On Monday, August 11th we lost one of the most talented actors in Hollywood to depression.
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard about it – of course it was not that long ago.
Still, I have the feeling that, just as many people remember exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot, or how vividly I remember the moment I heard Yitzhak Rabin was shot, I will always remember that moment.
I was driving back from spending the day at a water park with my friend and her four-year-old son who is like a nephew to me. It had been kind of a gloomy, drizzly day.
Even though I was with two of my favorite people and we were at one of my favorite places, I found myself feeling glum.
We were exhausted and the whole car smelled like chlorine. I happened to look at my phone and saw an alert: “Robin Williams dies at 63. Suspected suicide.”
That was it. It just appeared on my phone like any other alert – take out the garbage, board meeting tomorrow at 7 pm.
On the long drive home my friend and I got into a discussion about suicide.
In the days that followed, my newsfeed exploded with articles on the topic.
Perhaps because of people’s love for Robin Williams and the compassion they felt for him, or perhaps because we are finally listening to the scientific research on mental illness, specifically depression, I started to see people talking about suicide in a less judgmental way.
I’ve heard many people say that suicide is selfish.
But when I spoke with some of my clergy friends about the same topic, we all agreed that what leads people to take their own lives is that they believe the world and specifically the people in their lives would be better off without them.
From their point of view their actions embody the exact opposite of being selfish. They believe they are unburdening their family and friends.
The saddest thing is that people with mental illness often don’t see their own worth and how much they really matter to others, because of the way the disease affects their thinking.
It simply does not work to apply rational thinking to such a thought process. A person experiencing suicidal depression will lose the ability to think logically about the effect their death will have on others.
I chose my wording carefully when I said we lost Robin Williams to depression and I want to clarify why I didn’t say we lost him to suicide.
While it is true that suicide was the manner in which he died, the disease that he died from was severe, untreated depression — just as when a person has a heart attack, the incident itself is a result of heart disease.
I have to admit that on some level I was really reluctant to address this issue, but the problem is that no one ever wants to talk about it.
While it’s not an easy subject to discuss, it’s one we need to take out of the closet – especially in the Jewish community.
The Jewish community has historically not dealt with this issue in an open, honest and supportive way. However, Jewish tradition and texts tell a different story.
I have a feeling that many people are grossly misinformed about our tradition’s response to suicide.
Many people falsely believe that suicide is a sin against G-d.
I remember being told as much during my religious education as a child.
I was taught that suicide is a grave sin. I was told that anyone who commits suicide cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I was also told that the soul of a person who commits suicide does not gain access to Olam Habah, the Jewish version of Heaven.
I think my teachers had good intentions – they felt these statements might act as a deterrent.
After all, children are trained to respond to the idea of consequences. When I was growing up, fear and intimidation, and threats of punishment were considered appropriate motivators.
Unfortunately, that approach reveals just how little people understood about mental illness and the way it affects logical thinking.
It was only in rabbinical school that I found out that Judaism has a much more compassionate and understanding approach to mental illness.
During my fourth year of rabbinical school, I took a course in Halakhah (Jewish Law) in Israel focusing specifically on the laws and rituals surrounding death, burial and mourning.
I learned that each ritual and law associated with the process of dying has one of two functions: 1. to provide honor to the person who has died or 2. to provide comfort to the surviving family.
I was surprised to learn that these practices had more to do with people than with G-d and that none of it was arbitrary. Each law had a practical function.
About midway through the first semester, my teacher’s teenage daughter took her own life.
We went in groups to his home during shiva to show our support. None of us knew what to say. He sat on a low stool in his living room and told us about his daughter’s wonderful qualities, but also how much she had suffered with self-esteem and episodes of deep depression.
After completing shiva, he resumed teaching the class.
I remember sitting in class while he was still in shloshim, and learning the sections of the Shulchan Aruch that deal with suicide.
I sat there trying to fathom how he could even look at these texts, let alone discuss them with us. I felt like I was sitting on nails.
I wondered what was going on in his head. Did this bring him comfort? Did it all make sense in his mind? How could it?
Yet, for him, discussing it seemed necessary. He did not avoid it. He could have easily changed the topic for the course and no one would have questioned it.
I viewed his decision to proceed as one of great strength – but also of great modeling as a teacher.
In proceeding, he modeled for us the very real need to engage with this subject and not avoid it.
Our very impulse to avoid talking about it is part of the problem – it is the source of the sense of shame and loneliness that contributes to mental illness itself.
Our fear and discomfort exacerbates the sense of isolation and indignity of those touched by mental illness.
