Parasha Ekev

Some Thoughts on the Deaths of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall
This week we lost two great American actors: Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall. Fellow Americans and people from all over the world were shocked and deeply saddened by the unexpected news of Robin Williams death by his own hands. Many of us have lost a loved in similar circumstances. At moments of such tragedy we most likely turned to our religious beliefs in the hope of finding comfort and seeking spiritual sustenance. What does Judaism specifically says about suicide? How are we to make sense of a fundamentally incomprehensible and senseless act?
Judaism holds nuanced and complex positions on suicide. In this area Judaism has naturally evolved through our history. . The first King of Israel, Saul, died by his own hand. He fell on his own sword rather than be captured by the Philistines in battle. He was fearful that he would be tortured, killed, and his body desecrated. For this, the rabbis praise him. The Bible itself does not comment on it. There is also a story in the Talmud about boys and girls of Jerusalem who were captured by the Romans and were being brought to Rome to be sold as sex slaves. They all threw themselves into the sea. They also and are praised by the rabbis for taking their own lives. There are heartrending and terrifying stories about Jews in the Middle Ages killing their wives and children before taking their own lives, rather than falling alive into the clutches of the Crusaders. Again, they are praised as martyrs. All of these are considered, “anoos” – that is, forced by circumstances – to act as they did. But there is no discussion in any ancient or Talmudic Jewish text of a person who takes their own life while living in seemingly normal circumstances. The first time we find this discussed in a Jewish text is in the Middle Ages. Here it states that a person who takes their own life with a clear mind and with stated intent is to be afforded no burial rites, although their families are to be comforted. But how many people, living in normal circumstances, take their own life with a clear mind?  The contemporary American writer William Styron describes the onset of his own debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts this way, “My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and un-nameable tide ……. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul….. [Severe depression] remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode.
Several years ago many of us watched a Mexican movie for selichot night, “Nora’s Will”, written and directed by the Mariana Chenillo.  In this film a rabbi insists that a Jewish woman who had committed suicide be buried in a remote section of the cemetery reserved for criminals. According to him her suicide was akin to murder – albeit murder of the self. This punitive attitude toward suicide is not the thinking of most rabbis today. The great 19th century halakhist Rabbi Yechiel Epstein writes in his magisterial work the Arukh HaShulkhan, "We seek all sorts of reasons possible to explain away the person's action, either his fear, or his pain, or temporary insanity, in order not to declare the person a suicide.” The person who takes their own life should be treated with dignity and respect in death. They should be afforded the complete burial rites prescribed by Judaism.
The death of Lauren Bacall was not shocking – she died in the fullness of her years. She was born Betty Joan Perske, to Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1924 in the Bronx, in New York City. She came to Hollywood at a time when having a Jewish sounding name could be a hindrance in ones career, and therefore changed her name to Lauren Bacall, after her mother’s maiden name Bacall-Weinstein.  She was 19 years old when she was brought to Hollywood by the director Howard Hawkes.  Hawkes was known for his disparaging remarks about Jews, and when he soon made one in front of her, she thought, “Oh, no, don’t let him be anti-Semitic. G-d, don’t let me come all this way and have it blow up in my face.” She acquiesced to Humphrey Bogart’s suggestion that their children be baptized, although she had misgivings. Together they made the calculation that with discrimination being so rampant in our world becoming Christian would give their children one less hurdle to overcome in life. “True, I didn’t go to synagogue,” she wrote, “but I felt totally Jewish and always would. I certainly didn’t intend to convert to Episcopalianism for the children, or to deny my own heritage. At the same time I knew how important it could be to a child to have a religious identity.”
Lauren Bacall struggled with her Jewish identity at a time when being Jewish was not very accepted, and there was a great deal of discrimination against Jews. Once, she revealed to some other models that she was Jewish. They expressed surprise, “You don’t look Jewish”, they said. They meant this as a compliment. “I resented the discussion — and I resented being Jewish, being singled out because I was, and being some sort of freak because I didn’t look it,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography. “Who cares? What is the difference between Jewish and Christian? But the difference is there — I’ve never really understood it and I spent the first half of my life worrying about it…..”
We live in a very different world than Lauren Bacall did early in her career, a world where Jews are accepted and indeed embraced in American society. So, it may be hard for us to understand her struggles around Judaism, to sympathize with her pain, to accept the choice that she made to baptize her children.   Surely, none of us would want to find ourselves in the position that Robin Williams faced. Nor would we want to find ourselves in the position that Lauren Bacall faced. Robin Williams was unable to resist the call of death. Lauren Bacall was unable to resist the call of assimilation. It is a challenge for us to remain understanding when we have difficult feelings like anger or disappointment toward actions others take, especially those we love or admire.
The sage Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community; do not trust in yourself until the day you die; do not judge another person until you have been in their place.” Hillel is saying we should remember that we are all human beings and subject to the all human foibles, all human passions, all the pitfalls and stumbling blocks that afflict humanity. We should never say, “It could not happen to me.” And therefore, we ought to resist the temptation to judge – if we were in their place, in their time, in their circumstances, if we felt what they felt — we might have done the same.   Shabbat Shalom