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Robin Williams and us


I awoke this morning to shocking news. I guess that’s not so unusual in Israel – especially during war time – but this really floored me. Robin Williams dead at 63; the media buzzing around the story like bees around honey, throwing out words like “suicide,” “depression,” “drug addiction” and “alcoholism.”

In my humble opinion, there was no actor more talented, no comic more genius than Robin Williams. From the moment he burst on the scene, he displayed an awesome ability to evoke the deepest feelings and sentiments from his audience. He could make us laugh, of course, as he did so brilliantly as a stand-up comic, on TV in the ground-breaking Mork and Mindy, or in classic comedies like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” But he could also touch the deepest part of our souls and bring us to tears, as he did so well in “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Moscow on the Hudson,” or “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won his only Oscar.

Although Williams was born an Episcopalian (in my hometown of Chicago), he always seemed to have a strong “Jewish flair” to him. He was constantly throwing Yiddish words into his routines, he played Jewish parts in several movies – including Jakob the Liar – and he described himself as “an honorary Jew.” A picture that Williams tweeted of himself wearing a kippa last year contained the tag line, “Too late for a career change? Rabbi Robin?” And so many of his memorable scenes fit in so well with Jewish thought and belief.

Last year, as part of the pre-Yom Kippur seminar we conduct each year, I played a clip of Williams talking to God about life and death, in a dramatic scene from “Patch Adams,” the story of the iconic doctor who combined the art of humor with a broad knowledge of medicine. In the movie, one of Adams’ colleagues and closest friends is murdered, and Adams’ contemplates his own suicide. As he stands on the edge of a cliff, poised to jump, he screams at the Heavens, “What do you want from me?!” Suddenly, a butterfly lands on his shoulder, and he is brought back to an appreciation of life and God’s wonder.

Even Williams’ voice had a magic touch to it, and he was the spirit of numerous animated films, most notably “Aladdin,” where he was the Genie; “Robots,” and the Academy-Award winning “Happy Feet.” He was also heavily involved in charity work, in particular the “Comic Relief” programs, and often performed for U.S. troops abroad. His exuberance, spontaneity and irrepressible energy thrilled millions and made him beloved to everyone who saw or met him. “Carpe Diem – Seize Life,” the mantra he taught his students in “Dead Poets’ Society,” was clearly the credo that best defines his legacy.

Which makes his death only the more tragic and confounding. Why would such an enormously gifted and adored man end his life so prematurely? With so many good things surrounding him – fame, fortune, friends and family – what room was there for demons?

Of course, illness has its own rationale, and the emotional or psychological ailments that he might have carried inside him are not something we can fully comprehend. His wife Susan Schneider, said in a statement after his death, “As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

What strikes me today is the lesson to be learned from Williams’ life – and death – here in Israel. In a sense, we, too, live a “bi-polar” existence. We as a nation, as a People, are constantly pulled between the extreme poles of ecstasy and tragedy. We are either celebrating wonders and miracles, or grieving over the loss of our loved ones. We create a great country, from the ashes of the Holocaust, and then we are immediately filled with anxiety and worry over the existential threats emanating from our hostile neighbors. We win wars, thank God, against all the odds, but then we must agonize over the aftermath of every conflict. Each cause for celebration is tempered by a warning against over-confidence, while every dark cloud contains its own silver lining. Even our calendar echoes this duality, as our many joyous holidays are interspersed with no less than six fast days, reminding us that we are never too far from some ominous note – or some reason to rejoice.

Our latest, ongoing war has injected some measure of depression into our populace, as we worry where all this is going, and wonder aloud what the solution is to a seemingly insoluble predicament. Suicide is not an option. We have weathered every storm throughout our history and, with God’s help, we will successfully navigate this latest crisis as well and emerge to even greater glory.

Robin, fly upon your way, find shelter in some Heavenly nest. As the Talmud says, one who makes others smile and laugh is secured a place in the World to Come. And we, too, will seek our own shelter, nestled in the wings of the Almighty and in the strength and security of a great and proud People, whose greatest moments are yet to come.

Rabbi Stewart Weiss is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.


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