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Emor: Looking for Deeper Reasons

05/16/2022 03:10:27 PM


Rabbi Ezray

This week’s 60 Minutes episode told the story of eleven-year-old Austin Bruenger, a fifth grader at Roosevelt Elementary School in Milwaukee. He reminded me of some of the kids here; sweet, fun and bright. He shared the story that as a nine-year-old, when the pandemic hit, he initially thought that some time off of school would be great. But as the weeks passed with remote learning, his disconnect with friends combined with the news that his parents were getting a divorce caused him to sink into depression. His mom recalls a moment when he was on the floor kicking and punching the air, unable to find the words to describe why he was so upset, why it felt like the world was closing in on him. Isolated, he began to interact less with his family and withdrew into himself.  He was 9 years old and shared with his mom he was having suicidal thoughts. His mom called the pediatrician, who referred her to outpatient therapists and in-patient psychiatric programs only to be told there were long waiting lists and no beds.

We have a mental health crisis in our nation and people desperate for help are being turned away. The 60 Minutes episode focused on some communities addressing the problem in innovative ways. We need to be talking about this. We need to look deeply at mental health for our kids and ourselves. The pandemic exacerbated what already exists in our country.  Let’s look at deeper causes and begin to think about what we can do.

The ethic of looking at causes of problems comes in an interesting and haunting story of in our Torah portion. It is a story that at face value is uncomfortable, but as you interpret it, you emerge with the imperative to ask, “Why did this happen?” and, “What can we do about it?”

Let’s look at the story (Leviticus 24:10-16). Listen carefully to the details; it is from those details that Midrash jumps. We learn that the man, who is not named, had a mother who was an Israelite and a father who was Egyptian. A fight broke out in the camp between the half- Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [of God] in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses. Then, for some reason, the text gives the name of his mother: Shlomit, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan. The man was put in custody and then God revealed that the community should stone him to death.

Midrash comes to fill in the gaps of the story. Using the curious details, the Midrash weaves stories around the story. It suggests why the fight happens and links it to the man being half-Jewish and half-Egyptian. It imagines the man seeking to pitch his tent with the tribe of Dan, the tribe of his mother. At that point, the Israelites camped tribe by tribe. The Midrash pictures that when the man sought to pitch his tent with them, they told him he couldn’t; tribal lineage comes from the father’s line and his father was Egyptian. He was stung as he was told he did not belong. It was in the context of that rejection that the man blasphemed.  This Midrash turns the blasphemer into a more sympathetic character by giving a back story. His anger and the inexcusable act of cursing God is rooted in being rejected, identified only as the son of an Egyptian, rather than simply another Israelite. The Midrash seeks to understand his anger and pain, not to justify his act, showing us how to avoid similar acts in the future. When someone is shunned and excluded, they lash out. If the man had been treated differently, the painful outcome might not have occurred.

          Midrash leads us to seek the roots of behavior and to ask the question, “Why are people behaving as they are?” It leads us to this moment in time when we see so many, particularly children, suffering with mental health issues and we ask, “What is happening in our society that is causing this reality? What can we do about it?

          We can certainly point to the pandemic, isolation, and not being in school as pieces of the problems. But this problem has been around for a while. A recent New York Times article teaches that over the last three decades, the major health crises facing US adolescents have shifted dramatically; teenage pregnancy, alcohol, cigarette, and drug use have fallen, while anxiety, depression, suicide, and self-harm have soared. In 2019, before the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report noting that, “Mental health disorders have surpassed physical conditions,” as the most common issues causing, “impairment and limitations,” among adolescents. 

Certainly, the pandemic has intensified the problem. We have lost over two years; two years of socialization, two years of education, two years of their worlds being turned upside down. Isolation has taken its toll, all of this in the context of a pre-existing crisis.

It has brought forth the real issue of insufficient mental health care. There is story after story of people desperate for help being put on waiting lists. The average wait time to get an appointment with a therapist across the country is 48 days, and to see a psychiatrist it is even longer. The trusted therapists and psychiatrists I turn to are all booked up and feel bad they cannot help more. This crisis crosses socio-economic, racial, and religious lines. The kids are from urban, rural, and suburban homes. They are rich and poor.

          Community doctors and emergency rooms routinely deal with complex psychiatric issues they are not equipped to deal with. Dr. David Lohr, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Louisville said, “There’s a need and nowhere else to go.” It is what Austin’s mother encountered.  

The causes of this crisis are not fully understood. In the Times article, they write: “Experts point to many possible factors. Lifestyle changes have led to declines in sleep, physical activity, and other healthful activities among adolescents. This generation professes to feeling particularly lonely, a major factor in depression and suicide. Social media is often blamed for these changes, but there is a shortage of data establishing it firmly as a cause.”

          Humbly, knowing this is a complicated issue, let’s devote our time and energy, and turn our hearts to one another. Let’s start to talk about it without shame or blame and call it the crisis that it is. 

          The 60 Minutes episode showed some promising developments. Some ER’s and pediatric offices now do mental health screenings and catch the young people who are in crisis and need help when no one has seen it. They give them support on the spot and create a plan with the families with actionable things to do while making plans for the next steps.

The episode shared what is happening in Wisconsin and is also happening here; there has been a growth of pediatric clinics that have incorporated full-time therapists inside their offices. The patient’s pediatrician and therapist work as a team to discuss the patient and family together and to bounce ideas off each other. Let’s advocate for this level of patient care. 

A piece of what mental health experts teach is to turn off screens and go outside; the healing power of connection to one another and nature. And faith can also provide spirit, community, care, and places where you can be vulnerable and accepted.   

There is so much to do: advocating for sufficient support staff for our schools that can screen and help treat at risk students, support for mental health services in general. It begins with the question the Midrash sought to address in the story of the blasphemer: Why is this happening? What can we do? 

It begins with opening our eyes to the problem that is real. Austin was fortunate to find a therapist and is doing much better. When asked in the 60 Minutes episode why he agreed to talk about such a painful part of his life, Austin said: “Because the world needs to, the world needs to know. Mental health and stuff like that needs to be treated, or bad stuff could happen. If you're going through that by yourself, try and contact someone you know, like your friend, your family.”  The interviewer added, “Talk about it.” And Austin responded, “Yes.”  Let’s talk about it and know that there are people here, your clergy and many in our community, who care deeply.

Thu, September 29 2022 4 Tishrei 5783