Part of my initial hesitation about discussing this issue tonight comes from not wanting to scrape an open wound.
There are certainly people in our congregation suffer from depression, people who have lost loved ones, people who are still struggling with a family member who needs tremendous support.
Yet, that is also my motivation for speaking on this subject tonight.
It is a painful subject and all the more so for anyone who has been effected by it.
40 percent of deaths in America last year were suicides.
That’s a staggering percentage.
So, what can we do?
This year our congregation participated in the walk for NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. Our team raised $1,770 and the walk as a whole raised about $90,000.
These funds will be used for direct support, but also for increased education and awareness.
Of course we all would want to help someone who was suffering and prevent them from getting to the point of suicide.
But part of the challenge is the stigma that prevents people from openly discussing their suffering.
They experience a kind of double-suffering, compounded by having a disease with judgment and stigma around it.
In addition to the pain and suffering experienced due to the effects of the illness and loss of life, there is another layer of suffering caused by the shame and judgment.
The stigma itself actually exacerbates the effects of mental illness.
One goal of organizations like NAMI and others working to raise awareness about the disease is to remove the stigma of mental illness – to understand that it is a disease and to treat it as such.
I think that doing so will help people discuss it more openly and help people have more compassion for those who are suffering from it.
When it comes to mental illness, there is a tendency to blame the person who is suffering – as though it is their fault for not making better choices or having a different perspective.
People often take a moral high ground that comes out of fear of their own susceptibility.
They think that they are stronger or better than someone who “succumbs” to the disease.
They don’t think of it like any other disease, like cancer or diabetes, which can be hereditary.
As a religious leader I want to share the deep wisdom our tradition, which somehow has been obscured and not shared properly.
So, I’d like to clarify a few things:
Is suicide a sin according to Jewish tradition?
What we mean by sin, which is a word that does not translate well to any word in Hebrew, is something that is prohibited by the Torah.
Well, technically speaking, murder is prohibited by the Torah, and that prohibition has always been thought to refer to killing another person.
Of course we could extrapolate from that commandment that G-d does not want us to take our own life either.
Nonetheless, it is not directly prohibited in the Torah – I think calling it a sin is incorrect.
Another misconception is that a person who commits suicide does not have a place in the World to Come.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs points out:
The popular saying that a [person who commits] suicide has no share in the World to Come, which would be a far more severe punishment that that for murder, has no support in any of the classical sources.
He’s right. In my studies of death and the afterlife, it did not say anything at all about someone who commits suicide not going to heaven.
What a terrible thing to teach! Especially since it is not true and especially because such an idea would only cause further pain to the surviving family members.
In the Shulchan Aruch it does say that someone who purposely takes their own life is not entitled to the usual funeral and burial rites.
Unfortunately, many people ignore what immediately follows that statement: this ruling is set aside whenever it can reasonably be assessed that the act was committed while the person was “of unsound mind.”
The later authorities extend this idea to every instance of suicide, explaining that no one “of sound mind” would ever purposely take his or her own life.
The rabbis also make exceptions for martyrdom. There are only 3 prohibitions for which a person is allowed to die rather than commit the sin: murder, idol worship and rape.
Of course, we think immediately of Masada. How could that group of people have thought it was better to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans?
This summer, standing on Masada in the hot blazing sun, our tour guide talked about the Zealots as if they were heroes.
She praised them for their martyrdom. I found this deeply troubling.
For me, the lesson of Masada is about what not to do. That group of people and with them all their culture and traditions were wiped out!
Some of the other groups, such as that led by Yochanan Ben Zakkai, escaped and revitalized Jewish life in Yavneh.
If all of the Jews in the 1st century had acted like the Zealots on Masada, there would be no Jewish community today.
There is a huge emphasis on the importance of life in Judaism.
Our tradition clearly promotes choosing life — an oft repeated phrase in the Torah is “choose life”.
We value life tremendously.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
Nonetheless, our tradition recognizes that life is not always easy. Part of the goal of a religious tradition and a religious community is to provide support and meaning-making for those difficult times.
Many times the Torah reassures us that even when we find ourselves feeling broken, G-d will help us return to wholeness.
On a verse from Deuteronomy (Devarim 30:3) about teshuva, returning, Rashi points out that the Hebrew verb for return is used in its simplest conjugation( ושב), instead of using the causative form (והשיב).
The difference is that the text reads ‘the Holy One will return’, not ‘the Holy One will cause you to return.’
Rashi says this teaches us that G-d dwells with us in our sadness and our misery, and that our return is not just for ourselves, but for G-d as well.
