The third Monday in January was designated “Blue Monday” by a holiday company in 2005 and has since caught the attention of the public for being the most depressing day of the year. Not only was this nonsensical pseudoscience, it was supposed to encourage people to book their holiday early to have something to look forward to.
Behind the fake news and the spin is a serious issue. Depression is recorded since Biblical times. The Psalmist asks: “Why are you cast down my soul, and why do you moan within me?”
Despair and a sense of isolation permeates our narrative, and no one is immune. Moses, David, Elijah – they are all weighed down and despondent at times.
Talmud engages with the problem, initially deciding that suffering is also a sign of God’s love, allowing us
a different relationship with the divine, but immediately subverting this idea with stories of great rabbis.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba fell ill. His teacher Rabbi Yohanan visited him and asked: “Is your suffering dear to you?” Hiyya replied: “Neither this suffering nor its reward.”
Yohanan said: “Give me your hand.” He gave him his hand, and Yohanan helped him rise.
Later, when Yohanan fell ill and his student, Rabbi Hanina, visited, he asked the same question and received the same reply given by Hiyya. Hanina asked for Yonahan’s hand and helped him to rise.
Talmud asks now why did Yohanan wait for Hanina, given he could heal his student Hiyya? And the answer is powerful: “A prisoner cannot free themselves from prison.”
Suffering is never desirable, even if it potentially opens a door to God. From this comes the idea sometimes found in the Jewish community that it is a mitzvah to be happy, that we should never reveal depressive feelings.
But our tradition teaches that we need other people to help us out of our despair, and for this help we have to share how we feel. The stigma of mental ill health exists in our communities as it does in the wider world, something many are trying
But maybe the idea of a Blue Monday, reminding us of everyone’s need for hope in dark times, will enable us to proffer a hand to our anguished fellows, even if we don’t book the holiday its originators hoped for.
- Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years