Rabbi Cohen is well known for her involvement in national mental health outreach in the Jewish community using traditional Jewish values/ middot of compassion and respect as a model for reaching out to people with mental health issues. She is a determined advocate for those with mental illness and their families. She sees her work as both opening the topic and continuing the conversation. Here, she shares a feeling so many of us can relate to during this uncertain time—that of feeling unmoored—and the ways in which she\ copes.
The ribbons on my book, Talmud Bavli, Masechet B’rachot, fell off. There were two of them, one red, one blue, pasted to the inseam of the volume, so I could mark my place—my places, actually, since I learn this tractate with three different chavrutas, as well as having been through it twice in the Daf Yomi cycle, B’rachot being the first tractate in the Talmud. “Let’s start at the very beginning. . .“ “From what time does one say the evening Sh’ma?”
Because I am learning B’rachot with three different people, I had stopped exclusively using the ribbons as place markers; Post-its, it turns out, mark page and text well. My chavruta mostly do not know Aramaic, the language of much of the Talmud, and mine is a bit rusty (much better since beginning the Daf Yomi project, but probably not quite as good as my Hebrew and Aramaic were in rabbinical school). Therefore, the edition of the Talmud we are using is the Koren, which has the traditional version opening from the right, Hebrew style, and an annotated English version (with occasional pictures!) opening from the left. Sometimes, I would use my ribbons to mark the Hebrew daf; sometimes, they would mark an important explanation that we needed some pages later; other times, the blue ribbon would stay on a page with a puzzling picture: Did the editor think we could not imagine a donkey with saddlebags without an illustration?
And now, I have come unglued. Or, at least, my ribbons have. They lay across the white page of my journal, marking nothing. It seems right, somehow, that now is the moment they would lose their bearings, as it were, because, well, haven’t we all? Except for Shabbat, which I mark with candles, Kiddush, Motzi, Havdalah, it is hard to know what day it is. Morning runs into afternoon into sleep and morning again. I check my calendar anxiously, to make sure I haven’t missed an appointment. Is that meeting tomorrow, or this afternoon? I am trying to write a little every day. Am I יוצא (yotzei) having fulfilled today’s obligation, or was it yesterday I fulfilled it?? I think of my ancestors, who marked time by the dawn, by the stars, by the phases of the moon. How did, I, with my Google Calendar and clock on my phone, get so lost in space and time?
It’s not that I don’t have some standing appointments. Somehow, however, it’s not the same as having them in person. My weekly lunch date with a friend has become an occasional picnic on her front porch, carefully distanced, floating from day to day, depending on the week and our schedules; it no longer shows up as a “repeat weekly” on my phone. We have to seek each other out, this friend and others. I plan walks “with” friends, each of us on the phone, in the early mornings before it gets too hot. I hear the traffic in their neighborhoods, while they hear me going up and down the hills in mine. It is not the same as exercising together in person, deciding to take one more lap around the park as we hash out the problems in our lives and in the world, but it is something.
My therapist, who is still a regular appointment, baruch HaShem, appears to me on FaceTime from her kitchen or backyard, looking slightly more casual, but still there. I have finally figured out how to place a tissue or sock over the small image of myself in the corner of screen; it’s well-nigh impossible to do therapy while looking at myself. But teletherapy is still odd, different. The silences which are so normal, so important, so rich in a therapy session feel even more awkward on screen. The focus feels strange: on the one hand, my room, my home is filled with distractions from therapy and our relationship, making it hard to go deep into whatever I am wrestling with; on the other hand, having the screen filled with my therapist’s shoulders and head makes me realize how much time I spend looking at her knees during a typical session—a way of being with her, but not too intensely as I struggle with difficult material. And still. I lose track of time and days: Am I seeing her tomorrow? Or was that yesterday? And what is there left to talk about? The silence grows. A new way of coming unglued—I feel less connected to her, and that frightens me.
My chavrutas connect me, however. We check in with one another, some more deeply than others. Over the years, we have learned one another as well as B’rachot. “You say you are fine, but you don’t sound fine,” one of us might say to the other. או חברותא או מתותא (o chavruta o m’tutah), the rabbis taught: friendship/companionship or death. We argue and push and pull, laugh and wonder and struggle over the daf in front of us. What were the rabbis thinking? How does this prooftext possibly prove anything? What is the connection between the daf and our practice today? And underneath, before, and after, we hold one another with a Torah of presence: I am here for you. Sometimes we use words; sometimes, just this gentle “holding” is enough to give each other strength.
So, these are the people in my life to ask “Where am I?” I have come unglued. I have lost my “place,” not just in the Talmud, but in my life right now. Where am I?
My enormous whiteboard looms large and colorful in my room; I am storyboarding my book in different-colored dry-erase markers. The ideas are flowing well, and I am frightened: I seem to be committing myself to actually writing a book. It has moved—no, I am moving it—from theory to possibility to something I can see myself doing. How did this happen? Who am I to write a book?
This is where I am—and I’m coming unglued. Am I crazy to think I can do this? My mind is running away…
And my circle of people responds: Here is where you are. At the beginning of the process of writing a book. We believe in you.
You play bridge with us and take virtual walks with us, say my friends.
You listen to us and make us feel heard and loved. That is where you are.
Your place is beginning chapter 6, says my chavruta. Or page 124.
Your place is inside yourself, says my therapist. It’s okay.
And all respond: Breathe. We believe in you. In your project. In your book. In you.
Perhaps the ribbons will mark new space—in my book, about mental illness and Judaism, and about me becoming unglued.
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.