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Malchuyot & Zichronot: Rosh Hashanah reflections by Stephen Lurie & Ellen Bialystok

15/11/2016 11:08:06 AM


Malchuyot, by Stephen Lurie

These days on the internet you can find an abundance of information - for example, controversy about where to place the Malchuyot blessing, its combination with Zichronot and whether it occurs on Rosh Hashana only or on Yom Kippur if it is a jubilee fast day.

I will leave this subject to Rabbi Tina and other scholars, but do want to thank her for asking Ellen and I to use Malchuyot and Zichronot to reflect on our life’s work which led to us receiving the Order of Canada. I also want to thank Darchei Noam for your support and recognition of our achievements.

I should note that we have each been allotted 10 minutes, 10 being an important number in Jewish tradition - and also that we know that we are the only things besides the shofar blowing standing between you and lunch.

Also on the internet, there are sites that deal with Judaism and mental illness. One in particular is Coffee Shop Rabbi by Rabbi Ruth Adar, herself a person living with depression and PTSD. It provides both her perspectives and posts from people in the Jewish community living with mental illness, themselves or in their families.

Her website opens with a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Braslav: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, the important thing is not to panic…”

Contrast this with the following quotation from More for the Mind, a report on the sad state of mental health services in Canada, published in 1963:

“In no other field except perhaps leprosy has there been as much confusion, misdirection and discrimination against the patient as in mental illness. Control of the mentally ill has been regarded as the responsibility of the priests, the judges, the physicians, the philosophers, private charity and the state. Mentally ill patients have been lodged in jails, poor houses, hospitals, monasteries and pest houses. Mental illness, even today, is all too often considered a crime to be punished, a sin to be expiated, a possessing demon to be exorcised, a disgrace to be hushed up, a personality weakness to be deplored or a welfare problem to be handled as cheaply as possible.”

While there have been advances since 1963, many would say that access to mental health care and housing for homeless people living with mental health and addiction problems is still a problem in Canada. There are 520,000 people living with mental illness or substance abuse problems who are homeless or precariously housed - about the population of Hamilton.  Here in Toronto, the waitlist is north of 12,000 and wait times are up to six years.

While mental illness accounts for 13% of disease burden, it gets 5-7% of health spending. In fact, in Ontario, the mental health share of provincial spending has declined to 6.3% from 11.3% in 1979. Even though the burden as estimated by ICES is 1.5x that of heart disease or cancer and 7x infectious disease, we suffer from implementation deficit disorder. There have been numerous reports published in the last 30 years calling for reform and more resources, but other areas of health care have received much more attention. Why?

We know that 1 in 5 Canadians experience mental health problems each year, and by the time we are 40, 50% of us will have experienced a mental health or addiction problem. We know these issues affect ourselves, our friends and family.

Dr. Heather Stuart of Queens University suggests this is a manifestation of structural stigma and discrimination. Last week on a panel, Ruth Payne told the story of her husband’s struggles with heart disease and depression and said, “the care just isn’t there.”

Paradoxically we now have more knowledge about what works than ever before, CBT for depression and anxiety, Housing First for homelessness, Early Psychosis Intervention and many other services and supports. We just need to scale these services up.

The provinces and the federal government are now negotiating a new Health Accord. This is a once in a generation opportunity to improve access to mental health and addiction services. You can help by letting federal and provincial politicians know you support improving access to mental health care. In fact, a Nanos poll done last year confirmed that 90% of Canadians support more funding for mental health.

Rabbi Ruth’s website notes that all human beings, sick or well, deserve to be treated with respect and that, in our traditional prayer for healing, we pray for the healing of spirit and the healing of the body.

Maimonides notes that there are sick souls who do not recognize their illness, but without treatment, the person will undoubtedly perish.

So both Jewish tradition, history and our current environment suggest that we all have a stake in seeing that access to mental health care improves.

Shana Tova


Zichronot, by Ellen Bialystok

Zichronot, Remembrance, is the second of three themes in the shofar service. The verses describe remembrance in terms of God’s benevolent acts that followed from remembering: God remembered Noah, God remembered the covenant with Abraham, God remembered Sarah, and so on. For God, remembering and acting were the same. This legacy transfers to us as a single command: Remember!

This directive to remember is pervasive in our lives:

Remember the Sabbath
Remember the Holocaust
Remember the Alamo
Remember the milk.
Remember to remember.

