To Everything There is a Season
© Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel, Beachwood OH
Yom Kippur, Yizkor, 5775/2014
In a legendary appearance on James Lipton’s show, Inside the Actors Studio, Robin Williams was asked, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Williams replied, “There’s seating at the front. The concert begins at five. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis and one of your choosing.” After a pause, he continued, “If heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter, that would be a great thing…Just to hear God go, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar…'” Another famous interview took place on German TV. The reporter asked him, “Why do you think there’s not much comedy in Germany?” He replied, “Did you ever think, you killed all the funny people?” Though many assumed Williams was Jewish, he was not, but he often referred to himself as an “honorary Jew.” In a bittersweet parallel to his role in the film, “Good Morning, Vietnam,” he also starred in “Jakob the Liar,” a 1999 movie about an internee in a Nazi-era ghetto who pretends he listens to a clandestine radio and keeps up the other Jews’ morale with invented news reports.
If heaven exists, it must surely be a better and a funnier place, with Robin Williams hosting WHVN radio, opening his broadcast with, “Goooood morning, Heaven!” And yet, the death, at 63, by suicide, of this comic genius, whose life was devoted to making people happy, evoked widespread shock, pain, and grief.
The biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every experience under heaven…a time to be born and a time to die.” But what of an untimely death, so out of season, that didn’t need to be?
Like many of you, our family was touched by death this year. My first cousin, Debra, my Uncle Paul’s only child, an inspirational and gifted leader, Chancellor of the University of Washington, Tacoma, died in January, at 58, just two months after severe back pain turned out to be metastatic cancer. Three months later, her beautiful, brilliant daughter and only child, Eliana, a Harvard medical student, 27, the second youngest Rhodes Scholar ever, and who, like Robin Williams, was being treated for depression, took her own life. And as you know, in July we lost Susie’s incredible mother, Henri, at age 95, after a loving marriage of 71 years and a life of abundant goodness and blessing. We will always cherish her memory. To these losses, another was added last month, when my closest childhood friend died in a tragic and unexplained house fire. For some years prior to his death, Michael, who was 67, suffered from early onset Alzheimers.
“To everything there is a season…a time to be born and a time to die.” When is it a time to die? 58? 27? 63? 95? 67? In the face of heartbreak and loss, we confess that life and death alike are mysteries. It is not our choice to be born and, unless gripped by an overwhelming compulsion or in unbearable agony, we do not wish to die. Time often seems to pass slowly, yet as Scripture reminds us, even the longest life is a mere tick in eternity, the blink of an eye, a whisper in the wind.
We spend much of our lives in darkness and confusion. We do not know and cannot explain why life is so kind to some of us and so cruel to others, why some move smoothly along life’s path, while others have a hard time finding their way. We do not know and cannot explain why some of us are able to embrace life wholeheartedly and others find living a torment. We do not know and cannot explain why some people are blessed with good health, happiness, success, and length of years, while others experience affliction, hardship, or tragedy, or why some good, kind and just people suffer, but others, far less worthy, prosper far beyond what they deserve.
There is so much we cannot control, foresee, discern or know. Though we plan and dream, hope and build our lives as if in command of our own destinies, and surely, to some extent, we are, every hope, every aspiration, every expectation can be realized one moment and shattered the next. All that we cherish can disappear in an instant. We are a mystery even to ourselves. We inherit, but cannot fully decipher our heredity. Circumstances not of our choosing affect us in ways we perceive only dimly. We are said to be shaped and driven by the “subconscious,” powerful, obscure dimensions of our innermost selves. Of the illusion, the pretense, of self-understanding, the poet, e.e. cummings asked, “How shall the fool who calls him “I” presume to comprehend not numerable whom?”
But if we know anything at all, we know that children are meant to bury their parents and grandparents, not the reverse. “A time to be born and a time to die?” If we know anything, we know that 95 is a time to die, and that 58, 27, 63 and 67 are not. We know how it is meant to be even when it is not to be.
Every loss of someone dear occasions deep sadness. Even when a life is long and blessed it is hard to say goodbye. An untimely death, so wasteful and unfair, inflicts sorrow orders of magnitude greater than one that comes at the end of a long, full life. And those whose lives have been touched by the suicide of a loved one know a dimension of anguish that is indescribable, a mixture of grief, horror, shock, sorrow, anger, confusion, and often undeserved guilt, what one mental health expert, whose brother committed suicide, called “a visceral sense that because you lost someone to suicide, there’s somehow something wrong with you.” When someone takes their own life, heartbroken family and friends are left to struggle with confounding questions. Were there signs I missed? Was there something, anything I might have done? And the ultimate question, simultaneously simple, complex and unanswerable: Why?
