Torah For Today: Mental health in sports

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Torah For Today: Mental health in sports

After top athletes Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles took time out due to mental health concerns, Rabbi Ariel Abel delves into Jewish texts for a response

Rabbi Ariel Abel

Rabbi Ariel Abel is based in Liverpool

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka, Ben Stokes, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are top sports professionals who have taken time out over mental health concerns. So, what does the Torah have to say about this?

Mental health governs concerns about the most serious institutions and important historical events in the Torah. The mental state of the Israelites on leaving Egypt was so paramount to God that they were taken on a roundabout way to avoid encountering the Philistines. 

Our ancestors were so mentally exhausted that engaging in battle with this fearsome enemy would have driven them straight back into the arms of the Pharaoh. 

Yom Kippur is a day of self-infliction that includes, for anyone over bar and batmitzvah age, deprivation of food and drink. However, that does not equate with self-harm. 

Proverbs proclaim: “Lev yodea marat nafsho”, literally, the bitterness of one’s spirit. 

This places mental health in a league of its own. The feelings of the individual as to whether they can bear hunger, or perhaps even the fulfilment of other mitzvot, even against doctors’ opinion is a valid discussion in the 20th century’s rabbinic responsa.

However positive it is to have ambition, one must take time out and not push oneself unhealthily to achieve.

Pharaoh infamously chided Moses, who campaigned for a three-day holiday for the Israelites to celebrate before God, telling him: “You are lazy, simply lazy, that is why you say, let us go and serve God!”

It is the little Pharaoh in us that threatens to push us beyond reasonable effort.

The principle of knowing when to desist from work pressures is embedded in our heritage’s guiding principles. 

As Maimonides points out regarding the observance of Shabbat, that when it comes to safeguarding the sanctity of life, it is better to render one Shabbat secular and not incur fatal injury; even Shabbat and Yom Kippur do not stand in the way of our health.

  •  Rabbi Ariel Abel is based in Liverpool

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