In Jewish tradition we have a special greeting for a genius. Upon meeting such a person, we say, Blessed are You, Eternal God, Source of Life, who has given from His wisdom to flesh and blood.
Had I ever met Robin Williams, I would surely have said it.
Williams was a singular genius. He brought joy and comfort to so many. Yet, that same joy and satisfaction continued to elude him.
That’s one of the reasons his death strikes us so sharply. He seemed to have it all. Yet, he suffered from a horrific illness that many continue to speak of in shadows and soft tones.
As a child of a psychiatrist, I know how serious depression can be. Yet, as his wife urged in a statement released yesterday, let us remember Willilams for the laughter and joy he brought so many.
Even though he was not Jewish, his comedy brims with the tones of traditional Jewish comedy. They include the following:
1. Humor to undermine pretension and pomposity: Robin Williams managed to be lovable and irreverent at the same time. He did not fear offending anyone.
As one of his obituaries reported, he once called out from a London Stage, “Chuck, Cam, great to see you.” Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Lady Camilla Bowles were in the audience. He continued, “Yo yo, wussup Wales, House of Windsor, keepin’ it real!”
2. The Power of the Voice: Judaism is a religion of the ear more than eye. We hear God’s words, as it says in our central prayer, the Shema.
This emphasis on the ear over the eye carried over into modern Jewish comedy. If you watch the Marx Brothers, for example, you don’t even have to see the action to appreciate the humor.
The same was true with Robin Williams. His voice as the genie in Aladdin was instantly recognizable. It conjures up the character of the genie in all its dimensions. And who can forget the powerful voice proclaiming “Gooooood Morning Vietnam!”
3. Comedy as Healing: Jewish history is filled with destruction. Hatred and persecution have plagued us for so long, and they continue to do so in the Middle East and Europe.
One of the great healing balms of Jewish life has been humor. It has helped us maintain perspective, seeing possibilities for joy amidst pain, for sweetness amidst the harshness of life.
Robin Williams’ humor—along with his many acting roles—helped heal so many. His life mirrored the role he played so beautifully of Patch Adams, the doctor who used humor to heal his patients.
4. Comedy as a way of poking fun at ourselves: Robin Williams knew his own foibles. He did not shy away from admitting his struggles with addiction and relationships.
And he would turn those struggles into brilliant one-liners. Indeed, he once described cocaine as“God’s way of saying you make too much money.”
Williams’ apparent suicide is a tragedy. We can never known the pain he felt and struggles he underwent. What we do know, however, is that his life was a blessing.
He fulfilled the definition of a successful life captured so brilliantly by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.