In the Darkness of Struggle, Temple Shines a Light

May 16, 2024 / 8 Iyyar, 5784

As I was preparing to be ordained a rabbi and interviewing for my first job, I visited a wonderful congregation where the rabbi had a sterling reputation as a gifted and wise leader of a dynamic community.

During a one-on-one conversation, the renowned rabbi said to me, “David, if we end up in a match, there is something I need you to know. I live with depression. There are days when I simply can’t get out of bed. That fact will be an element in your rabbinate here, and I want you to know it in advance.”

For unrelated reasons, I did not end up at that congregation, and (gratefully) came here to Dallas instead. But that rabbi’s candor and courage have always stuck with me. He recognized his depression for what it was: not a source of stigma or shame, but a painful disease that he lived with and that sometimes limited him. He could have just as easily been describing the debilitating effects of cancer or chemo or a severe heart condition.

Somewhere along the line, that rabbi had developed or received a blessing: the ability to speak his pain aloud. He had somehow realized that he was not alone, that he could seek help instead of remaining silent. He had learned that mental illness is not a failure or a character flaw.

But the truth is, that rabbi was an exception. Too often in our community, we reinforce taboos around mental illness instead of breaking them down, contribute to the silence instead of sharing our stories, and thereby deepen the isolation of people who are already feeling desperately alone.

But when we do share those stories — of addiction in our families, of post-partum depression, of growing up with a bipolar parent, of the days we can’t get out of bed — a whole new kind of awareness happens. “You have a teen who struggles with depression? Me too.” “You go to Al-Anon? Me too.” “You are an exhausted caregiver for someone who struggles with mental illness? Me too.” “You have known the devastation of a child’s suicide? Me too.”

Through our Shine the Light initiative, Temple Emanu-El is deeply and publicly committed to placing mental health awareness at the center of our pastoral work. We know that listening saves lives. We know that the sharing of resources bolsters hope. And we know that when suicide takes a loved one, an understanding community of love and care can help ease the pain of survivors and honor the memory of lives cut short too soon.

May is Mental Health Awareness month (Rabbi Robbins will be addressing these themes in her Shabbat sermon on May 10), but through the efforts of Shine the Light, we are working to make mental health awareness a daily concern at Temple. From parenting strategies to grief support groups to the most basic work of connecting people with similar stories, Shine the Light is sending the message every day that our congregants do not have to face these challenges alone. At the Shine the Light page on the Temple website,, you will find links to important resources in the Jewish and broader community for individuals and families confronting mental health challenges. Here at Temple, our clergy and pastoral team are present to provide listening and guidance.

In June, we will come to Parashat Beha’alotecha, and in it we will read Numbers 12:13. It is the prayer for healing Moses offers for his sister Miriam. With a grand total of ve Hebrew words, it is perhaps the most searing and visceral prayer in the Bible: El na refa na la — “Please God, heal her.” It is the prayer we have said for our children as they have struggled with addiction. It is the prayer we have said for our spouses when they rage in the darkness. It is the prayer we have said for ourselves, when it takes everything we have to get out of bed in the morning. It is the prayer we have offered for our friends when they are paralyzed by devastating loss. It is the prayer that we as a community strive to make manifest in word and deed, committed to providing strength and support for so many families who share this path.

May we be a place where people can speak their pain aloud. May we be a loving community that listens with courage and compassion. May we be a source of light to those who have struggled in the shadows. May we walk together on a new path of healing and hope.

Column by Rabbi David Stern, published in the May/June 2024 Window