Forgive me for writing on the following subject; it’s been on my mind a lot over the last week and I think it’s important. As so often happens, it came to my attention from two unconnected sources, as if some higher power had synchronised them.
First I received a phone call: ‘He came as a refugee. Life was always difficult. He’s been ill for a long time and the end is near. There’s no family, no one. What does one do?’
(I was reminded how, at the statue in their honour outside Liverpool Street Station, a man who came on the Kindertransport told us that Margaret Thatcher sent a message to the first reunion of such ‘Kinder’ thanking them for the contribution they had made to Britain. ‘It’s remarkable how many went on to do great things’, he said, ‘But we mustn’t forget the others, even if few, who lived out lonely existences in bed-sits, who never found the resources to create a new life, who simply suffered until the end’.)
Then the following passage came up in my Talmud class (One of the wonderful features of the Talmud is that, no matter what subject one is formally studying, one never knows what topics will arise a propos.) ‘If someone dies who has no mourners ten people go and sit in his / her place. A certain man died in the neighbourhood of Rav Yehudah. He had no mourners. Rav Yehudah took ten people each day and sat in the man’s place (ie. sat shivah in the home of the deceased.) After seven days the departed appeared to Rav Yehudah in a dream and said, ‘Let your spirit be at rest, for you have set my soul at rest’. (Shabbat 152a-b)
One of the many challenging aspects of reaching old age is that a person sometimes outlives all his or her friends. What is life if there’s no one left who’s ‘been through it with us’, with whom to share memories? (One’s reminded of Honi’s prayer when he wakes up after sleeping for seventy years, ‘Give me friends, or let me die!’) Other people are robbed by war and persecution not only of their past, with home, family and mother country, but of the hope, heart’s strength and opportunities which would have enabled them to have a fulfilled life, had they not been afflicted by destiny.
But whoever we are, our life substantially adds up in the end to the good and loving memories we leave in others’ hearts. Therefore it’s a wrong if someone makes their final journey down into the earth unknown, unremembered and uncherished.
I’ve listened to a lot of eulogies in funeral halls and shivas. In this way many people I didn’t directly know have become part of my moral, spiritual and emotional frame of reference. I think of what I’ve learnt about them and find myself guided by voices I never actually heard.
Within them is not only much wisdom, love and humour, but so much history. ‘My father never came to the station, he blessed me and wept’; ‘We crossed the Urals in the snow’; ‘My grandmother sung to me in Yiddish and I understood it all, without understanding a word’.