Why is remembering so important? Our memories don’t save lives, as God’s remembering did for Noah, or impart fertility, as it did for Sarah. So what does it mean for humans to remember? Without memory, we would not be human and we would not be individual. Human memory separates us from all other animals, and our individual memory separates us from all other humans. Our personal memory is the repository that tells the story of our lives. It is our unique answer to the most fundamental question of existence: Who am I in the world? Memory is precious.

I have been interested in memory for most of my career as a cognitive psychologist. It’s difficult to separate what you study from who you are, so memory is somehow always on my mind. Scientists know a lot about memory. We know which parts of the brain are used when we store a new memory (mostly the hippocampus), which parts when we retrieve an old memory (most of the brain). We know which things are easier to remember (salient ones) and which parts of a list get forgotten (the middle). We know that we often remember things implicitly even when we cannot articulate them. And yet memory remains a mystery.

What we know with certainty is that memory is critically flawed, notoriously unreliable, and frighteningly fragile. Whole memories are lost, others are confused, and still others are manufactured from events that never happened. Ironically, the more vivid detail we claim to remember, the more likely it is that the memory is false. Defense attorneys beware! Often what we believe we remember with certainty is not accurate. And in some cases, we (perhaps unconsciously) create a memory to serve as our version of the truth – a “constructed memory” to cover up a past we might prefer had been different.

And yet our greatest fear is that we might lose our memory. How do we reconcile these conflicting ideas about memory? Why trust our memories? Why implore others to remember, to put faith in such a defective system? Because, in a deep way, I believe that memory holds the truth about who we are. Even from dementia sometimes emerges the most raw truths that our constructed memories had tried to hide. I don’t mean the fraudulent claims of “recovered memory”, long ago debunked as scientifically invalid. I mean what happens when these constructed memories that we had taped over the truth, like all band-aids, become unglued.

Two examples:

At my daughter’s bat mitzvah many years ago, I carefully seated my two aunts on different sides of the room. The sisters, embroiled in some ridiculous animosity, had not spoken to each other in years. And now, both in early stage dementia, they came to celebrate my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I froze the moment I saw them both walk into the room, separately, but at the same moment. Their eyes locked. They stared. And then… they fell into each other’s arms. “My sister!”, one of them exclaimed. They forgot that they hated each other. They only remembered they were sisters. That night, for the first time in more than a decade and for the last time in their lives, they sat together, as sisters, joined by memory of who they truly were.

The second story is about my friend Agata Tuszynska, who was born in Warsaw just after the war. Her mother made a decision to rewrite her personal memory tape and did not tell her new daughter that she was Jewish. Agata did not learn the truth about her Jewish identity until she was 19, but still her mother spoke little about the past. In recent months, Agata’s mother has become ill and may be dying. A few weeks ago, she slipped into dementia, and just last week was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And now she talks only about the ghetto. About the cyanide capsule sewn into her pocket, about the struggle for food, about the horror. Ungluing and dangerously exposing what had been kept hidden: her true identity.

So maybe our memories don’t lie. In our mahzor there is a quote from Moses Maimonides: “Remember what is true.” Perhaps we can add: Remember what is important. I work in a business that is competitive, ego absorbing, and sometimes requires much passion just to keep going. Academia can be a blood sport. We academics carry deep grudges and rewrite personal narratives in our own interest: many constructed memories get taped over true memories. In the frenetic pace of a busy life, memory has a major role in creating, changing, and sometimes concealing the ongoing narrative, yet it is the memory we hold on to. But this is destructive. We need to shed those taped-over constructed memories to “remember what is true” and focus on what is important. Maybe a reason we are told to remember is so we can make good decisions about action, something like a yearly cleanout of the basement, separating what is real and precious and must be kept from what should be discarded. Remembrance tied to action, as we saw, “God remembered Noah,” comes closer to divine memory, so remembering true memories is a precondition for tikkun olam. This is my personal commitment for this new year. Our constructed memories, the details of our lives as we perceive them, the slights and offenses we have given and received, the successes we have achieved and the failures we have endured all distract us but they are dispensable. These are the memories that are lost with dementia. But under them is a deeper and more enduring memory that contains the truth about who we are, where we came from, and what we can be. I believe that this is the kind of Remembrance in which we are asked to engage on this day.

Shana tova

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781