The Tragedy of Robin Williams

A few nights ago, Saundra and I got to the movies to see “A Most Wanted Man,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a stressed-out German intelligence agent bearing a heavy load of remorse and guilt. As always, you just can’t take your eyes off him. There is no distance between the actor and the role. Every gesture, every facial expression, is exactly right and true. And (without spoiling this great film’s plot) his explosive performance in the final scenes of the film is devastating. It’s as if all the character’s interior darkness, building throughout the film, is released in a shattering howl of anguish.
The film is all the more riveting knowing that this was one of Hoffman’s final performances, that he died of a heroin overdose. Saundra and I spent a lot of time on the way home talking about brilliance and mental illness, about what a dark place Hoffman had to access to play that role and about the toll that must have taken on his own psyche.
And now we’ve lost another genius, Robin Williams.
Hearing that Robin Williams had died hit me hard in a number of ways. First, because, along with Martin Short and Dana Carvey, Robin Williams was one of a few comedians who consistently made me laugh out loud, who seemed to have a direct, unfiltered line to his “id,” who was truly tapping into some stream of wild, unrestrained, absurdist energy that most of us cannot access.
And then there was the news that he’d probably taken his own life, and that he’d been massively depressed. That really hit close to home.
I have often joked that “I come from a long line of seratonin-deprived Ashkenazi Jews.”
I guess you could say that I came out as a depressive person about seven years ago, when I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about what it’s like to battle what Winston Churchill, also a depression sufferer, described as his “black dog.” I felt that if I, as a public figure, could be “out” and matter of fact about this illness, it might help strip away some of the stigma that still clings to neuropsychological ailments. Perhaps it would even encourage someone who was suffering to take the plunge and get help.
I got a lot of grateful responses from people who heard the sermon in the weeks and months following its presentation. Perhaps most gratifying were the comments suggesting that my words had helped someone to understand a bit more of what their depressed loved one was experiencing.
Now that people are again focused, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, on what depression is and what is can do to a person, it seemed like a good time to offer this sermon again. I hope it helps someone.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
2007/5758 © Rabbi Steven Folberg

A man comes to his rabbi and says, “Rabbi, there's a big football game on Rosh Hashanah this year.” The Rabbi responds, “Well, certainly you wouldn't want to miss the sounding of the shofar.” Then the Rabbi winks knowingly and says, “That's what video recorders are for.” “You mean,” the man says as his eyes light up, “I can tape the shofar service?”
So here we are once again, you and I. It is the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Our priorities shift. It becomes important to us to be in temple, more so than at any other time of the year. And all over the world, lo and behold, normally half­ empty synagogues, great and small, are full. Why? What is this day – or, more accurately, what are these ten days from now until Yom Kippur – about? What draws us here?
The essential theme of these holy days is teshuvah. This beautiful Hebrew word comes from the three­letter root shin­-vav-­vet, “shuv,” which means to “turn.” There's really no English word for teshuvah, so we say it means “turning” or “returning.” You'll also see it rather miserably translated as “repentance,”which has a gloomy, self-­abusing, hitting­-yourself-­repeatedly-­on-­the­-head ring to it.
But teshuvah is all at once more joyous and more heartbreaking than that. Because teshuvah means returning, it suggests that we must be trying to get back to something we used to have, something we used to be, or used to know, but somehow lost along the way: back to ourselves, to our ideals, to our loved ones, to God.
We lose and we search, we leave and return. This happens constantly. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, we are always caught up in this cycle of losing and finding, longing and searching, leaving and returning.
“God,” says the prayer book, “You are as close to us as breathing.” We exhale and release our breath, which is almost a kind of dying, but at the same time, it is a cleansing of our blood, releasing poisons that would kill us if we clung to them. And then we inhale, our breath returns, and we are energized and reborn. Tradition says that we are to recite the words modeh ani lefanecha, Melech chai v'kayam, shehechezarti bi nishmati upon awakening: “I give thanks before you, living Sovereign, for You have returned my breath to me, great is Your faithfulness.” Even our breathing points to teshuvah.
This coming and going happens over and over in our lives. Consider, for example, parents and children. Rabbi Larry Kushner muses,
“We spend our lives trying to get far away from our parents and trying to keep our children close. But since everyone is both a child and a parent of the next generation, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we have a problem here. Lots of parents wanting to keep their kids close. Lots of kids trying to get away. Lots of kids wishing they could go home, but not being able to stand it when they get there. Lots of parents eager for their kids to go back to school, but not being able to stand it once they're gone.