Here are some facts about suicide that may shock you. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the US, approximately 40,000 a year, more than die from car accidents, homicide, or breast cancer. Men are three to four times more likely than women to take their own lives. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 24. Studies indicate that one of six high school students considers suicide seriously each year. One contributing factor is bullying. Nearly 30 percent of students are reportedly either bullies or victims of bullying. Some are both. 160,000 kids a day stay home from school because of fear of being bullied. A British study found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying. Suicide attempts are nearly twice as high among Black and Hispanic youth than White youth. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens and those questioning their sexuality are 3 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Those who are strongly rejected by their families are 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who are not.
Since saving a life is a supreme Jewish value, a question for all of us is: What can we do about this? One thing is to be aware of the common symptoms of major depressive disorder so we can seek treatment promptly if we see them emerging in ourselves and can do everything possible to get someone we care about the treatment they may need as soon as possible. Symptoms of clinical depression can include a distorted view of one’s life in which it is difficult or impossible to imagine how problems may be resolved in a positive way, irritability, difficulty with concentration, fatigue or lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, worthlessness, guilt, or self-hate, social isolation, loss of interest in once pleasurable activities, insomnia or excessive sleeping, and dramatic changes in appetite and weight. Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying, engaging in harmful or reckless behavior, substance abuse, or self injury, giving away favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people, and making comments that things would be better without them, are strong indications of suicidal thinking. Treatment for clinical depression does not always succeed, as the deaths of Robin Williams and my cousin, Eliana, illustrate, but suicide is far more likely to occur if severe depression goes untreated.
Another lifesaving contribution we can make is to address the problem of stigma, the viewing of people with certain characteristics in a negative or prejudicial manner. Stigma leads to shame, self-doubt and isolation. The stigma that surrounds mental illness often prevents people from seeking the help they need to live healthy and full lives. And the stigma that many still attach to being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a primary impetus to self-loathing and suicide. Eliminating the discrimination that is embedded in American law, and which reflects and reinforces that stigma, is both just and urgent.
The foundation of the Jewish values of compassion and justice is the Torah’s pronouncement that human beings are created in God’s image. That means, above all, that every person is of inestimable worth and is entitled to be treated with kindness, dignity, fairness, and respect. One’s worth has no relation to race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability or disability. It does not have to be earned, proved, or justified; it is intrinsic, inherent in our very being. To be created in the likeness of God is also to be unique. Never before and never again has there ever been or will there ever be another human being exactly like you, or me. Each person has an irreplaceable, God-given gift to be nurtured, discovered, shared and celebrated, a distinctive piece of the human puzzle that no one else possesses or can supply.
Each one of us, whatever our personal challenges, needs to know that we are valued and needed and loved. Rabbi Akiba used to say, “It is a sign of God’s love that we are created in God’s image. That it was made known to us that we are created in God’s image is a mark of superabundant love.” According to a Hasidic tale, we should always carry two notes with us, one in each side pocket, and take out whichever is needed. One says, “The world was created for me, personally.” The other says, “I am only dust and ashes.” When we are feeling full of ourselves, as if we are the center of the universe, we are reminded of our mortality, of the fleeting nature of human existence. And when we question our own worth and doubt that we, or anything we do, matters or lasts, we are assured that the world was created with us in mind. Think, for a moment, about the audaciousness of that assertion, that each of us is valued, known, and loved, not just by dear ones, friends and colleagues, but also by our Creator, that we and our lives, though perishable, make an indelible and enduring difference to the very universe itself.
If we are blessed, the confidence that we are loved and worthy was a gift we received from those whom we remember today. And if some among them were unable to confer that gift on us, or to claim it for themselves, though our sadness is compounded, let it motivate us to love others and ourselves ever more deeply. Let both our blessings and our burdens move us to empathy with others. Let them inspire us to emulate God and those who taught us to be our best selves by seeking to alleviate the loneliness of others, reaching out to them with our hands and hearts, and assuring them that they are uniquely valued, needed and loved. And when life is painful or cruel and seems devoid of meaning, in those dark moments when we feel utterly alone, let us strive to summon the help and the strength we need to persevere, comforted by the Psalmist’s assurance that God “is close to the brokenhearted” and that, though “weeping may tarry for the night, joy comes in the morning.” Keyn y’hi l’ratzon. May this be God’s will. Amen.