Yizkor Speech 2014 Rabbi Ralph Genende
Wednesday, 08 October 2014 | 14 Tishri, 5775
Rabbi Ralph Genende
By Edwin Arlington Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Like Richard Cory, he was widely-admired, a man of remarkable self-possession, a face that
inspired for its comedy and humanity, a mind that was relentless in its improvisation and word-
play, a voice of rapid-fire delivery and a capacity to take on so many characters, a heart that reached out and touched yours. .
I’m talking about the actor Robin Williams who took his life on August 11, 2014. And I’m talking about him today for his death touches on so many issues germane to this day on our calendar. A day that is rich with questions about human loneliness and connectedness, about the face-behind-the face about the tragic duality of the human condition .Our rabbis likened it to day one of the Creation – it’s a “יום אחד”, one singular, unique day not “יום ראשון” not just the first of many. A day of reckoning and questioning,
Rosh Hashanah, as Rabbi Sacks suggests, is the anniversary of the creation, about what it means to be human in God’s world. But Yom Kippur is about what it means to be me, this unique person that I am. Rosh Hashanah is global, Yom Kippur is personal. It makes us ask: What have I done with my life? Whom have I hurt or harmed? How have I behaved? What makes my life worth living? What will I be remembered for?
It’s these Yizkor kind of questions which also help explain one on the weirdest rituals associated with Yom Kippur and which dominates our Musaph service. I’m referring to the two goats brought before the Kohen Gadol, High Priest. Identical in appearance, size, colour and shape, yet by the spin of a dice, or the drawing of a lottery, one was offered as a holy sacrifice, the other sent away into the desert hills outside Jerusalem to Azazel where it plunged to its death, the original scape goat. Two goats, two sides of human nature – one drawn to the fire and passion of life “to the Lord” and the other heaped with sin and inadequacy, linked to a fallen angel called Azazel, drawn to the dark side, out-of-control, tumbling down, suiciding off the precipice.
The one a sacrifice, about giving something of yourself, about being true to your inner light your inner self, The other about letting go of the wild, destructive parts of self. It’s about letting go of the dangerous allure of alcohol or cocaine or whatever your toxic, addictive drug of choice is. It’s about rescuing yourself from that dark demon of depression; that Azazel of devastation.
In an open letter to Robin Williams on World Suicide Prevention Day Sept 10, Psychiatrist, Keith Ablow writes:
“It is almost exactly one month since you are said to have taken your own life. I know differently. I know that major depression took your life, and that that illness had, on that day, completely obliterated the belief that your life could bring you--or anyone around you--anything but pain. Major depression had made even you, someone who made millions of people laugh for decades, completely unable to believe that you would laugh, again”.
Mental Health Week begins in Victoria tomorrow and World Mental Health Day is on 10 October but for us it began last night because Yom Kippur is about our mental wellbeing which is so closely connected to our spiritual wellness. The Day of Atonement, after all, is a time to strive for at-one-ment being at one, in harmony. It’s a day that is fabulously optimistic yet determinedly realistic in its belief that we can change.
CBT, Cognitive behavioural therapy as Sacks avers, reminds us of a classic element of Jewish faith, that when we change the way we think, we change the way we feel. And when we feel differently we live differently. What we believe shapes what we can become. We are not destined to be forever what we were: Moshe grows from an uneasy and unconfident leader, a man who says “Lo Ish Devarim Anochi, I am not a man of words”, he grows from this into Israel’s most eloquent, visionary prophet and leader (the Devarim man) a man whose very words save the Jewish people on that very first Yom Kippur at Sinai. He discovers the very heart of prayer, those immemorial words we sing with such gusto in our tefillot and especially at Neilah time “Hashem, Hashem – The Lord, The Lord, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, filled with kindness and truth, forgiving and absolving.”
And if Moses can change, so can we!
Teshuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance is also the Hebrew work for an answer. Teshuvah means that if I get it wrong and make a mistake God forgives me. God does not lose faith in me, even if I lose faith in myself. Teshuvah is the answer to nihilism and self-defeat. Teshuvah is the answer to failure. Teshuvah is the answer to despair. Of course depression is complex and multifaceted and clinical depression needs more than Teshuva-therapy, but it’s one potent tool.
