What can we learn from this sad event?

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It’s been a hell of week.  First, my post appeared about the genetic marker for suicide…only to be almost immediately followed by the news that one of my favorite comedians and actors took that path.

American comedian Robin Williams at "Stan...
American comedian Robin Williams at “Stand Up for Heroes,” a comedy and music benefit organized by the Bob Woodruff Family Fund to raise money for injured U.S. servicemen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robin Williams suffered from a mental illness- depression- coupled with the news that he now also had to deal with Parkinson’s disease.  Can you imagine what terror a hyperkinetic, loquacious comedian would experience knowing he will now shake, stutter, and be locked in his own body?  Couple that with depression and you have a true recipe for disaster.

Most of us grew up with the knowledge that our religions consider suicide to be a sin and our governments consider it to be a crime…  (I always wondered… Would Texas condemn one convicted of attempted suicide to death?)  So, besides the tragedy of the situation, we have conflicted emotions with the entire situation.

I was pleased to see the writings of Rav Herzfeld (
The National Synagogue, Washington, DC) on this subject.  Who stated…

 “Our tradition does not consider Robin Williams to have taken his own life. If Robin Williams had died of, say a heart attack, then no one would be calling it a suicide. An emotional illness is every bit as real as any other illness. Just because it is not physically seen by the naked eye does not make it any less real or any less dangerous. On the contrary, it is often much more dangerous. May he rest in peace amongst the righteous people of heaven.” 

That last sentence derives from  a teaching in the Talmud, in the tractate Ta’anit (the first leaf of page 22, called daf 22A).  (While the tractate is theoretically devoted to the study of fast days, none of the Talmudic texts ever discuss only one item, but cover a gamut of subject matters.)

Elijah (the Prophet) would routinely appear to Rav Beroka of Huzaah when he was perusing the market at Belepht. On one occasion, Beroka inquired of Elijah if there was anyone in the market who would merit special consideration in the world to come (Olam Haba, hopefully the place we could all merit upon our demise). Elijah pointed out one fellow… [Elijah] continued to say, as two fellows passed them by, “These two brothers also have a share in the world to come”.  So Rav Beroka inquired of them as to their occupations.  Their reply?  “Our occupation is to cheer and comfort all those who are downcast, to make peace among those quarreling.”

That clearly described Robin Williams (as well as his erstwhile mentor, Jonathan Winters).

But,  more importantly, the Supreme Being implores us to reach out to those who are strangers, to those who are alienated from the general population.  Because we, too, were strangers in a strange land.

How can we not reach out to those with mental illness, who are perpetually alienated from the population at large?

We need to take the time each and every day to help those we see ‘apart’, to make them feel they are welcome and part of the community.  Because one day, that may be you.

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