It’s supposed to be a bad sign if it rains on Sukkot, the Jewish festival we’re partway through. This is because we eat (and sleep, if you’re brave) in thatched huts in the garden to remember the Israelites living in portable huts in the wilderness. So if it rains and we can’t do that, so it’s a sign of Divine displeasure. I think this probably only applies in Israel, as rain at this time of year is rare there. Unlike here in the UK, where it’s been raining quite a bit (my family in Israel were too hot to go outdoors…).
It’s tempting to use that to segue into the story of my last two days, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. There were some not-so-good things, and those are uppermost in my mind at the moment for reasons that will become obvious, but I can see objectively that there were good things too. For a change, I will do this topically rather than chronologically.
Shul (synagogue): I got to shul quite a lot: both evenings and this morning (I was about twenty minutes late this morning, on time for the others). The services were OK, although I was clock-watching after a while this morning, which may have been more to do with anxiety about having guests for lunch afterwards (see below). I did struggle with the shiurim (religious classes) between Mincha and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Service) both days. They were halakhic (Jewish law-focused) and somewhat triggering of my religious OCD in terms of making me worry that we were not fulfilling the festival laws properly. Moreover, seeing so many people from the community engaging with the discussion and answering questions while I felt confused and unable to follow the argument made me feel that I just can’t engage with perhaps the most important area of religious practice for an Orthodox Jewish man: Talmudic and halakhic study. I realised Torah as taught at a high level for men is largely left-brain/logical (Talmudic and halakhah) not right-brain/creative. I need the creative aggadic (narrative) side. This is often neglected. Although to be fair, the shiur I go to on Thursdays is less halakhic, but I don’t participate as much as I could due to lack of confidence. I felt like the shiurim told me how to fulfil the mitzvot (commandments) of Sukkot, but didn’t explore why we do these specific things, the symbolism and meaning. Although, if they had done that, they probably would have gone for a kabbalistic (Jewish mysticism) approach that I would find equally problematic…
I was left feeling that I will never feel useful in my community. I’m too scared to lead davening (lead the service), if they even ask me again, and I can’t do Talmudic and halakhic study (when I came in for Mincha someone was sitting at the table with three Hebrew-only books open, tracing some arcane point of halakhah, and he’s not even one of the people I have down as a really good scholar!). I am hoping to write a devar Torah (essay on the weekly Torah reading) for later in the year, if I can manage it and if they still have the slot open to anyone (the same guy writes it each week, but I think that’s because no one else volunteers rather than because he really wants to write 1,000 words every week).
Mum said I should focus on the positive, saying I connect to God in my shul, but I don’t really. I don’t really connect to God anywhere at the moment. I just like my shul because there’s no talking and not much chazzanut (cantorial singing) and the people are nice.
Sukkah (sitting in the hut in the garden): this was pretty successful. We had dinner out there on the first night, which is the most important meal of the holiday to have there. I had kiddush (the blessing over wine and snacks before lunch) on the first day, but then it started raining and we had to eat lunch inside; it actually stopped raining, but my parents didn’t want to go out and I didn’t argue as the rabbi had said that if you go inside because of the weather you don’t have to come out if it stops raining, although I wasn’t sure that applied as technically we hadn’t started lunch itself when the rain stopped. We had most of dinner last night, hurriedly coming in when the heavens opened towards the end of the main course. And we had lunch out there today. So, a reasonable success there.
Mental health: not so good. As mentioned above, I had some religious OCD regarding the sukkah and the arbah minim (branches and a really expensive citrus fruit held and shaken during the Sukkot shul services), worrying that I wasn’t following the laws properly. That was partly due to the shiurim, but probably mostly due to myself. This was disappointing, as the religious OCD has been under control lately. There was quite a bit of depression, which was partly a result of the OCD, but maybe a cause of it too.
On Monday evening after dinner I lay down on my bed in semi-darkness for a long time, unable to move or do anything. I was somewhat similar today after lunch, albeit with a more obvious cause (see below). I wonder if this was an autistic shutdown. I’ve mentioned that my autism was not diagnosed for a long time (technically is still undiagnosed) and one of the reasons is an absence of some traits, such as meltdowns (overloaded, emotional responses to sensory and/or emotional overload). I don’t really understand shutdowns as well as meltdowns and they seem to be less accepted as legitimate autistic behaviour, but they do seem to suit my behavioural pattern better, but it could just be depression. It’s sometimes hard to see where one of my issues ends and another begins.
