Tomorrow night marks the beginning of Passover. I am certain that most of us will be keenly aware that this seder will be the second time we hold our Seders during the Pandemic. Once again many of us are not able to join loved ones in person this year. The year has taken a very heavy toll on us all. During the pandemic, 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, up from one in ten before the pandemic. There has been an increase in the number of people reporting difficulty sleeping, focusing, working, and learning. Consumption of alcohol and other drugs as well as overeating has increased. There has been an overall worsening of chronic medical conditions due to the worry and stress of the coronavirus and the social isolation as a result of it.
Therefore, I was intrigued when I came across “The Mental Health Seder Plate”, an interpretation of the Seder plate put out by the Blue Dove Foundation. The Blue Dove Foundation, based in Atlanta, was created three years ago to help address the problems of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community and beyond.
For example, the Zeroah, or shankbone on our seder plate, has traditionally represented the “outstretched arm” through which G-d brought us out of Egypt. But it can be a reminder as well that at different times in our lives we are all in need of “an outstretched arm”. We need to remember that it is OK to accept help when it is offered to us. When we are in a better place, we can then extend our own arms to help others.
The egg on our seder plate traditionally represents one of the sacrifices made in the Temple on Passover during ancient times. They highlighted an interesting thing about the egg. The longer it is cooked, the harder it gets! So too, we need not be weakened by the flames of adversity. We too can be resilient. In our struggle to overcome, we can become even stronger.
The karpas, or parsley, represents the Spring and birth and growth. However, we dip the parsley in salt water, the symbol of tears. For us, it is a reminder that birth and growth are often accompanied by struggle and pain. Giving birth certainly involves pain – and raising a family involves pain as well. In fact, the traditional term in Yiddish for raising children is “Tsaar Gidul Banim” – literally, “the sorrow of raising children.” In order to experience the joys of parenthood, of seeing our children grow, we must inevitably endure the sorrows as well.
We eat the bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. This teaches us the importance of remembering the bitter times in our lives, as well as the sweet. We should not simply forget our personal struggles. Rather, there is a time and place to look at them directly and remember them. We have much to learn from the hardships and misfortunes in life.
The Charoset, of course, represents the bricks and mortar that our ancestors used when they were slaves in Egypt. It is also sweet to the taste. From a mental health point of view, the Charoset represents the hard work that goes into building a productive life; the sweetness the freedom that we can achieve from that very work. It is a reminder that when we feel hemmed in by our life circumstances we can be active participants in our own lives and work change the things in our life that we do not like.
Despite our society becoming more enlightened and compassionate about mental health issues, there is still much we need to do. We often act as if anxiety, depression, addiction and other reactions to the stresses of life are some kind of peculiar afflictions that can be addressed by toughing it out, straightening ourselves up, putting our mind to it, and hiding it from others. Let our seder plate be a reminder to us that there is no shame in reaching out and getting help. That we can be strong in the broken places. That growth often involves pain, but it can lead us out of the narrow places we find ourselves, out of our own personal Egypt, and into freedom.