For now, the memories are still fresh, but they will fade, as will the opportunity
IN a recent opinion piece in the Bulwark news network, a freelance writer named Daniel writes that while he grew up in Cleveland, although he now lives in Lakewood, and
Since I was a kid, Cleveland’s Public Square Park has always been the center point of the city… In one quadrant of the square is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. It serves as a lasting memorial to those who died in the Civil War, a 125-foot monstrosity with statues of soldiers loading canons and firing pistols. The purpose of such memorials has always been quite clear: “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
The United States is about to bury the millionth person to die from COVID-19… Yet for the most part this milestone has been given not much more than a perfunctory note. Why is that?
Take the Civil War by comparison. About 620,000 of Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War during the four years it was fought in the 1860s. Of those deaths, 31,000 were Ohio citizens, and about 1,700 men from the Cleveland area perished. That is why that monument in our public square plaza exists: 1,700 was too many deaths to forget. In the roughly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, one million Americans have died, 38,550 of those being in Ohio, and about 3,800 from Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland resides…
Daniel lives in Lakewood — Lakewood, Ohio, that is — and his full name is Daniel McGraw. But just because he’s not a frum Jew doesn’t make his question less relevant to us; in fact, it makes it more so. Because if Mr. McGraw is disturbed by the fact that after suffering a million deaths, America has yet to mark this tragic milestone in any significant way, what are we as a Torah community to say?
We are the community to whom life is so precious that we will exert ourselves to do anything, up to and including overriding almost all of the mitzvos, to extend the life of even one individual for even mere seconds. We are the ones who stand up to protect life at both of its ends and anywhere in-between.
And we are, as well, a community that suffered grievously from COVID-19. We all remember those days. The heavy pall of an uncertain future hanging in the air, the eerie quiet in the streets outside during those first terror-stricken weeks, the endless string of silent, minyan-less levayahs, the hesitation to scan the latest news items for fear of whose name we might see there next.
I recently came across a list that Tzali Reicher, a media associate at Chabad’s website, has maintained of Jews, the vast majority of them Orthodox, who fell victim to coronavirus worldwide. Entitled “Each Person, a World,” it’s a partial list containing close to 2,000 names, of young and old, great talmidei chachamim and simple folk and everything in between, from every derech in Yiddishkeit and walk of life. To read through it in one sitting is a sobering experience.
But we are also a remembering people. The Torah bids us to remember the giving of the Torah, what Amalek did to us, and other important events, and with the words “zechor yemos olam,” to remember history as a whole. And we make certain to remember those who are no longer in This World, who they were, and what they stood for, as we do several times each year at Yizkor.
There Seems to Be an inexplicable unwillingness on the part of our communities to make a public spiritual accounting in the wake of this unprecedented Heavenly wake-up call. Not so many years ago, when a few individual Jews were facing the dire fate of long prison sentences, there were multiple gatherings at which thousands turned to Avinu sh'baShamayim in tefillah. Yet, after losing so many, with so many spouses and children left behind as almanos and yesomim, we have yet to ask as a tzibbur, “Mah zos asah Elokim lanu? — What has Hashem wrought, and why?"
Beyond the matter of taking stock and instituting changes, however, there’s also the question of simple remembrance. Are we prepared to take steps to ensure that the memories of the precious ones we lost are not forgotten?
We Jews certainly have our own forms of remembrance, and spurn those of surrounding society. We don’t build monuments and we don’t hold candlelight vigils. But shouldn’t we come together to find other powerful and deeply Jewish ways of remembering?
I can think of several ideas, and I’m sure others can come up with many more. For a neighborhood to publish bound volumes containing tributes and telling life stories is one. Publishing a sefer zikaron or a volume of chiddushei Torah, with contributions by those who knew one or another of the niftarim, is another. A program of Mishnayos learning in their memory with a yearly siyum on the anniversary of the outbreak of the plague is a third.
It’s less important how we ultimately choose to remember. But what would seem so critical is that we don’t appear to the Eibeshter as eager to forget. The desire to “get over Covid” by erasing it from our collective memory is as profoundly un-Jewish as it is natural. Although it’s hard to put a finger on it, there’s something troubling about what it might say about us that we’ve simply moved on so quickly after losing so many and sustaining such a resounding Heavenly message.
Perhaps the upcoming Yom Tov, the time of Yizkor — when rabbanim traditionally speak about remembering our individual loved ones — would be a propitious moment to speak as well of the imperative of preserving this collective memory. For now, the memories are still fresh, but they will fade, as will the opportunity.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 913. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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