A week has passed since Robin Williams took his own life and he remains at the forefront of my thoughts. Upon reflecting on the comedian’s tragic death, my colleague at Temple Beth Sholom, Rabbi Steven Lindemann, reminded me of a story from the Talmud (Ta’anit 22a) about comedians. The story claims that Elijah the Prophet would frequently appear to Rabbi Beroka in the marketplace. On one of these visits, Rabbi Beroka asked Elijah, “Is there anyone in this marketplace who is destined for the World to Come?” Elijah pointed to two individuals. Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked, “What do you do?” They answered, “We are comedians who cheer up those who are depressed.”
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Why would the ability to make people laugh merit a place in the World to Come? Rabbi Yaakov Reischer, in his 17th century commentary Iyun Yaakov, explains that one is not allowed to pray or even do a single mitzvah unless s/he feels joy. Therefore, these comedians are not simply making people smile; they are allowing them to live. That’s what laughter can do for us. A joke can lighten the tension, a funny movie can change our mood, and a hilarious comedy routine from a master like Williams can lampoon our foibles and our fears. It is difficult to observe mitzvot when we are distracted by pain or simply not in a good mood. Sometimes what we need is a good laugh to help us to reengage with God and other human beings.
It is said that the secret of comedy is timing. Not only did Williams have excellent comic timing, he also had excellent human timing. With his humanity and empathic soul, Williams knew how to use his gift at just the right times.
One of those times was at a comedy club in Atlantic City. After a show by Jim Norton, Williams approached the comedian’s parents and made a point of spending time with them and heaping praises on their son. Williams knew that a well-timed compliment or words of encouragement could mean the world to someone, Norton wrote in Time Magazine, and it did for his parents.
Williams’ empathy extended beyond his comedic colleagues. A decade ago, there was a 13-year-old girl named Jessica whose Make-A-Wish was to meet Williams. According to CNN, The Make-A-Wish Foundation got in touch with Williams, who invited her to the set of the movie he was filming. Jessica was too sick to make the trip, so Williams chartered a plane at his own expense and flew to Greensboro, North Carolina, to visit Jessica for a Sunday. He got her laughing and they watched football and played cards together. He stayed longer than he was supposed to and apologized profusely for having to leave. They had a great day together, Jessica’s wish was fulfilled. She passed away two weeks later.
These two stories show how Williams lived the story from the Talmud. He had a unique ability to cheer up those who were depressed, and by doing so allowed them to live once again. This, of course, is the sad irony of his story. Robin Williams could cheer up the depressed, but he couldn’t overcome his own depression. Sometimes we can do for others what we cannot do for ourselves.
Yet the way Williams lived is a reminder of the power we all have to make a positive difference in the lives of the people we know, and even in the lives of those we don’t know. Taking the time to listen, to share a kind word, and to make someone laugh, can make all the difference. Timing is not only the secret of comedy; it is the secret of life. That’s why comedians have a place in the World to Come. They remind us that a well-timed gesture can bring light where there is a darkness, hope where there is despair.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a Conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.