Social: we had our neighbours over for lunch today. I don’t really know them well, although I’ve known them for a number of years. Some time ago my Dad wanted to set me up with their daughter (who also came today), which made the whole situation feel more awkward to me, as I don’t think she’s interested in me at all. I coped, but I largely found the conversation overwhelming: loud and uninteresting (neurotypical small talk). As I said, I had a bit of a shutdown afterwards and didn’t really get time to recover before shul and the shiur that left me feeling bad, which may have been strategically unwise, although I would have had to go to shul anyway as my tallit and machzor (prayershawl and festival prayer book) were still there. I upset my parents by coming home from shul in a bit of a state and snapping at them. Mum said they don’t like it when I come home from shul beating myself up, so now I’m beating myself up even more for upsetting them and beating myself up.
Sigh. Sukkot is also known as Zman Simchateinu, the Time of our Joy. It’s supposed to be the most joyous Jewish festival. I could see the depression trap there a mile off, but I still kind of fell into it. I tried to focus on the halakhic definition of joy, but that didn’t really work either. Eating meat and wine – I don’t like meat much and I don’t drink alcohol because it’s a depressant and doesn’t go with my meds. Sleeping more than usual – well, that’s a problem in itself. Buying jewellery for one’s wife and sweets for one’s children – nooooooo.
Reading: I read a fair chunk of both Batman: Knightfall: Knightsend (graphic novel) and Doctor Who: The New Adventures: First Frontier (Doctor Who spin-off novel). They were quite good. To be honest, if they were much better, it would probably have been wasted on me anyway.
I came home from shul today feeling useless, feeling that I can’t lead davening or “learn” Torah or do any of the Jewish stuff I should. I felt I was a third-rate writer and failed librarian (if “failed librarian” is even a thing). I sometimes feel that I want to win the Booker Prize just to prove myself to… I’m not sure who. Myself, probably, or the people who bullied me at school (like they (a) remember me or (b) care about the Booker Prize).
It’s funny to come here after Yom Tov and see that I have positive feedback from people here… It’s weird how people seem to like me more online than in real life. Am I more “real” here when I have time to think and no pressure of being in a room with someone or do I fake it more here with time to think and draft and edit every comment I make?
This reminded me of a weird story. Years and years ago there was a letter in Doctor Who Magazine from a teenager called Robert A. J. Newton who started a Doctor Who club at his school. He got permission from the teachers to put up signs to advertise it. For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, the society was called HABAFOM (don’t ask, it’s a very obscure Doctor Who reference).
He stuck up over seventy A5 sheets of paper with quotes from the series, intended to demonstrate that the programme is “poetic, brilliant and thought-provoking” only for them to be taken down by staff. He went to the deputy head to ask why and was told off for putting up material that was, “radical, anti-establishment, contentious and occult” (I liked that so much that I had to look up the exact quote). He responded that he had permission to advertise his Doctor Who club. The deputy head said that if the quotes had been attributed to Doctor Who rather than the mysterious HABAFOM, it would have been OK as no one would have taken them seriously.
I feel a bit like this. That online, people think I’m a good person and clever, but in real life I just come across as an idiot or a freak and can’t believe that I’m capable of good things and if I tried to show them who I am, it would alter their view of me, perhaps for the worst (if they find out I hold certain beliefs or opinions). I don’t know. Meg commented on a recent post to say that I’m the most religious person she knows, but I feel that if she knew some of the people I know, she would think that they’re much
better than me more religious.
Maybe that’s not true. I have a certain notoriety at my Thursday night shiur for once answering a question that the rabbi there bet £50 to charity that no one could answer, but I feel I have to live up to that. CBT was supposed to make me feel that people do like me and find me interesting, and I can sort of see that, but at the same time it’s really difficult to hold on to those beliefs. I guess the fact that I’m questioning this at all and not just assuming the worst about how everyone sees me online and in real life is some kind of improvement, in a way.
Sukkot lasts several more days, so more days with the sukkah and arbah minim, but it’s permissible to do some work on the next few days. So, we shall see how the next few days go.