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Finishing the Work

After wrestling with depression and mental illness, and blaming myself for the things I should have done better, I found words of wisdom from an ancient rabbi

Sandra Cohen
March 23, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, and the work is plentiful; the laborers are lazy, and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. He used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it. (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16)

For as long as I can remember, I have had a phrase running through my head: if I just tried harder.

If I just tried harder, I would get more done. I would still be working. I would have a career. I wouldn’t need so much sleep. I wouldn’t be depressed—or, if I was, I would power through it. If I just tried harder, I could have been a better mom, more available to my daughter. I could have walked the dog more often. I would have, I could have, I should have done all those things, if I had just been less selfish, less lazy. I should have tried harder.

I felt like this as a child and a teenager, in college and in rabbinical school. Sometimes, it worked: I powered through my depression and got A’s; I pretended I was fine, and became valedictorian. I smiled and wrote and interviewed, and received a prestigious graduate fellowship. I worked hard as a rabbi just out of school, until I went on bedrest during my pregnancy. Even then, I felt that somehow, I was at fault: Those contractions were something I was making happen, rather than an objective reality. I had severe post-partum depression, but worked my through it at my small, lovely pulpit. The place where my inner truth and my outer behavior met was with my daughter. My lovely, beautiful, perfect, fussy baby. She, I was sure, knew the truth: I was not cut out to be a mother. I was not good enough. I wasn’t trying hard enough. She cried and cried, and I could not soothe her. It was bad enough that I didn’t—couldn’t—nurse her. I couldn’t even comfort her.

Then came my stroke, at age 34. I was a young, apparently healthy woman, even if I was struggling with deep depression that no one could see. I was exercising, I was working, I was striving to mother. And suddenly, it all came crashing down. There were so many things I could no longer do, no matter how hard I tried. I was tired; I had a migraine; I was dizzy. My mental illnesses—depression, bipolar disorder—made everything so much worse. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t power through it. I became formally disabled: Both my disability insurance folks and the people at Social Security recognized it, and put me on disability. But internally, I knew better. I was just being lazy. I was pretending things were worse than they really were. I told myself, again, that I was just not trying hard enough.

How could I not see my disabilities? They were there, staring me in the face, wreaking havoc on my life. If I did too much one day, I was sick with migraines and dizziness and fatigue for the next two or three days. My body was crying out to me: “Settle down. Do less. Get rest.” But the insistent trope in my head made it hard for me to listen to that inner voice of wisdom. And, of course, the stroke made the mental illness worse as well, compounding my struggles. My depressions got deeper and longer, my manic moments more problematic. My suspicion of myself grew stronger in some ways. I had a long way to go to get to a place of trusting 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 need to stay in bed; other times, I haven’t slept well the night before and need to rest. But sometimes, I use those things as an excuse, or so it seems to me. My headache isn’t that bad—get up and move!

The reality is, sometimes, I just can’t emotionally. It is not the fault of those around me, friends who love me and would accept my down mood as a matter of course. But there are times when I am so depressed that I can’t get up and go. It feels just too hard.

And I think that accepting that feeling, acknowledging the moment and giving myself a break might (in theory) actually lead to fewer of those days. If I could name it—depression, anxiety, despair—and confess it to my friend while I am canceling on them … well, perhaps I could learn to hold those feelings, those moments, as real. To assert that my feelings matter, to me, to my family and friends. That they will not abandon me if I cancel because of my mental illness, instead of just my physical one. That they will still love me.

When I was a teen, I became involved in my synagogue’s youth group. It was there I first encountered Rabbi Tarfon, singing his passage about our “duty to finish the work” from Pirkei Avot—The Ethics of Our Fathers—to the tune by Kol B’Seder, along with a dining hall full of other Jewish students. What did we know then about the enormity of “the work” or the inability of any one of us completely fix the world? I was a passionate, idealistic young person, and I knew the first part of Rabbi Tarfon’s adage: that the work is large and that God is pressing 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 repair it. As I got married, had my child, had my stroke, I had to confront the other half of Rabbi Tarfon’s adage: No one can do it all. Not even in my small household or my small shul. There is simply too much work, and not enough time.

The older I get, the more I understand our inability to “finish the work” isn’t only due to the limits of our time and efforts. Rather, it is a question of our gifts and our deficits. Sitting at rabbinic conference, some eight years or so, I was listening to the speaker encouraging us to embrace our gift, our talents, our abilities. And something in my head clicked: I am not good at everything—and that is OK. I am a gifted teacher of adults, but not so good with kids, or even planning religious school curriculum. I am a good preacher, and I am gifted in pastoral care. I don’t, however, know much about fundraising or even social justice work. Rabbi Tarfon’s insight is that we can only complete the work together. It also means that this enormous task does not rest on each of us alone—and since that’s the case, it’s OK to give ourselves a break, a respite, a moment when we don’t finish the work that needs to be done. Sometimes, giving ourselves space to not do the work is, in itself, the work that needs to be done.

This past Sukkot, when my husband was out of town, my daughter and I were invited over for Shabbat, to sit with friends in their sukkah and rejoice in the festival. I checked with my daughter Shira about 10 days before, and we agreed that it sounded like fun. But as the evening approached, I was less and less certain I could do it. Midday that Friday, 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 up to socializing, especially with some of the guests I did not know well. I called Shira and told her. Instead of expressing her disappointment, she assured me that she would come home anyway; the two of us could celebrate together. And we did.

Both hosts of the dinner sent me notes saying they understood. They said they hoped I felt better soon, that they would miss me and we could try again at some other point. “We will miss you tonight,” my friend texted me. “Thinking of you and wish for healing.”

I kept that text on my phone. It reminds me that it is “safe” to tell people the truth. I can admit not just that I have a mental illness, but that the illness impacts 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 well.

Illness is illness: mental, physical, spiritual, a combination of those three. Sometimes, my illness(es) prevents me from doing things that, if I were well, I would want to do. Coming clean 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 need to concede that I actually can’t try any harder. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us all: There is too much to be done and no one can do it all. But it is good to try.

Rabbi Sandra Cohen works in mental health outreach in religious communities across North America, as well as teaching rabbinic texts in a variety of contexts from her home in Denver.