The opening number in the classic Broadway musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” features the lyric, “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight." In the course of honoring the memory of Robin Williams, we might (as Gene Wilder says repeatedly in the 1971 film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) “Strike that, reverse it.” The comedy that flowed oh-so-naturally and easily from the Mr. Williams’ heart is made bittersweet in the light of his having taken his own life this past week; for much of his life, while he was entertaining us all, he was battling inner demons. His legacy will always be comedy first, tragedy second. But his death should signal to us that the time has come to address the issue of depression, to educate ourselves, and to remove the veil of shame for those afflicted with this horrible disease.
But the proper way to celebrate Mr. Williams’ life is to invoke his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy!
One of the many clips of Robin Williams that surfaced on the Internet this week contained the following bit:
“I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’”
We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts - the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth - as being funny. Today’s parashah, Eqev, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold God’s commandments, and that if we fail to do so, bad things will happen. There is also a brief reprise of the Molten Calf story. Not funny at all.
And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten (Allen is at number 4; local boy Andy Kaufman at number 33). One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study last fall about American Jews is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)
So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.
And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts (or, as it was called in a class I took at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “hermeneutical exegesis). This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.
I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasionally humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).
But the Talmud is a richer source. For example:
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b
מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו…גמ'. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it...Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a
אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcized and be like us.”“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, who ate him.
Mishnah, Sukkah 4:9 (BT Sukkah 48b)
ולמנסך אומרים לו, הגבה ידך, שפעם אחת נסך אחד על גבי רגליו, ורגמוהו כל העם באתרוגיהן:To the priest who performed the [water] libation [on Sukkot], they used to say, “Raise your hand!” For it once happened that a Sadducee priest poured the water on his feet, and all the people pelted him with their etrogim.
Comedy: human failure.
All of this serves as a reminder of the line we read in Parashat Eqev this morning:
כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-ה', יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם.Ki lo al halehem levado yihyeh ha-adam, ki al kol motza fi Adonai yihreh ha-adamFor human beings do not live on bread alone, but they may live on anything that God decrees.
While the commentators understand this to mean that the mitzvot, the Torah are as important as food, we might also read this as appealing to the importance of the apparent non-essentials in our life. Yes, we need food and shelter and clothing and livelihoods and faith. But we also need to be entertained: to sing, to appreciate culture, music and art, and of course, to laugh.
And yet, even those who laugh and entertain can be suffer deeply, even in plain sight. And here is the decidedly not-funny coda.
Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):
אין אדם בעולם בלא יסוריןThere is no human being in the world without afflictions.
Growing up in otherwise idyllic Williamstown, Massachusetts, I knew five people who committed suicide in the span of a decade. Three were fellow junior high and high school students; one was a physician, and the most shocking was the chairman of the chemistry department at Williams College, who had been my soccer coach and a deacon in the most prominent local church and the father of a classmate of mine, and an all-around good, reliable, and friendly guy. To this day, I do not know why he chose to end his life. Perhaps, like Robin Williams, he was suffering from severe depression.
The most tragic thing about Robin Williams’ departure from this world by his own hand is not the irony that this man, who brought such joy to billions of people around the world, chose to end his own life. The real tragedy is the stigma that our society has attached to mental illness. Although I do not know the specifics of his situation, I am aware that for those who suffer from severe depression, life can be so painful as to eclipse all the joy, and therefore all the will to live.
We all have our afflictions, as the midrash tells us, but some of course are worse than others. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 Americans are affected by depression, and around 3% suffer from major depression; perhaps 60% of suicides involve depressed people.
Given that people with depression and other mental illnesses harm not only themselves but occasionally others as well, and given that psychological disorders can be difficult to diagnose and expensive to treat, and given further that those with potentially dangerous mental illnesses can often be hard to find, and even when they are found, mandating treatment can be tricky, isn’t it about time that we opened up as a society about this? Could the suicide of this gem of a person, with a mind that improvised with rapid-fire accuracy and hilarity, bring us to be more open about the challenges posed by mental illness? I certainly hope so.
It is our duty as Jews to watch for the signs of depression in others, to always take threats of suicide seriously. I want to remind everybody here that Rabbi Stecker and I am always available for those who need comfort and help for any reason.
There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing.
~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/16/2014.)