Rosh Chodesh marks the new month, another lunar cycle where we can begin again.
This phenomenon implies a new hope, ushering our approach from darkness to light as the new moon begins its journey toward fullness. Similarly, Rosh Hashanah fits this mold on a larger scale. We prepare for a new beginning, readying ourselves, in prayer, to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. Also coinciding with the High Holidays is the “school year,” which is a kind of new beginning of its own. I’d like to think of the new moons, months, and seasons as new beginnings. Opportunities to start fresh.
As I began writing this column, my plan was to expand on the concept of the school year and how it connects to Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. How we get to start class, the next grade up, with fresh eyes; how we have a chance to reform any negative habits from the previous school year; how we find ourselves excited about new subjects, classmates, and teachers; how we stand at the ready in anticipation for what this new school year may bring. I planned to throw in something about Labor Day as well. I even planned a cute little analogy of apples and honey to an apple for the teacher.
And then Robin Williams happened.
I use the word “happened” as a safe medium between those who argue that his depression was an illness over which he had no more control than if it had been, say, a virus, versus those who argue that he actively chose to kill himself. I hold what I deem to be a more constructive approach – that Robin Williams died by suicide as a result of his depression. That’s what “happened.” In the wake of this tragedy, there has been much public communication about depression and suicide. I can go on and on about how important it is to have such dialogue (as I mentioned in my February 14 column, “I have bipolar disorder”), and I can try to navigate through the details of his later months, but I’d rather do neither. Instead, I’d like to find something positive to relate to by focusing on his life.
Some readers are scratching their heads now, wondering how Williams’s life has anything to do with the Jewish New Year. As we approach the holidays, I – as a human being who, naturally, wants to put order to chaos, make sense of something tragic, and find some trace of a silver lining – want to talk about what we might learn from his body of work as well as from his persona.
Williams’s comedic timing and dramatic touch popped right off the screen; he made us laugh and put us in awe. He was known for his quick wit and manic ramblings, accompanied by an exuberance that was contagious. We see this in “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and countless other performances, as well as in interviews and comedy clips. I witnessed this once in real life, when, in between takes for a movie, he entertained the crew with flailing arms and, from my vantage point, inaudible ramblings. He had everyone in stitches. I had no idea what he was saying – only that there were a whole lot of smiling faces. Robin Williams made us laugh.
As I see it, few endeavors are more important than providing happiness to others. Williams’s humor uplifted many people, and I would like to think that for each laugh or smile he extracted, he was credited with a mitzvah. We could all strive to bring more joy and happiness to others.
Even in his more dramatic performances, Williams showed an awareness and appreciation for living life to its fullest. The finest example is in “Dead Poets Society,” where the overarching theme – carpe diem – relates, as I believe, to the meaning of our own Jewish New Year, and very much so. Carpe diem. Seize the day. In one scene with his students, Williams follows up this sentiment with a portentous whisper: “Make your lives extraordinary.” This, because life is fragile, and for the most part, we don’t know when our own lives might come to an end.
We address the finality of life when, in Unetaneh Tokef, we recite, “Who will live and who will die?” and then, most hauntingly in light of this recent event, “Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time?” We pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. How can we make the best of our prayers during the Ten Days of Repentance? How can we each, in our daily living, bring meaning to this inscription? I think that learning from our past and current transgressions allows us to look forward to a fresh start in the coming years.
A new year; a fresh start. How close this ties to “carpe diem,” not just in our day-to-day lives, but also in our view of life in general. Despite his problems with addiction and depression, I don’t know if Robin Williams felt that he had an enriched life. What I do know is that his acting, personality, and wit enriched the lives of others. In the end, he, alone, knew what was going through his mind. With his tragic death, conversation about the need to continuously address mental health and illness has been brought to life. And in his death, maybe we can also internalize this reminder of life’s fragility.
Carpe diem. Chai. Because life is fragile: “Who will live and who will die?” Live it to the fullest, and in doing so, also remember that laughter is good for the soul. We are reminded of this cycle of renewal on Rosh Hashanah. We should be reminded of it, thereafter, with each new month.
Previously published in The Jewish Standard in 2014 following the death of Robin Williams.