“Let us each light a candle in memory of those who have lost their lives, in tribute to those on the frontline who are working tirelessly to protect us from harm, in appreciation of the great sacrifices that have been made this past year, and in the confidence that the year ahead will bring health, peace and hope to our people.” (President Cyril Ramaphosa, National Address on Covid-19, 28th December 2020).
In South Africa, hospitals are overflowing, cases of infections and numbers of deaths are soaring, we have a new variant, and healthcare workers are losing their lives in selfless sacrifice. People are exhausted, morale is low, and indifference has set in. Many have stopped wearing masks, and have been attending huge social events — all with the result that masks are now mandatory by law with legal consequences, and all social events are prohibited. Someone remarked to me that if the WHO had placed emphasis that a mask saves you instead of saying it saves others, more people would be wearing masks.
Much to the detriment of society, humans are essentially selfish. “They’re wearing a mask, I don’t have to put one on” — well… it doesn’t work that way. If it did, and with that mentality, no one would ever wear one. People believe they won’t get the virus, that it couldn’t possibly happen to them. One aspect is sheer carelessness, and a lack of belief in the severity of the virus. But I believe that there is another side: a subconscious fear. A fear that we will become infected, a fear that we will die. If we believe it couldn’t happen to us, then we escape the fear of death. I daresay most of us have had a “I don’t feel good, maybe I have covid” moment (at least I have) and I’ll be honest, the idea of getting tested terrified me. “I’m sure it’s not covid, it’s probably just something or other.” Many of us are scared and rightly paranoid. The problem is that not all are.
We hear the same message over and over again: “wear a mask, sanitise your hands, maintain social distancing.” It is becoming mind-numbing. The president’s addresses are becoming repetitive but each is more emotional than the next as he pleads with us to adhere to health regulations. The statistics cited are higher and higher every time. South Africa has now had over 1 million cases since March. Over 40 000 healthcare workers have been infected.
But these cases are not just statistics. They’re people. People with lives, who laugh and cry just as you and I do. They are and were individuals with hopes, dreams, a family and loved ones. Each person lost is a world of dreams destroyed.
Grieving and remembering those passed on is central to Jewish life. Every year on the date of death, the Yartzheit, we light a 24 hour candle. We visit their graves, and recite psalms in their merit. We pray that their souls are at peace. Judaism emphasises remembrance for from the day of death to the following week and month and year, there is a carefully structured mourning. Mourners are supported by the community, given food and visited, they are not allowed to listen to music nor attend celebrations. Judaism acknowledges how death shapes lives.
We can never leave the dead behind for they will always be a part of us. They have shaped us even if we never even knew their names. Every person is part of the klall, the whole. ‘Kol Yisrael Areivin Ze Be Zeh‘ — all of Israel is responsible for one another (Rashi on Leviticus, 26:37; Tractate Sanhedrin 27b). We are responsible for the living, be they stranger, friend or foe.
It rang home sharply when the president asked us to light a candle at midnight tonight. Instead of lighting fireworks, a jubilant dismissal of the past year, we reflect in the light of what 2020 has been for us all. It is somber, yes, but I believe that it is the most appropriate way to start the new year. If there is at least one thing 2020 has taught us, it is to recognise the sacrifice that others constantly make for us. It is about never forgetting those who have sacrificed their lives for us.
The candle is not just for those gone, but it is also for us. The tragedy of their deaths is not only their tragedy, it is also ours. The candle is a reminder that we have not only a responsibility, but an accountability to each person — both living and passed — around us. We are remembering them, but we also need to remember that we have a role to play. As we shift from 2020 to 2021, we need to pray for a future for ourselves, but also remember the past and the futures that will never be. As the last night of 2020 approaches, let us light a candle in tribute for those who died for us.