What does one have to do to be remembered?
I visited the disused Rice Lane Cemetery in Liverpool a few months ago. Three of my great grandparents are buried there. Whenever I walk through an older graveyard like this, the above thought occurs to me. Because I start to think that human beings, living, breathing, feeling human beings, just like me, have become nothing more than meaningless names on stones. No one remembers them. No one is interested in them. Gone, as though they never existed. And then I consider that the same fate awaits me.
And yet, when in this week’s portion Moses is born, I see there is another option. Because three thousand, three hundred years later, he is by no means forgotten.
I used to believe that to be remembered you had to write a book – and it had to be a really good one. Or paint a masterpiece. Visiting the Van Gogh immersive experience a few weeks ago reminded me of that. One hundred and thirty years after his death, he is more famous than ever – and will likely never be forgotten. Did you know, by the way, that he painted most of his paintings in the last two years of his life. Hundreds of paintings, that sell for upwards of $100,000,000, he painted in a day and a half each. A reminder of how much productivity is available to us human beings.
Nowadays, however, I think that being remembered can happen in many ways. But, most fundamentally, you must do something that matters – for better or for worse. Hitler will be no less remembered than Churchill, Stalin, no less than Mandela. You must do something that impacts society as a whole. That’s the only way not to become just a name on a gravestone in a forgotten cemetery.
I’ve talked before about the grave of Israel Poznanski in Lodz. A mausoleum larger than my house, of marble, and a mosaic made up of millions of pieces of glass……lies forgotten and decaying, in a forlorn graveyard, bereft of its once vibrant community. It’s deeds that matter, not monuments. And Moses had the deeds – not the monument.
But I want to share something my wife says whenever I share such morbid reflections with her. Do we really want to be remembered? Do we need it? Is it not simply ego and vanity?
Surely, it is the contribution itself that matters? Living in the feeling of life and sharing that with others for as long as we are blessed to do so. What means more than that? That others remember you when you are gone? And then these remembers, themselves, become the same dust that you did? It seems so irrelevant.
So, let Israel Poznanski’s mausoleum crumble to dust. What matters is how he lived his life. What matters is how each of us live our own lives. We get a tiny fraction of a moment to enjoy this world and make our own unique contribution. I, for one, am going to do my best to live my life right now. And, if I am remembered or not, matters not one iota. I’m happy to become a forgotten name in a neglected graveyard.
Parsha in a Nutshell
Egypt is the prototype for future Jewish settlement in exile. Firstly, the Jews move out to the suburbs, in this case Goshen. Then they become successful. Then they assimilate into Egyptian society and make vast contributions. Then social acceptance and complete integration, right? Not quite. A new Pharaoh arises who decides that Jewish children are far better off swimming at the bottom of the Nile. And so the persecution begins.
A child is born who is to be the saviour of the Jewish nation. Saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, he is brought up as a prince. She names him Moses. He does not forget his origins and when confronted with an Egyptian murdering a Jew, he kills the Egyptian and flees to Ethiopia. Many years later, God appears to him at a burning bush. After some arm-twisting, Moses agrees to return to Egypt to lead the Jewish people to freedom. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh is none too enamoured with the idea of losing his entire unpaid workforce overnight. He decides to put down the potential mutiny before it begins and significantly increases the workload on the Jewish slaves. Again, not surprisingly, the Jews are not too excited with Moses’ efforts so far and the portion ends with him in everyone’s bad books – part and parcel of being a leader, in particular in the Jewish community.