I’ve never cried when a celebrity suddenly dies. It has always seemed like something that just happens. Certainly, it’s a sad day when an actor or musician, athlete or politician has “cashed in their chips” early. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve been shocked and saddened when I’ve learned of the lethal overdose of a promising young athlete or when the news breaks that a famous actor has lost his battle with cancer. But Robin Williams wasn’t just any comedian. He wasn’t your typical actor or entertainer. Robin Williams was the textbook definition of “comedic genius.”
Robin Williams grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan only a few miles from my childhood home and, while not Jewish by birth, he was widely known as an honorary Jew—both for his brand of humor (always peppered with a Yiddish expression and Jewish inflection) and for his unwavering commitment to Jewish causes. I’ve cried several times in the past couple of days since hearing of his untimely death. He was a brilliant at entertaining us.
Like most of my generation, I was first introduced to the silliness of Robin Williams as a young child tuning in to every episode of Mork and Mindy. It was my mimicking of Robin’s goofy antics in kindergarten that led the teacher to tell my parents I was a “class clown.” And then I found my father’s audio cassettes of his standup routines, “Robin Williams: A Night at the Met” and “Reality… What a Concept.” I listened to those tapes dozens of times and brought them with me to summer camp to entertain my friends. The counselors told my parents I should be a standup comedian. Not long after that my dad took me to see Good Morning Vietnam in the theater and then I bought the video tape as soon as it came out, memorizing long segments of the movie and then performing them in front of my class at my Jewish day school. The teacher told my parents that I should tone down my R-rated humor.
As news of Robin Williams’ suicide by hanging (asphyxiation) has now been confirmed and his publicist has explained that he had been struggling with severe depression, we must now find ways to take this tragedy and bring about some positive from it. Many have noted the irony that behind the comedic mask of Robin Williams was a very dark human being who was suffering from depression. Robin Williams had it all—fame and fans, riches and rewards. He had a loving family and countless friends who cared deeply about him. Looking at his life I’m reminded of the Biblical character Jacob who also had it all, but suffered from depression.
In the section of the Torah relating the events leading up to the much anticipated reunion of Jacob and his estranged brother Esav, we are told that Jacob is left alone to spend the night. He is left alone – without his large family – in the darkness to contemplate his fate when he would once again come face to face with his brother. In this night of utter aloneness a man wrestles with Jacob until the break of dawn leaving him injured.
It is possible that the Hebrew term alone (levado) actually means a sense of despair. And while biblical commentators have theorized that the being with whom Jacob wrestled was either an angel, God or even Esav himself, my own interpretation is that Jacob wrestled with himself. It was depression.
Jacob was not really alone on that fateful night. His loved ones were just on the other side of the river, but he felt alone. He had a large family who loved him and he had great wealth, but he was struggling with his inner demons. Feeling anxious and alone, our patriarch was left in the dark to wrestle with himself.
Depression often goes undetected and untreated. In the United States, between two and four percent of people suffer from clinical depression translating to about 17.5 million Americans. Like Jacob, they too are wrestling internally and praying for healing and recovery. We must constantly remind them that there is hope and there is help.
As dawn breaks, Jacob’s opponent begs him to let go. Not until you bless me, Jacob says. From that point on, Jacob is transformed and known as Israel. Transformation is possible, but it comes out of a difficult struggle.
Our responsibility is to recognize and accept those who are wrestling with depression. We must listen to their cries for help and be present for them. The loss of Robin Williams, a truly gifted performer, is painful for everyone who was entertained by him. Let us work to help others who suffer from depression before it is too late.
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“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day?”
Thus begins Gary Wolf’s New York Times Magazine article “The Data-Driven Life.” As our lives converge with machines, data, in mass amounts, becomes the new wisdom.
Here is a bit of satire for those of us who approach that future with a bit of trepidation.
…The Lord is my Shepherd, I have zero needs.
We gather here in a moment of great sadness to mourn the passing of someone close to us all. The actuaries were right. What can we say – the numbers tell the story.
In health: His numbers were not so good. His blood pressure was 140 over 90 with a resting heart-rate of 72. His cholesterol was 330, with a frighteningly low HDL of 19. As many of you know, chromosomally he did have a few recessive abnormalities on chromosomal pairs 4, 23, and 24. But did they do him in? Unlikely, everyone could see that his BMI was well over 33!
…Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Asymptote Limit of Negative One, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
His high school GPA was 3.7 (3’s and 4’s for his AP scores), 2110 for his SAT score, 3.4 at a 3rd tiered college, no GRE score to speak of (this technical mystery will be corrected in time for the obituary). He graduated without honors from a 2nd tired Graduate School. Such was his education.
… Your staff and Your rod, they comfort me.
Of course his consumer habits have been readily searchable. He shopped mostly at Mega Shopping Grocery. He accounted for approximately $95 of weekly average purchase they with a slightly elevated purchase quotient in the salted Snack aisle. Google reports that his interests were roughly evenly split between on-line fantasy games, sports, especially Indonesian Cricket, and Googles’ own World News Digest. Sadly, he had three outstanding bids for collectible Disney watches on eBay. He would have won. Nonetheless, those watches have already been sent to the next highest bidder. His digital life is otherwise unremarkable, with the exception of a single visit to a porn site. Google Notes suggest that it is statistically possible that he reached the site by searching for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” and by then clicking their search feature “Feeling Lucky.”
…You set before me a table against my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
He was married for 34.6 years and had 2 girls and 1 boy. His favorite song was Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number.” His combined FICO score was 678. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, kindly make a digi-donatation to their favorite cause, IRS Approved Non-Profit Mobil Code XH35G. That code number is now being broadcast to your phones and also appears on the screen above the casket. Please use this moment of silence to transact now.
… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, as I dwell in the Infinite Loop of the Lord forever.
So it is that we bury Social Security number 456-89-9987. Let me add, unorthodox as it may be in our data-driven life, and at such an intimate setting no less, that he was my closest friend. I will always remember him. Bit by byte, he will be missed.
Yitgadal V’itgadash Shemei Rabbah …