Like most people, I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the death of Robin Williams. I’ll always remember the one and only time I met Robin Williams. It was the fall of 2003, and I had just started rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. It was my first time living in New York, so I wanted to explore the city as much as I could. On a random weeknight evening, a friend of mine called me to tell me he had received free tickets to Stand Up New York, a small but famous comedy club on the Upper West Side, but they were for that evening. About four of us, all male rabbinical students, went on this last minute adventure. I remember that evening like it was yesterday! We were the first people in line, and the hostess sat us at the first table in front of the stage, exactly where did not want to sit, but they gave us no other choice. There was a spotlight on the stage, and on our table, and the rest of the club was dark. Little did we know that each comic would spend a couple of minutes making fun of us, four young men wearing kippot (yarmulkes), and they really got a kick out of the fact that we were rabbinical students. The comedians were all hilarious, and then, the MC tells us, “We have a special surprise for you, a man who needs no introduction, the great Robin Williams.” Mr. Williams jumped on stage like a bolt of lightning, and his enthusiasm continued for what seemed to be an eternity. He had the whole club mesmerized showing us all the true genius and artistry of comedy. After a couple of minutes, his eyes gazed down upon us, four young men with kippot (yarmulkes), and asked, “So what are you guys doing with those Frisbees of joy on your heads”. The great Robin Williams made fun of us for fifteen minutes, and even cracked on me personally for three of those minutes. The jokes got really Jewish, then he started talking about the Talmud, and he knew his stuff! At one point he said: “Ok Gentiles, I have to talk to these guys for a minute, just talk amongst yourselves.” I did not stop laughing until he left the stage, and I will always remember that night. I was shocked to find out that he wasn’t a ‘member of the tribe’ because he seemed to know so much about Judaism! Robin Williams was so full of life, passion, and joy! When I heard the news about his passing, I thought to myself: how could he have committed suicide? Little did I know as I laughed at Robin’s jokes that that he suffered from a serious, and potentially fatal illness: depression.
Our law code, the Shulchan Aruch (compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the mid 1500’s) does not focus much on depression, but it does bring up the issue of suicide. The word for someone who commits suicide in Hebrew is me’aved atzmo l’da’at which literally means ‘one who destroys him or herself knowingly.’ The law code, almost coldly states, that one should not busy yourself with someone who knowingly destroys him/herself, for example, one should not eulogize, take off your shoes, tear your clothing, and other traditional mourning practices for someone who knowingly destroys him or herself. However, even in the 1500’s, our rabbis were aware that not everyone who commits suicide does so knowingly. For example, a young person who kills oneself is not considered of being in the right mind, and someone, of any age, who is forced into killing oneself because of severe mental or physical strain. Thankfully, we know much more about mental health than we did in the 1500’s, and we can say, without a kernel of doubt, that the overwhelming majority of people who commit suicide in our country suffer from depression. According to the CDC, “Major depression frequently goes unrecognized and untreated and may foster tragic consequences, such as suicide and impaired interpersonal relationships at work and at home. The use of medications and/or specific psychotherapeutic techniques has proven very effective in the treatment of major depression, but this disorder is still misconstrued as a sign of weakness, rather than being recognized as an illness.” Can you imagine if we treated people with cancer as ‘showing signs of weakness’? Depression is a life long disease for many (although many of us will have episodes of depression at one point in our lives), and, according to the CDC, an estimated one in ten U.S. adults report depression. It means that during one point of our lives, many of us will suffer through this disease, but some suffer longer and with more intensity, than others. The Jewish community does well with the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick. We have healing services for those who are stricken with cancer, MS, ALS, and other diseases, but what about those who suffer from mental illness? We no longer living in the 1500’s; it is time to see that depression and mental illness are just as serious, and potentially just as deadly as other diseases.
There is another aspect to depression and other mental illness that we must also understand. There were so many iconic lines from Robin Williams’s movies that I can fill up a whole page, but to me, the most powerful lines he ever spoke were, “It’s not your fault,” recited in the movie Good Will Hunting (Warning explicit language), the movie where he won his only Oscar for best actor in a supporting role. In the scene, towards the end of the movie, his character Dr. Sean Maguire, a psychologist working with Will Hunting, the troubled genius, is in his last therapy session. Will seems to have come to a better place, compared to where he was before, but his therapist knew better; he knew that Will had yet to take the road to true healing. They looked through the file together, looking at the pictures of Will’s abused body, and the therapist shared his own experience of being abused as a child. Finally, William’s character says the words, “I don’t know a lot, but you see this, all this stuff, it’s not your fault, look at me son, it’s not your fault.” He says those words over and over again until they sink in to Will’s head: he did not cause the suffering he was going through; it wasn’t his fault. I think we need to say this to all of our friends and family members who suffer from depression: it’s not your fault. Let us bring them into our lives, not shun them, and let us hope that we can reach those who suffer before they unknowingly destroy themselves.