After alphabetical columns on aging well, prescriptive portraits of some famous Jewish lives can model mental health.
Prescription 1. BE LIKE JOSEPH: Dream Big; Resilience; Forgive
Well before Freud, Joseph not only interpreted his own (prophetic) dreams, but after his brothers threw him into a pit of life, he reinterpreted them to include the role of God. That help led to successful resilience and the forgiveness of his family.
Prescription 2. BE LIKE MOSES: Keep Passions Burning
In our society of increasing burnout at work and home, we need to find supportive systems, communities, and people to keep our lights burning as brightly as the burning bush that didn’t burn out which Moses saw.
Prescription 3. BE LIKE HILLEL (the Elder): Self-Care; Care for Others
Hillel the Elder (the beginning of the CE), is famous for, among other things, this saying:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?”
It is hard to be mentally healthy if you are not concerned with your own well-being. Nevertheless, that is not enough for mental health. We now know that generosity is a major factor in being happy. As a people now suffering again from a rise in antisemitism, Hillel’s saying can be applied to put Anti-Semitism as our social justice priority, then to turn to the tikkun olam of helping others for, as is known, when antisemitism rises, other people are also inevitably harmed.
Prescription 4. BE LIKE MAIMONIDES: Religion; Psychiatry
Maimonides (circa 1135-1204) was both a rabbi and physician in Morocco and Egypt. He didn’t practice medicine until after the tragic death of his younger brother, after which he became clinically depressed. Coming to the insight that the mind and body were connected, he advocated that both rabbis and physicians, as instruments of God, had to administer to the “soul” with scientific expertise, such as using a kind of exposure therapy to reduce undue anxiety.
Prescription 5. BE LIKE FREUD: Think out-of-the-box
Freud’s (1856-1939) theories led to much of modern psychiatry. Though many have been disproved, his legacy is still immense. When usual remedies for psychological or social problems don’t work, such creative thinking is called for.
Prescription 6: BE LIKE ANNE: Write, Journal; Don’t Give Up Hope
Annelies Marie (“Anne”) Frank (1929-1945), experiencing the trauma of hiding from the Nazis and then dying in a concentration camp is, of course, not at all what we and our children want to model. Rather, it is her continuing hope as expressed in her journal, which was turned into a perennial best-selling book.
Prescription 7: BE LIKE VIKTOR FRANKL: Find Meaning for Your Life
After honoring his parents by not leaving Vienna, then surviving concentration camps, the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) wrote a book for the ages about finding meaning in his life, even there.
Prescription 8: BE LIKE GOLDA: Chutzpah; Love Israel; Self-Actualization
Golda Meir (1898-1975), from Milwaukee, became one of the still rare women leaders of a major country. She was known for her boldness in making life and death situations for Israel. With enough security, community support, and self-esteem, she reached the pinnacle of Abraham Maslow’s psychological needs, that of self-actualization.
Prescription 9: BE LIKE GROUCHO: Laugh It Up!
One of the Marx brothers, “Groucho” Marx was also one of the many famous Jewish comedians in America from the last century. It was as if they knew that laughter could be a therapeutic response to keep from crying.
Prescription 10: BE LIKE RICHARD ALPERT, aka, RAM DAS?: Be Here Now!
Remember him? Born Jewish, he became partners with Timothy Leary in the early use of macro doses of LSD, then later the spiritual guru Ram Das (1931-2019). Instead of “Let’s Get High”, his famous mantra became “Be Here Now”, the kind of focus that meditation is designed to help achieve. Now there is new research on the underground use of micro doses of psychedelics for mental wellness, which may even extend to antisemites.
After writing this, I saw the valuable article “How to Be Healthy, in Just 48 Words” in the NY Times. Since those words don’t directly relate to mental health, add on our 36 essential words and Jewish models for your body, mind, and spirit.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He is a regular contributor to the Chronicle.