“It's crazy,” he continues, “Like dogs, they love to jump into the car and as soon as they're in the car, they love to jump out of the car. Comedian Gary Shandling says he just leaves both car doors open. They jump in. They jump out. It can go on for hours. We have it worse. We do it with our parents for our whole lives.”1
Even at night there is a kind of teshuvah, as we return over and over to the same dreams. The one about having to take the final exam for the course you forgot you'd signed up for. The one about falling, the one about about being chased. The truly horrifying one about going out in public and discovering that you're in your underwear. Or, perhaps, the oldest dream of all, the dream of
1 Lawrence Kusnher, Invisible Lines Of Connection, p. 52. 3
being lost and unable to find your way back home...
Lately, my subconscious has been treating me to a particularly vivid variant of that one. It's always like this: I've been in Israel, probably for my first year of Rabbinical School, a time when I felt profoundly far from home, and it's time for the trip back to the States, at last. But I'm late to the airport, and I haven't packed most of my stuff, and I forgot my passport, and then, when I try to call someone to tell them, I cannot dial the number. There, in the dream, is my index finger, and there is the keypad of a cell phone, and over and over again I try to dial the number, and... I just cannot hit the right keys. Again and again I make mistakes. I know the number, but I cannot dial it, yet I try, growing more and more desperate and frustrated... and then I wake up.
I cannot get back home.
How do we get back home? How do we do teshuvah? And how do we know where home is? The Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, asks this question over and over again. Adam and Eve are expelled from the infant playpen which is The Garden Of Eden, learning that with the knowledge of good and evil – the unavoidable loss of childhood innocence – comes responsibility, hard work, sexual tension, the awareness of mortality and death. The Garden can never really be home, yet surely they long to return. Abraham and Sarah are told by God to leave their home, to find their real, God­ given home, a new home in an unspecified “land that I will show you,” a place they have never seen. So, too, the Israelites have to leave Egypt, a home in which they have lived and died for generations and generations, yet one which was never truly home. They set off into the wilderness, fighting Moses every step of the way, to the home that God has promised them, a home they, too, have never seen. Rabbi Alan Lew wonders, “Why do these biblical figures all have to leave home in order to find a home, in order to leave again? More to the point, why do we?... [T]his is a profoundly Jewish question, [and] not just because we are wanderers, a people destined to live without a true home for close to two thousand years while somehow managing to hold on to our identity...2
“We spend most of our lives, I think, in this strange dance – pushing forward to get back home,” he says. “Teshuvah – turning, returning, repentance – is the central gesture of the High Holiday season. It is a circular motion... If you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is also getting closer and closer. The calendar year is such a circle. On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins, and every day is one day farther from the starting point; but every day is also a return, a drawing closer to the completion of the cycle...
2 Alan Lew, This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, pp. 20-21. 5
“[It is that way with our past wounds and hurts, too], says Rabbi Lew. “We keep returning [to them], trying to move past [them]. If we don't, we inflict [them] on our children. So it is that we read in the papers of a parent who beats his children, and then it comes out that this father had been beaten when he was a child. We hear the story of a mother who was shamed into dropping out of school at age fourteen, and we are shocked to learn that she is now pressuring her own teenage daughter into full­time work. In fact, it is precisely these unresolved elements that cause us to return. [Rabbi Joseph] Solovetchik, [one of the great Orthodox sages of the last century,] wrote:
[Sin] creates a distance between [ourselves] and God... The whole essence of the precept of teshuvah is longing, yearning, pining to return again. Longing develops only when one has lost something precious. Sin pushes us far away and stimulates our longing to return... This is why [Moses Maimonides] wrote: How powerful is teshuvah, for it brings [us] closer to the presence of God.3
So this is a season of return, a time of trying to get back home, a journey launched by the painful realization of being lost. The journey is often as wrenching as it is inevitable, as I have learned recently...
A little over two years ago, in the spring of 2005, somewhere around May, I
3 ibid., pp. 24-25.
started to get sick, although at that time, I couldn't see it. It began as a sense of pessimism about the state of the world: the dragging on of the war, the precarious state of the environment, the enormity of Katrina's devastation. At first, these concerns troubled me as they do, I'm sure, many of us. But gradually, subtly, they began to swirl in my head with the force of a whirlwind, sucking all of my thoughts into a black hole of worry and despair. It got to the point that reading the headlines made my heart race; to the point that the increasingly frequent episodes of desperation and panic weren't interruptions in my normal awareness. Rather, terror and despair became my predominant mode of consciousness, interrupted, every now and then, by clarity. Then, the desperation and anxiousness bled over into the evening hours, so that by the fall of that year, I was sleeping at most two or three hours a night.
