How are you? Three simple words used countlessly in our daily conversations. When do we feel comfortable enough, though, to reply, honestly? When do we have the time? And whom do we trust with our answer?
I’ve always been struck by the encounter between Moshe and his father-in-law, Yitro, in the Torah. Upon meeting, the Torah says, “And they asked after each other’s well being.” Basically, a biblical version of “how are you.” The Hebrew is more precise and poetic: va’yish’alu – and they asked, l’re’eyhu – to their neighbor, l’shalom – to peace. These three words resonate deeply when I think about what it means to be in relationship with people: a notion of inquiry, being deeply curious, friendship or shared experience, a belief in the commonality of all parties, and wholeness, seeking peace and comfort in each other’s well being.
Recently at my place of work, Base Hillel, we’ve tried answering this question of “how are you” with a bit more intentionality. “How You Feeling” is a support space for people in their 20s and 30s living with depression and anxiety to gather monthly and share emotional updates with one another. Some of us knew each other from before this gathering, some came as strangers, but over the months a community has formed.
We gather in a living room, and over tea each participant has a turn to share an article, a poem, or a piece of Torah to spark conversation or reflection. The latter half of our time is devoted to each person having the opportunity to share a personal update. Once the participant is done sharing, she says, “I have spoken” or “dibarti” (in Hebrew), to which the group replies, “Thank you for sharing.”
To some, this might feel too ritualized. Do we need a support space just to have a check in? Isn’t that what friends are for? Undoubtedly. And in Manhattan, when one in five New Yorkers struggles with depression or mental health, when just recently the New York Times reported that the suicide rate in our country is at a 30-year high, we need more intentional spaces to gather and express our humanity and vulnerability. For those of us who attend and participate, it provides a framework for which every participant can come and bring their full self, without judgment or fear.
As a rabbi, I feel it is important to break the barrier between the pulpit and the pews, to emphasize the collective wisdom in a room. Stigmas suffocate, too. I facilitate our support space but I also participate as someone who has had a history of depression. It has taken me time to come to a space of releasing my shame regarding this but I believe it is a necessary part of growth. As our daily liturgy reads, “And we will feel no shame for we trust in You.”
The Talmud teaches that thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague between Passover and Shavuot. That’s the period of time we find ourselves in now. The reason for the plague was attributed to the simple fact that Rabbi Akiba’s students did not treat each other with loving respect. This was the same Rabbi Akiva who taught that a great Torah principle was to love one’s neighbor as oneself. All of us – our communities, our leaders, ourselves – can remedy this oversight, be truer students of Rabbi Akiva, and ask with lovingkindness after each other’s mental wellness.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel, an organization that empowers pluralistic rabbis to turn their homes into meeting points for Jewish engagement. He is married to Yael Kornfeld, a geriatric social worker, and proud father to Ravi and Hillel.