In one of the most memorable moments in the movie “Good Will Hunting”, Robin Williams playing the role of the psychiatrist Shaun turns to Will (Matt Damon) and says “ It’s not your fault – Will” “It’s not your fault” “It’s not your fault”
He says these words over and over till the young man cracks and you know that something fundamental has shifted ,that Will has finally accepted that he’s not to blame for the treatment he endured as a child, for his present angst.
Teshuvah is about making that shift, accepting the things that we cannot change and focussing on those that we can. It’s also about recognising the difference between “I can’t” and “I won’t”.
It’s about realizing you can’t do it all on your own, that one of the most crippling things about depression and mental illness is the sense that you’re entirely alone, that nobody can really understand your pain,. And while we may never really plumb the heart of another’s pain, nonetheless “Lo Tov Heyot Adam Levado… alone-ness (says the Torah) is bad for the human condition. People need people or as the African proverb puts it “people became people through people” The Hebrew word for friend in Hebrew is “Chaver” and the Hebrew word for connection is “Chibur”.Others help us connect to ourselves. We need to help people seek help and we need to sensitise ourselves to recognising when people are silently calling out for help. .
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yosi who was bothered by the verse that talks of a person stumbling around, like a blind man groping in the darkness. What difference does it make to the blind if it’s dark or light? He got his answer one day when he saw a blind man walking at night with a torch and questioned his need for the light. The blind man answered that the purpose of the torch was to allow others to see him so that they could help guide him away from the pitfalls and obstacles on the road. So much of life is hidden – we don’t see what’s inside people. As Sheri Mandell writes “Inside almost everybody is a pocket of pain – some are big, some are smaller – but they’re always there. We can’t see someone else’s heartache until they share it with us. I find that when I don’t share my pain, it is like an unwanted guest at the table, somebody who demands fancy china, ironed napkins; a guest with whom I can never feel comfortable. But when I share the pain, it becomes somebody I can live with. Somebody who will sit at the table with me in pyjamas. I don’t have to stand on ceremony with it.”
If you need help you need to ask for it; carry a torch – don’t just expect others to intuit it. And if you need assistance or a visit from the Shule or Rabbi please don’t expect him to just know you need it – please ask for it!
When Joan Rovers arrived in heaven the welcoming angel, recognising her as a VIP, sent her straight off to God. The Almighty sitting on his throne greeted her “Joan Molinsky, my daughter”, he says. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Only 2 things”, replies Joan. “First I am not your daughter and secondly, get out of my chair”.
Now you don’t need to be as chutzpadik as Joan Rivers but you do need to seek help when needed….
As the psychiatrist in his letter to Robin William puts it “Fight against your depression with every resource… Ask a family member or friend to stay by your side 24/7. Walk into a psych’s office and tell them you don’t want to live another moment. Step into a police station and turn in the thief trying to steal your life”.
Moving to a conclusion, in one of my favourite Robin Williams’ movies The Dead Poet’s Society he quotes the Walt Whitman poem “Oh Captain, My Captain”.
It’s a poem about a ship reaching the end of a frightening trip – the port is near, the bells are ringing and joy is in the air. But “O heart! heart heart... On the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead”
It’s a heart-wrenching poem but Williams as the teacher gives the words a resonance and sense of promise: O Captain, My Captain your fearful trip is done! We’ve got there, we’ve made it. And so we’ve made it through another year another Yom Kippur. He reminds his students: You are here…The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. And so today God reminds us: You are here -What will your verse be? The powerful prayers go on. It’s Yizkor time and to the prayers we add the memories of our departed, imperfect as we are and they may have been. Their memory continues and like Rachel Frankel’s heartbreaking final words to her murdered musician son -:
תנוח בשלום ילד שלי, אנחנו נלמד לשיר בלעדיך...הקול שלך תמיד תמיד נשמע בתוכינו
Rest in peace my boy. We will learn to sing without you. But we will always, always, always hear your voice in our lives.
Finally, today is a day not just of loss, confession and forgiveness but of profound liberation. The book is open and God is inviting us to write a new chapter, a new verse, a new letter in the story of our people.
Let us be equal to the challenge!