People, memory and memorials

Part of the damage that the passage of time inflicts upon us is the inevitable loss of people whose presence in our lives we value. The pandemic accelerated that. Op-ed.

Rabbi Berel Wein ,

Memorial for coronavirus victims
Memorial for coronavirus victims
Miriam Alster/Flash90

It has often been stated that no individual person is indispensable. In spite of all rumors to the contrary, the world continues to go on apace even after we have departed from the scene. Yet, there is an important caveat to this corollary. It is the statement that though no one is indispensable, and no one is really replaceable either. Even though we may think of ourselves as mere cogs in the machine, interchangeable parts that can be replaced when one part wears out, that part with its unique personality, wisdom, foibles, and quirks is not replaceable.


There is a spark within each of us that constantly reminds us of our individuality and uniqueness, and reassures us that no matter what, each of us is special.
There have been many attempts in human history, especially by dictatorial governments and autocratic institutions, to treat all human beings the same, and to mobilize them into a rigid society where the individual really counts for nothing. Amazingly enough, despite all this force and attempts to control society, the human spirit has resisted and refused to be crushed, with the need to remain individualistic and unique at almost all cost to themselves, and they have always triumphed in the end.

There is a spark within each of us that constantly reminds us of our individuality and uniqueness, and reassures us that no matter what, each of us is special. This has been a Jewish view of human beings from time immemorial. Human beings, from the very beginning, were created as individuals, and therefore people should never be considered just a large herd of moving organisms. We all were created as unique people, and there never again will be anyone exactly like me in the world.

This fact of life has been borne out to me when I look back over the past year, and realize how many good friends, unique individuals and treasured mentors have passed on and are no longer here. Each one is, to me, completely irreplaceable. None of them are indispensable to my continued functionality and physical well-being. But I feel myself a lesser person simply because these people that I so treasured no longer exist.

There are even moments when I forget that they are no longer here, and I pick up the telephone and dial his or her number, fully expecting that there should somehow be a response at the other end of the line. Naturally, I have always come up short when I realize my error. It only reinforces in me this strong idea about the difference between being indispensable and irreplaceable.

We are all afflicted by the passage of time, whether it be physically, emotionally, or mentally. But part of the damage that the passage of time inflicts upon us is the inevitable loss of people whose presence in our lives we value. At one and the same time, this brings forth within us a feeling of sadness, but also an appreciation for the gift that was bestowed upon us, simply by knowing that person. To a certain extent, this sense of loss that we feel is balanced by the sense of appreciation and recognition that one can gain only what one truly appreciates what is now missing in one's life and existence.

Perhaps, this accounts for the universal human trait of establishing memorials and monuments. These memorials sometimes are physical, such as the stone monuments that mark the final resting place of that person. But there are also the memorials, spiritual, educational, and social that we erect to invoke the memory of the deceased on a more permanent basis.

It is the very uniqueness of that person that was so valuable in life that now distinguishes the memory of that person and fuels our desire to share that memory with others of our own and future generations. People sense that memory is somehow inextricably bound up with immortality, and that if a person is yet remembered in this world, the immortality of that person is guaranteed.

Part of the tragedy of our time is that there are millions of unique individuals who were done to the death in the name of a supposedly higher purpose or fanciful utopia and have no memorial to mark the path that they walked in their lifetimes. The most dreaded fear that human beings harbor within themselves is that they will be forgotten, and it will be as though they never were here at all. However, if we think of people as being irreplaceable, the memory of them is unique and remains.



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