Finishing the Job – Tablet Magazine
Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is abundant; the workers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the master of the house insists. He used to say: It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to neglect it. (Pirkei Avot 4:15-16)
As far as I can remember, I have a phrase that runs through my head: if I tried harder.
If I tried harder, I would do more. I would still work. I would have a career. I wouldn’t need so much sleep. I wouldn’t be depressed – or, if I was, I’d be fine. If I had tried harder, I could have been a better mother, more available to my daughter. I could have walked the dog more often. I would have, I could have, I should would have done all these things, if only I had been less selfish, less lazy. I should have tried harder.
I felt like that when I was a kid and a teenager, in middle school and in rabbinical school. Sometimes it worked: I got through my depression and got A’s; I pretended to be fine and became valedictorian. I smiled, wrote and interviewed, and received a prestigious graduate scholarship. I worked hard as a rabbi right out of school, until I was bedridden during my pregnancy. Even then, I felt that somehow I was at fault: these contractions were something I was causing, rather than an objective reality. I had severe postpartum depression, but I worked on my lovely little desk. The place where my inner truth and my outer behavior met was in my daughter. My adorable, beautiful, perfect and difficult baby. She, I was sure, knew the truth: I was not cut out to be a mother. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t trying hard enough. She cried and cried, and I couldn’t calm her down. It was bad enough that I couldn’t – couldn’t – breastfeed her. I couldn’t even comfort her.
Then came my stroke, at age 34. I was a seemingly healthy young woman, although I was battling a deep depression that no one could see. I exercised, I worked, I tried to be a mother. And suddenly everything fell apart. There were so many things I couldn’t do anymore, no matter how hard I tried. I was tired; I had a migraine; I was dazed. My mental illnesses – depression, bipolar disorder – made everything worse. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t get out of it. I became officially disabled: my colleagues from the disability insurance and the social security people recognized it and put me on disability. But inside, I knew better. I was just lazy. I pretended that things were worse than they really were. I told myself, again, that I wasn’t trying hard enough.
How can I not see my handicaps? They were there, staring me in the face, wreaking havoc in my life. If I overdid it one day, I had headaches, dizziness, and fatigue for the next two or three days. My body was screaming at me, “Calm down. Do less. Rest.” But the insistent trope in my head kept me from listening to that inner voice of wisdom. And, of course, the stroke also compounded the mental illness, compounding my struggles. longer, my manic moments more problematic. My self-distrust has deepened in some ways. I had a long way to go to get to a place of trust in my experience.
Even now, 20 years later, there are mornings when I wake up and think: I just can’t. Sometimes I have a headache and I need to stay in bed; other times I didn’t sleep well the night before and need to rest. But sometimes I use these things as an excuse, or so it seems to me. My headache isn’t that bad, get up and move!
The reality is that sometimes I come can not emotionally. It’s not the fault of those around me, friends who love me and would take my bad mood for granted. But there are times when I get so depressed that I can’t get up and leave. It’s too hard.
And I think accepting that feeling, acknowledging the moment, and giving myself a break could (in theory) lead to fewer of those days. If I could name it – depression, anxiety, hopelessness – and confess it to my friend while I canceled them… well, maybe I could learn to see those feelings, those moments, as real. To affirm that my feelings matter, to me, to my family and friends. That they won’t let me down if I cancel because of my mental illness, instead of just my physical illness. That they will still love me.
When I was a teenager, I got involved in my synagogue’s youth group. It was there that I first met Rabbi Tarfon, singing his passage about our “duty to finish the job” of Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Fathers—to the tune of Kol B’Seder, as well as a dining hall full of other Jewish students. What did we know then of the enormity “work” or the inability of any of us to completely fix the world? I was a passionate, idealistic young man, and I knew the first part of Rabbi Tarfon’s adage: that work is great and God urges us to do it. In high school, college, even rabbinical school, the idealistic part of me believed in my power to change the world, to fix it. When I got married, had my child, had my stroke, I had to face the other half of Rabbi Tarfon’s adage: No one can do everything. Not even in my little house or my little shul. There is simply too much work and not enough time.
The older I get, the more I understand that our inability to “finish the job” is not just due to the limits of our time and effort. It is rather a question of our donations and our deficits. Sitting in the rabbinical conference, about eight years old, I listened to the speaker encourage us to embrace our gift, our talents, our abilities. And something in my head clicked: I’m not good at everything, and that’s normal. I am a gifted teacher for adults, but not so good with children, or even planning a religious school curriculum. I am a good preacher and I am good at pastoral work. However, I don’t know much about fundraising or even social justice work. Rabbi Tarfon’s insight is that we can only finish the job together. It also means that this enormous task does not rest on each of us alone and since that is the case, there is no harm in giving ourselves a break, a respite, a moment when we do not finish the work that needs to be done. Sometimes giving yourself space to not do the work is, in and of itself, the work that needs to be done.
This past Sukkot, when my husband was out of town, my daughter and I were invited for Shabbat, to sit with friends in their sukkah and rejoice in the feast. I checked with my daughter Shira about 10 days before and we agreed it sounded like fun. But as the evening approached, I was less and less certain of succeeding. This Friday noon, I contacted my friend. Instead of making up or exaggerating a migraine, I told her and her husband the plain truth: I was depressed and not ready to socialize, especially with some of the guests I didn’t know well. I called Shira and told her. Instead of expressing her disappointment, she assured me that she would come back anyway; we could both celebrate together. And we did.
Both dinner hosts sent me notes saying they understood. They said they hoped I would feel better soon, that they would miss me and that we could try again some other time. “We will miss you tonight,” texted me. “I am thinking of you and wishing for recovery.”
I saved this text on my phone. It reminds me that it is “safe” to tell people the truth. I can admit not only that I have a mental illness, but that the illness has an impact on my life. I wouldn’t go to a friend’s house if I have COVID-19, or strep throat, for that matter. And no one would blame me. They would just wish me luck.
Illness is an illness: mental, physical, spiritual, a combination of all three. Sometimes my illness(es) prevent me from doing things that, if I was well, I would like to do. Being honest with my friends and with myself is an important part of healing.
There are times when I try harder and it works. And there are times when I have to admit that I can’t try harder. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us: There is too much to do and no one can do it all. But it’s good to try.