I ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.
As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.
The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.
In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.
Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.
True, things could have been worse for Joseph – but not much worse. First, growing up an orphan – his mother had died when he had been an infant. Yes, Joseph had a father. His Dad Jacob was alive alright, but he was most probably preoccupied with the tensions and jealousies of an extended family composed of his three remaining wives and over ten other children. There was rivalry, resentment and then hate among the brothers, culminating in their ganging up on Joseph and leaving him for dead, having thrown him into an empty well in the middle of nowhere. Fished out of there and sold into Egyptian slavery, he was framed by a sexually starved Egyptian princess, wrongly accused of attempted rape, and condemned to the dungeon. And that same Joseph – at the age of 30 – rises to become the viceroy of Egypt and the savior of the Children of Israel. Is there any connection between the two parts of Joseph’s life?
It really hurts when a seven year old falls off his bicycle and skins his knee. He wails in anguish. As parents it hurts us too, and we wish that it wouldn’t have happened. But we also know that no one every learned to ride a bike without taking a nasty fall at least once or twice.
There is no way in the world to grow, to learn, to advance and progress, without taking risks or being thrust into challenging situations, and stumbling once in a while. No pain, no gain as we say. That is the way that God created the universe, that’s human nature. It is only the possibility of failure, the experience of adversity, which steels us and refines us and pushes us forward. Only when we go way beyond our comfort zones, do we discover unexplored regions without ourselves. Real growth requires pain.
The Hasidic master Rav Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbitch, tells us that the deepest source of meaning in life is to be found in the fact that God does not shield us from tribulations and suffering. He watches over us, as it were, by allowing life to take its natural course. Because of His concern for our ultimate growth and success, He refrains from preventing us from falling. We have been placed in a reality that allows us to err, to know grief and heart-ache, to endure pain, for only under such circumstances do we have an opportunity to grow. It is only through the struggle, the turmoil, that we become fully alive to the significance of life. It may be that only he who has suffered may fully live.
Not that suffering guarantees meaning. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We may not always take advantage of the opportunity. We may wallow in grief, we may feel sorry for ourselves, we may not find the inner resources to overcome our adversity. Tragedy may break us. But if we do surmount the obstacles, we are far better off than we were to begin with.
When all is good, life is emptied of its transformational power. When you have it all, that is when all may be lost. Only through the lack, only when we are far from having consummated our desires and dreams, only when all is not revealed and clouds still cover the heavens, only them is the deepest meaning available and only then can we access the wealth of potential greatness hidden within our souls.
The very nature of creation is that God cannot simply vouchsafe to us meaning and greatness. It can only be attained though struggle and travail. May we all harness our pain as Joseph did to reach the heights of personal accomplishment and spiritual grandeur.
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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