Sleep is a blessing, one of God's gifts that we often take for granted until it eludes us. And when profound sleeplessness drags on for weeks or months, the mind begins to unravel. I became increasingly agitated. Concentrating on work at the Temple was more and more difficult. It didn't take much to make me cry. I can vividly recall attempting to lie down on the couch in my office to take an urgently needed nap. I was dead tired but unable to fall asleep, kept awake by the thumping of my own pulse in my chest and eardrums. Saundra kept telling me how worried she was about me, but I was too paralyzed, and in too much denial, to take any steps to help myself. Not that I had never been depressed before; indeed, I had. But that depression had never before led me into such a bleak, heartsick, despairing place: a place without the light of God; a place without hope, without meaning.
Now it's not as if you needed an internship in Psychiatry to see that I was severely depressed. Indeed, the classic symptoms of depression are well known: sleep disruption, changes in appetite, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, anhedonia – a fancy­pants psychological term meaning “inability to experience pleasure” ­­ and an inability to connect with others that can stretch ties with loved ones to the breaking point. And, perhaps most essentially, a depressed person experiences a sickening sense of self­loathing. This is one of the key differences between depression and sadness. Depression always involves a breakdown in self­esteem. Depressed people have a tape loop playing in their heads that rehearses their supposed worthlessness, badness or brokenness. The tape is so convincing and has been playing in the background of daily awareness for so many years that the depressed person is unaware of its falsehoods and its viciousness. And there is another key difference between sadness and depression: depression goes on for days, weeks, months and even years.
All of this is very hard to understand if you are fortunate enough never to have experienced it. Loved ones of sufferers can feel especially baffled and helpless. What is behind the vacant expression, the dead, lightless eyes, the flat, expressionless voice, the tears? James Taylor captured this bafflement in his beautiful song, “Another Gray Morning:”
Here comes another gray morning / A not­ so ­good morning after all / She says, “Well what am I to do today / With too much time and so much sorrow?”...
She said “move me move me /

I'm locked up inside.” / I didn't understand her, / But God knows I tried / She said “make me angry /
Or just make me cry / But no more gray mornings /

I think I'd rather die.”4
How does depression feel? Like a heavy weight on the chest. Like a fog in the mind. Thinking clearly is difficult. Making decisions, even of the simplest sort, is agonizing. Getting out of bed in the morning is especially painful. A few moments of waking, and the weight over the heart, and the fatigue, and the dread of another day are back. A rabbinic school classmate of mine who suffered from depression used to explain it like this: “You wake up in the morning and think, 'Oh, good! Only fifteen more hours and I can go back to bed.'” As I mentioned earlier, our tradition says that we are to recite the words modeh ani lefanecha, Melech chai v'kayam, shehechezarti bi nishmati upon awakening: “I give thanks before you, living Sovereign, that You have returned my soul, or breath, to me.” But depression makes those words like ashes in the mouth. Depression is not sadness, but a kind of emotional deadness; the inability to feel. It is akin to suffocation; you are cut off from other people. Even simple conversation is painful. “Like being trapped under a layer of Saran Wrap,” I once described it to a friend.
As Rabbi Solovetchik would say, you and I are always travelers on the circle of teshuvah, leaving and returning, distanced but longing to get close, yet so often
4 From the James Taylor album, “J.T.”
asleep and unaware of the journey we are on. Remember the words of Moses Maimonides that we'll read before sounding the shofar tomorrow morning: “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep...” The first step toward teshuvah is waking up to the where you are.
Rosh Hashanah is a wake­up call. The shofar calls us to the truth that each and every one of us needs to return, to find the way back home. I know when that happened to me. It was November 16th, 2005. I was sitting in a presentation by a guest speaker in Smith Auditorium. The room was full of people from the Jewish community.
I couldn't concentrate on what the speaker was saying. My heart was racing, and my body felt like it was on fire. I had to leave. I asked someone else to thank the speaker, got up to leave, and on the way out of the room, ran into a friend, a member of the Temple.
“I'm not feeling well, I have to leave,” I said.
“Are you okay?”
“I've been really depressed lately...” I began, which trailed off into uncontrollable sobbing. She patted me on the arm until I calmed down.