G-d returns to us, and helps us become whole again.
In the Talmud (Chagigah 15a), R. Akiva explained as follows:
Just as vessels of gold and glass, though they are broken, have a way of being mended (by being melted down and reformed), so too a wise person who has lost his way can be made whole again.
These encouraging texts acknowledge the brokenness we can all feel at times. They acknowledge that the world is broken and thus so are we.
But, the purpose of a religious community and spirituality is to help us feel supported through those times, to know we are not alone, and to find meaning in all of life’s trials and difficulties. We do this by sharing openly and honestly with each other when we are struggling.
In his book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating meaning in Difficult Times,” Rabbi David Wolpe shares how spirituality can help us make meaning out of life’s painful experiences.
“The blessing we seek in life is not to live without pain. It is to live so that our pain has meaning. The spiritually minded person seeks to live fully despite fear… No quality is more essential for a well-lived life than courage… and our determination to make sense of life, is wisdom…Each person of courage must face the world, a joyous and fearful and hope-filled place. We will lose what we love, but we will have loved. We will reach, and falter. The ocean will not engulf us. We will hold one another and realize that in God’s world, none need be alone…
We all have times in our lives when we seem to have lost our way. It can feel very lonely.
We may question the purpose of our lives. What are we doing here? What am I contributing to the world?
It’s no coincidence that on Yom Kippur, the very time when we are examining our lives, we read the book of Jonah, a story about a young man who cannot see his own worth and his own purpose in the world.
At the end of the book, even after he carries out his very important mission from G-d and succeeds in getting the whole town of Nineveh to repent and change their ways – he feels lost and alone.
Sitting under the hot sun, forlorn, G-d provides him shade under a plant.
For a brief period of time he feels comforted, but after awhile the plant withers and dies and he is left again in the scorching sun.
In his desperation, Jonah pleads with G-d to take his life.
G-d becomes outraged.
9 God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
There is no question in my mind that Jonah is a story of a young man with deep depression. He cannot see his own worth in the world, despite the fact that G-d has singled him out for a great purpose.
He consistently avoids fulfilling his purpose. He tries to commit suicide earlier in the story when he has the men on the ship throw him overboard into the sea. G-d keeps trying to save him, but Jonah simply cannot see his own worth.
Robin William’s had a great purpose in the world and he impacted many, many people during his lifetime.
We remember his goofy humor as Mork the alien jumping around saying nanu-nanu, an unorthodox radio DJ shouting “Good Morning Vietnam,” and the affable Genie in Aladdin.
We remember his warmth and caring as a father willing to dress in drag for his children in Mrs. Doubtfire, a therapist who shows deep love to a lonely young man in Good Will Hunting, and of course the inspirational teacher standing on the desks shouting “carpe diem” in Dead Poets Society.
Through his acting and his comedy, Robin Williams had a profound impact on people. He made us laugh, he made us cry, he helped us recognize things about ourselves, he helped us see the world differently.
Unfortunately, despite his great talent and positive effect on others, like Jonah, Robin Williams suffered from depression. Despite G-d’s gifts to him, he could not see his own worth.
It’s so easy to be angry and to judge and feel betrayed by someone who has taken their own life. And that is understandable. The loss itself is hurtful and it is compounded by the fact that it could have been prevented.
We are now primed for a revolutionary approach to this disease.
Instead of blaming the victim, the person suffering from the disease, or blaming anyone, including ourselves, people are trying to look for ways to prevent suicide.
In the past, our attempts to discourage suicide have resulted in stigmatizing it.
We are now thinking about how to discourage it just as strongly without the shame and stigmatization.
I truly believe that spirituality and religious community can be a tremendous place of support for people suffering from mental illness.
I hope that now you have a better understanding of how our tradition views mental illness and suicide.
I hope that now you see that there are resources within our tradition to help provide comfort and meaning-making for those painful times.
And most importantly – I hope that this Yom Kippur, each and every one of you understands how much you matter.
We are all created by G-d. G-d has a purpose for us here on earth. G-d created us all with a spark of the divine in each of us. We are all good and worthy and needed here. We are all loved and there are people who need our love.
We often can’t see how much we matter – and we don’t all have to be as influential a person as Robin Williams – each person matters.
Each of you sitting in this room has made someone laugh or smile.
Each of you has helped someone through a difficult time.
Each of you has inspired someone.
Each of you matters.
You are here for a reason.
On this night, we ask G-d to write us in the book of life, but we are the ones with the pen in our hands.
G-d is holding the book open for us.