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American Yizkor

The memorial for coronavirus victims, a step toward healing, recalled the Yom Kippur service when we remember those we have lost
President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff to participate in a COVID-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden are joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff to participate in a COVID-19 memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch,
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,

Of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.

So the poet W.H Auden began his eulogy of Sigmund Freud in October 1939, weeks after the outbreak of World War II. Tens of thousands already lay dead on the battlefields and streets of Poland. Tens of millions more would die in Europe before the war was through.

It was Inauguration Day in America and, in keeping with Auden’s pointed question and the tone already set by the incoming President, I noted that the day also marked the one-year anniversary of the first hospitalization in America of a patient with the COVID-19 virus. As Donald Trump exited the stage and Joe Biden was sworn in – in a ceremony secured by a massive presence of law enforcement personnel determined to prevent the sort of attack that took place two weeks earlier at the Capitol – hospital and ICU beds all over America were filled with pandemic victims unable to hold their breath even for a moment or to breathe normally without difficulty.

Like many people around the world, I am numb from the magnitude of the continuing toll in lives and suffering exacted by the virus. More than four hundred thousand Americans have died of the disease to date, far more than the number of American soldiers killed in combat in the two World Wars combined. Some two million souls have perished from the pandemic thus far. Many thousands more pass away daily. “Every day they die among us,” and we know that in coming days and weeks “we shall have to mourn” many more. The news is grim almost everywhere. One wants to look away and focus on other things. Sanity at times demands that we do so. But, as every Jewish mourner knows, respect for the dead and care for the living both require rituals that mark the loss of loved ones and celebrate the ways in which they had “hoped to improve a little by living.” Every one of the people that humanity has lost bore the image of God. Each left behind a trail of achievement and a web of bereavement that are incalculable.

That is why it meant so much to me – as an American and as a Jew – to hear the President-elect say these words in a brief and solemn ceremony held Tuesday evening at the reflecting pool that links the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument: “To heal we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember. But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here today. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all whom we have lost.”

Finally, I said to my wife, a moment of national mourning. At long last: a recognition that death brings together Republicans and Democrats, Trump supporters and fervent opponents of Trump, people appalled by what happened at the Capitol building two weeks ago and people who regret that the attempted insurrection did not succeed. “We” and “us” were the words that most jumped out at me in those remarks – along with mention of the period “between sundown and dusk.” I suspect that the President-elect was referring to the twilight moment at which the ceremony was being held. The lights he had in mind lined the sides of the reflecting pool and shone at the Empire State building and the Seattle space needle. To my ears, though, the words were a reminder of Yom Kippur — a day that begins at sundown and ends at dusk, and prominently features a yizkor service at which we remember those we have lost that year and in previous years, their names illuminated by little lights on the memorial plaques.

Ironically, the virus that has dominated or loomed large in almost every personal conversation that Americans like me have conducted over the past year has been conspicuously absent from national discourse. In part, I think, that is because the former president downplayed the severity of the plague and did not want his administration to bear responsibility for fighting it. Media sympathetic to him followed suit. In part, too, there was simple weariness, a kind of numbness that beset us more and more as a bad spring gave way to a summer of partial respite and then to a fall when, as predicted by the experts, the death toll surged again, reaching new heights this winter in America, Israel and elsewhere. “Of [what] shall we speak,” then, as the poet asks? How many times can one say the same things over and over, discuss the pros and cons of visiting family despite the risk involved, or complain of incidents where people have endangered themselves and others by refusing to wear masks or maintain personal distance?

I’ve often been reminded, as the pandemic dragged on, of the Israelites who, as reported in last week’s Torah portion (Exodus 6:9), were unable to listen to Moses because of kotzer ru’ach ve-avodah kasha, literally “shortness of breath [or spirit] and hard servitude.” To be sure, there have always been matters other than the pandemic that demand and deserve serious attention. That has been true even on days when one was not effecting or marking a momentous transfer of government in the most powerful nation on Earth. No “hardening of heart” need be involved to change the subject from COVID deaths to other things: Brexit or impeachment, perhaps, or the next Israeli election.

These days, talk in America – hope for America — has turned to a faster and more efficient roll-out of the vaccine. Friends and family of my age in Israel have all received the first dose and some the second; in the US, it depends on what state one lives in, what city, even what neighborhood. The patchwork system of government we have in America – and the absence of a national health care system equal to that of every other advanced democracy – means that mayors and governors are scrambling to get hold of the vaccine for their residents and that the criteria for who gets it first, second or last varies from place to place. Individuals must make their own appointments and persist in that effort despite breakdowns of overloaded websites and shifting policies and availability. (I am currently scheduled to get my first dose in several days, but the word is that supplies have run out in New York State, and I will likely have to wait.). Delay of course translates into untold numbers of new infections, a steady number of which will prove fatal.

My mind is drawn again to this week’s Torah portion, where we read that the ninth plague spread darkness on all the Land of Egypt — except for Goshen, where there was light. I thought too of Zionist polemics over the past century and more which proclaimed that Aliyah to Israel was a matter of life or death for Jews. Today it might very well be. Israeli citizenship or residency means “redemption” from the threat of infection. Life in “golah” means a wait of indefinite duration for that protection. Time will tell if the balance is evened out in coming weeks or rendered more glaring.

In the meantime, as the race between infection and vaccine continues, it is comforting to have an American leader who has pledged to vaccinate a hundred million Americans in the next hundred days – and who, even before inaugurated, has summoned the nation to “remember” together as a step toward healing. Some Jewish media are counting the number of Jews in the Cabinet of the incoming administration. To this Jew, Joe Biden’s words last evening – so American, so Jewish — count for far more.

About the Author
Arnold Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
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