The United States will soon surpass a heartbreaking milestone; a half-million people who have died in our country from COVID-19 since the first reported death in the late winter of last year. The number is already too large to grasp. Knowing that the number of deaths will continue to climb, perhaps at a slower pace but still increasing, only adds to the anguish. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic on our shores, how do we react to such staggering loss? How do we remember and honor those we have lost? How do we continue to find hope even as the pandemic continues to spread to every corner of the world?
Jewish history and tradition provide some tentative lessons to consider, not just because we have been victims of Holocaust and pogrom, but because we insist on remembering our catastrophes as well as our triumphs. Over centuries, we have adopted rituals and embraced prayers that ensure the dead are not forgotten, even as we cherish the living and encourage bravery and resilience in the face of disaster. Each tragedy is, of course, unique. As we seek ways to recall and respect those we have lost during an ongoing pandemic, of course, our ideas can only be preliminary. Nevertheless, the toll of this modern plague calls upon us all, each touched in ways large and small by this deadly disease, to find ways to remember those taken and comfort those who remain.
When the Israeli Knesset considered how to remember the Shoah and a death toll more than 6 million Jews, for example, the debate focused on how to pick one day to recall a Holocaust that occurred on every day of the calendar. The date eventually chosen, the 27th day of Nisan, had no special significance and pleased no one. Consequently, different parts of the Jewish community commemorate the Holocaust on different days and the international community remembers the Nazi genocide on an entirely different date. This division gives us three different days to remember a genocide we could recall on any day of the year. Even so, this division of dates also fragments our community into distinct pockets of observance, each committed to its different days and rituals. When the time comes to think of a community-wide remembrance for those lost to COVID-19, accordingly, Jewish history teaches us to carefully consider whether we will have one national or international day of observance or several dates allocated to days significant to various countries or communities.
Jewish tradition also counsels us to remember, not 6 million or 500,000 lost altogether, but each individual loss, every death a loss and a tragedy. To lose one life, the Talmud teaches, is to lose an entire world. The Jewish people’s experience with staggering losses teaches us that remembering the individual worlds we have lost will acknowledge the reality and the scope of the loss we have suffered far better than relying on abstract numbers, no matter how high. To paraphrase Rabbi Marc Gellman’s eulogy at Yankee stadium after 9/11, ‘not 3,000 lives lost, but one whole person who died 3,000 times.’ As with that terrible loss of life, so should it be with the lives lost to this pandemic.
When the 1918 pandemic ended after two years of waves after waves of death and illness, the world resolved to forget about the Spanish flu and its victims. Although experts estimate that over 50 million perished worldwide, approximately 675,000 of them from the United States, you will find little mention of it in literature, art, or music from the time and almost no lasting monuments or ceremonies. Some ascribe the absence of remembrance to the trauma of World War I, which overlapped in time with part of the pandemic. Others attribute the absence of memorial to the stunning number of the dead. Whatever the reason, the absence of memory of the last great plague, even in the generation that lived through it, denied later generations the opportunity to remember and learn. Jewish tradition, in contrast, emphasizes the importance of memory, as both a source of comfort and a resource for those who come after. May we not forget these lessons even as we now see the possibility of an end to this tragic plague. Rabbi Michael Howald