Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

The Healing Power of Laughter: The Jewish Genius of Robin Williams

Robin Williams tweeted this picture of himself last year and said "Rabbi Robin?"

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 oftraditional 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.

Want to Learn More About Jewish Humor? Click here to get a free ebook.

God Never Gives Up Hope: A Prayer for Israel

 I remember my first visit to Israel in 1994. The Oslo Accords had just been signed. Hope reigned. My group was greeted warmly in the Arab market in Jerusalem.

ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN-GAZA-CONFLICT

The opposite feelings prevail today. We witness bombings, indiscriminate hatred, vitriol. Dozens of my friends who are there now share words of sadness and despair.

Can we find any basis for hope? We must. Not because it’s easy. But because the alternatives are devastating.

The first alternative is giving up. We simply let violence continue until enough lives are lost that we can’t take it anymore.

The second alternative is to let hate multiply. I support Israel’s right to defend itself, but it is not hard to find grievances on both sides. The longer the conflict continues, the more grievances both sides will have. It is not hard to imagine.

The third and perhaps most tempting alternative is cynicism. We can say this conflict will never end. It may stop temporarily but will resume soon enough. I admit to feeling this way sometimes.

What my tradition calls upon, however, is hope. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, said that Judaism asks to each of us to “be an optimist against all better judgment.” 

What gives me that hope, that optimism, is a God who cares about every human being. God gave us a world to cherish and protect, and more often not, we fail in doing so. But like us, God never gives up hope.

Join me in the prayer written by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum

…God, Grant me the strength not to despair so that I can proclaim:

Behold, I take upon myself the yoke of the kingdom of life

A language of compassion and peace and love of humanity.

Grant me the strength that my soul not die but live,

And perceive the eternal light as it gradually bursts forth. 

The Secret to Happiness? Let Life Surprise You

remember sitting one day with my  three-year-old daughter. She had a book in her and was turning the pages and telling the story. This was her regular habit. She could not yet read the words, but she could tell the story based on the pictures.

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I had one ear listening to her voice and the other, I am sorry to say, thinking about the coming week’s sermon. Suddenly I stopped thinking about the sermon. I turned my head toward her. Something was different.

I looked down at the book. I realized she was not telling the story in her own words. She was reading the words on the page.

I couldn’t believe it. Time stood still for a second. Then I looked at her, laughed, smiled and started to sing. I didn’t sing any particular song. It was just words of joy and happiness, and we both started dancing around the room. That was a transformative moment. It was a time on my journey when the waters parted and I glimpsed God working in the world.

How Surprises Touch Your Soul

What made it special? Not the reading. That would happen one day. It was the surprise. It was the sheer delight in seeing expectations shattered.

We all have these experiences. Perhaps it is the twinge inside when you fall in love. Perhaps it is swelling up of pride when your child does the right thing when they don’t know you are watching. Those moments make all the difference. Life is richer when we let it surprise us. 

Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel made this point when he said he remained young by constantly being surprised? How do we heed Heschel’s advice?

1. Keep an open mind: I known that sounds like a cliche, but think about it. How often do we look at the future as a series of milestones to achieve? Next year we’ll get the promotion. In a few hours we’ll look at a different house. We’ll start that book when our first kid goes off to college. We often look at life as a puzzle to solve rather than a mystery to embrace. But when it’s a mystery, surprises abound.

2. Moderate expectations: Many psychologists point out that expectations are the enemy of happiness. They set us up for failure because we look for what doesn’t fit. Picture a man or woman looking for the perfect spouse. They have a checklist: right income, right family, right hair color. Where is the mystery? Where is the space for surprise? It’s hard to be surprised when you know exactly what’s going to happen.

3. Shift your perspective: Albert Einstein said many wise things. Most of them have nothing to do with science. Amongst my favorites is his observation that  “There are only two ways to look at the world. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

 Albert Einstein said many wise things. Most of them have nothing to do with science. Amongst my favorites is his observation that  “There are only two ways to look at the world. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” To that we can only say “Amen.” 

Do Christians Need to Learn More About Judaism? A Rabbi Responds to the Pope

In the 1970s Alex Haley wrote the best-seller Roots. He sought to find the roots of his life as an African-American. Where did he come from? What experiences shaped who he was?

pope rabbi 1

 
We all ask these questions. We seek not only geographic roots and ethnic roots. We look for spiritual roots. Where do we come from? Why do we believe what we believe? 
 
For Christians much of the answer lies in Judaism. Pope Francis recently put it bluntly when he said, “I believe that inter-religious dialogue must investigate the Jewish roots of Christianity and the Christian flowering of Judaism… Inside every Christian is a Jew.”

The Past is Never Past 

 The Pope acknowledged this statement will upset many people. Some Jews will feel the statement does not acknowledge the tragic history of anti-semitism in the Church. Some might also say in referring to the Christian “flowering” of Judaism, his statement minimizes the legitimacy of Judaism on its own.

 The Pope is not denigrating any of us. His statement is an invitation to dig deeper into who we are. Finding our roots does not delegitimize who we have become. It helps us understand ourselves better. We all know this in our personal lives.
 
As an example, I live in Chicago. I love this city to the depths of my soul. Yet, I also grew up in Houston, Texas. I love visiting there and and am grateful for the slight southern twang it gave me. I also attended high school in Milwaukee, and living there can me an appreciation for the lakefront.

We Don’t Have to Agree in order to Learn

Appreciating the beauties of Houston and Milwaukee does not diminish my love for Chicago. Similarly, knowing more about Judaism need not diminish a Christian’s love and appreciation of Christianity. As a rabbi, I have seen the sparks ignited when some of the treasures of Judaism are opened up to people who have never experienced them.  

Yes, we will disagree on practices and interpretations. Yet, disagreement does not imply illegitimacy. To live in a time when Christians can find meaning in Jewish practices, and Jews can work and learn with Christians as partners is a blessing we should celebrate.

How We Grow Through Each Other

This lesson really hit home when I dialogued on Lent and Passover with my friend Reverend Lillian Daniel. We were moved by the questions members of our congregations asked us and one another. Jews can learn more about major aspects of Christianity like the Resurrection, and Christians can learn more about Jewish texts like the Talmud.

All of us discovered a new religious truth for the 21st century: Learning about and exploring other faiths does threaten our uniqueness. It brings us closer to the God who created us all.

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