“Go to the doctor. Go now, don't wait,” she said.
“I'm afraid,” I said.
She patted me on the arm. “I know,” she said, “but go.”
Of course, it was more than fear that kept me from seeking help. It was shame. As sophisticated as we are in so many things, our culture too often sees emotional illness as a character flaw. We tell ourselves that we should be able to handle it. We should be able to “suck it up” and get on with our lives. But we don't feel that way about other illnesses like diabetes, or heart disease. We don't tell someone with a sinus infection that antibiotics are for wussies, or that seeking help is for losers. Yet, in our culture, emotional illness still carries a stigma that prevents the millions and millions of those suffering from depression from getting help.
I went home, picked up the phone, and dialed.
God bless the receptionist at my doctor's office. She heard my voice, thick with tears and exhaustion and said, “Can you be here in fifteen minutes?” I was with my doc for for an hour and a half that afternoon, crying most of the time. It was the beginning of the journey home.
The road home was paved with the astonishing, unearned, miraculous love and patience of my family. And in return, it was fueled by my love for them, because sometimes, while you may not love yourself enough to get help, you realize the potential that your misery has for hurting those closest to you, and you get help for their sake, at least at first.
The road home was also paved with: medication (God bless the biochemists!) therapy (God bless those who actually choose to spend their work days with distraught human beings!) relaxation exercises, prayer, the love and support of the few Temple staffers who knew what was going on, meditation, contemplation, regular exercise, mindfully healthy food, rest and stillness. Oh yes: and naps! Naps are a gift from God, too, and having lost and regained the ability to rest, I will never again take for granted the blessed sweetness of dozing off.
These things, indeed, were the pillars of my sabbatical. I did not serve a congregation overseas during my six months away. I did not get a second masters degree. I didn't accumulate an impressive reading list of deep Jewish books. But I tried to figure out how I had gotten so profoundly lost, so disconnected from myself, so sick, so far from home, and what it was going to take to keep me centered and healthy once I went back to work.
Up until now I have been speaking of “recovery,” but not of healing. Recovery is what we mean when we refer, each Friday night at services, to “refu'at ha­guf,” a return to bodily health. But “healing” is what we call “refu'at ha­nefesh,” a restoration of the spirit. In this sense, healing involves finding answers that involve meaning. “What happened to me? What am I to learn from this? What blessings can I draw from it? How does this lead me closer to home on the constant journey of leaving and returning? What did this have to do with God?”
So I have come, slowly, to understand what happened to me as not only a medical crisis, but also a spiritual turning point. This emotional and spiritual collapse, if you will, was – as is so often the case – the necessary wilderness that marked the beginning of the journey home. I had to learn that I could not continue to assume that everything that went wrong around the Temple would have been alright if only I had been smarter, worked harder or longer, read more books, pushed and pushed and pushed a little harder. I had to learn that taking on stress and frustration and anger with no relief, no release, no place for stillness – day after day of walking around the office with a knot in my stomach most of the time, taking every critical comment to heart – would make me sick. I had to return to the truth that v'ahavta l'ray­acha kamocha means that you must first love yourself if you are to love your neighbor. God, after all, is Harachaman, the Compassionate One, and we are made b'tzelem Elohim, in God's image. So we must manifest godly compassion toward others in our lives, but we can only do so if we are loving and compassionate with ourselves. Compassionate: not narcissistic, not indulgent, not selfish, but truly kind and loving: loving our humanity, accepting our limitations. As it is said, the First Commandment, Anochi Adonai, really means, “I am God... and you're not.” And so I have come to see this horrible, terrifying experience as a kind of gift, as my mind and spirit and body saying, “Enough!” before it was too late.
Even if you do tape the blowing of the Shofar, it's not the same as being present, standing with a congregation of wounded travelers on the circle of teshuvah, hearing the calls yourself. Teki'ah – the beginning of the circle of teshuvah, a long, clear blast, the sound of wholeness. Shevarim­teru'ah – three and then nine staccato notes – the sound of being broken, lost, far from home. And then again, teki'ah, back to wholeness.5 The entire cycle of teshuvah, of leaving and returning, of exhaling and inhaling, wandering and return, is captured in the raw, weeping sound that tomorrow, once again, calls us all home. Shanah Tovah to us all.
5 This insight on the shofar calls – that each set begins and ends with tekiah – comes from the great sage Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, better known by his nickname, The Shelah.

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