipline.

For the sin that we have sinned before You for judging that child’s mother rather than offering her a sympathetic glance.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by accommodating those with physical limitations while not making accommodations for those with developmental limitations

and for the sin that we have sinned before You by not providing support and respite for the parents and caregivers.

For all these, O God of mercy,

forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly; and for the sin we have sinned before You through the hardness of heart.

For the sin that we have sinned before You turning away from those who seem different.

For the sin that we have sinned before You by putting those who seem different into categories such as “less able” and “undesirable.”

For the sin that we have sinned before You for failing to recognize a piece of You in every soul.

For ALL these, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing author of The New Normal: Blogging Disability, and the editor of the CCAR Newsletter. Writing at her blog, This Messy Life, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Engage with her on Twitter!