September 21, 2017 | An Invisible Legacy (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur 5778)
Ari S. Lorge
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It had been a year and a half since I posted the notice on ancestry.com. I wrote these words and hoped the right people would see them: “If you know of, or are related to Rabbi Louis Grossmann, please be in touch.” The more I learned about Grossmann the more I wondered how his name was lost to history. How does someone like that disappear; all memory of him gone? Senior rabbi at one of the most prestigious synagogues in America, a pioneer in the field of Jewish education, a teacher of generations of rabbis, author of numerous books and articles. He saw his community and Reform Judaism through the mass immigration of Eastern European Jewry to America, through World War 1, through the issuing of the Balfour Declaration. He was an early advocate of women’s leadership in Jewish life, and at the turn of the 20th century vocally supported equality for the African American community. Grossmann was in all the right places, in all the rooms where it happened. And yet, he had been forgotten – even by academics in the field. I had only chanced upon him while doing research in the American Jewish Archives. But I became engrossed with Grossmann. I spent 2 years during rabbinical school uncovering his story for my rabbinical thesis. Scouring letters, diaries, meeting minutes and other dusty tomes. It was my Da Vinci-Code moment. I reconstructed an image of this rabbi’s life and work. The more I learned, the more I saw how Grossmann’s ideas, values, positions, and actions had impacted the Jewish community in which I lived over a hundred years later. I was unearthing an incredible legacy. And yet that legacy had become invisible. There were still gaps in my knowledge. So, I posted on anscestry.com trying to discover if he had any family.
I waited and waited with no word. My thesis deadline arrived. I turned in the paper. And, because the Gods of academia are cruel, no sooner had I turned it in than I received the response from his great-great-great niece. Sure, maybe it was too late for my thesis, but finally I would have my lingering questions answered. I could barely contain myself as I dialed the phone. Once I connected with the family I said, “Tell me about Grossmann.” And they replied, “tell you about Grossmann Tell us about Grossmann.” It turns out, as eager as I was to learn about Grossmann from them, they were just as eager to learn about Grossmann from me. They knew almost nothing. As a young student, this stunned me. I spent 2 years uncovering this man’s rich and vibrant legacy only to discover it wasn’t only lost to history, it was lost to his own family as well.
But we can’t fault them. It is true for most of us. Take a moment to think of your parents. Likely your mind fills with vivid memories. You probably know a full account of their lives. What about grandparents? You might know much of their biography and the contours and quality of their character. Great-grandparents. Now things become murkier. What do you know about them? A name, maybe the headline of an accomplishment. Great-Great grandparents, only four generations back? Few but the most avid family historians likely know much at all. When it goes beyond our parents and grandparents, our ancestors become two-dimensional at best. There is a Russian proverb, “You live as long as you are remembered.” If true, then we’re in trouble. Within four generations or so, our legacies fade even for our family. How do we respond to such a truth about our memory - about our legacy?
One possible response is a philosophical one that suggests nothing we do matters. The argument is that if we won’t be remembered too long beyond our lives, we should seek our own pleasure above all else and look solely after our own interests. This is best articulated in Greek philosophy and the philosophical schools which were born after it. Such Hellenistic thought even crept into Jewish tradition in the words of Kohelet best paraphrased as, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” While the sentiment is in our scripture, Judaism is clear that there is more to life than gratification and self-service. One truth we know without a doubt is that the surest way to ensure we have no lasting legacy is to only serve ourselves.
Another response to the inevitability that our legacies fade is to try to build monuments to ourselves. This response is more universal. Many of us probably fit into this category. We think, if I write that book or piece of music, star in that play or movie, achieve that high position at work, become a leader in my field, perhaps my legacy will endure beyond my years. And this can motivate us to do all manner of good. It pushes us to achieve, to work hard, to perform great acts of philanthropy. And yet, while it may delay the fading of our memory, it does not prevent it. After all, until a smash hit musical, what did anyone remember about Alexander Hamilton? What can we recall about a President Fillmore or Polk? Ask a teenager about Humphrey Bogart or Joan Baez, even the Backstreet Boys and be prepared to feel old. And these were some of the most famous people of their day. Fame, wealth, scholarship, art may postpone the fading of our memory. But in the end, none of this guarantees we will be remembered. All we may be left with is an invisible legacy. And I think most of us worry and wonder, “Is that enough?”
There is a moment in the television series, “The West Wing,” where the president realizes that to pass a piece of key legislation he supports, he must take his name off of the bill. Meeting with his advisors to discuss how to proceed, his deputy chief of staff, Joshua Lyman, declares, “We’ll have saved this…and no one will even know we were in the room.” His communications director replies, “We’ll know. And if we don’t do this…if growing old in America means growing poor again…we’ll know that, too.” Lyman replies starkly, “There is no such thing as an invisible legacy.” In that one line, he expresses an entrenched human fear. We are given an extraordinary gift: a life. We don’t know its length or its limits, yet we know there is a finite amount of time. And we yearn to make it matter. To know that the world was different for our having been a part of it. And we desire beyond anything to know that we matter, too. And we worry, have we done enough so that we won’t simply be snuffed out and disappear? Will anyone tell our story, and for how long? Because if our story isn’t being told, will we have mattered? We are terrified that the Russian Proverb is true; that we only live so long as we are remembered. Who are we if presidents, celebrities, even rabbis fade into obscurity over time.
So, let me assure you, there is such a thing as an invisible legacy. We can live longer than we are remembered. We can leave our mark even if people can’t name us anymore. If we link our lives to a force that acts to change our world for the better, we can continue to have an impact even after we are gone. So long as that force for change exists, so do we. And this is not some consolation prize to those of us who will not be Shakespeare. An invisible legacy – the legacy that lives on in impact even if it’s anonymous—can be far richer and far more important than being remembered. An invisible legacy is without a doubt the only thing that has ever changed and shaped the world. In the course of a lifetime an individual might shape a family, a community, even a nation – but it takes generations of the nameless, working together through time, to alter the course of humanity. If we are a part of such an enterprise, we can taste immortality.
Every High Holidays, we recite Unetaneh Tokef – what I was told most of us call the “Who will live and who will die” prayer. The end of the liturgy reminds us “we are like grass that withers and a dream soon forgotten.” Judaism asks us to confront the fact that as humans our lives are finite and our lights dim; we are indeed the grass and the dream. But that is not how the prayer concludes. It continues, “But you God are everlasting – and You have linked our name to yours.” The response to realizing that our memories fade is not to choose selfishness. It is not to futilely try to make our names great. The response to knowing that our lives are ephemeral is to pursue a goal, a dream that is eternal – to link our names to it and to align our lives with it. When we do that, we prove the Russian proverb wrong: we live on far longer than we are remembered. During these days of reflection, there is no more important question to ask than, “To what will we link our names?” Will it be worthy of our lifetime?
In times such as ours, when all around us we see thousands linking their names to hate, xenophobia, power, materialism, and violence, this question is not a philosophical one, it is urgent. It is a question of moral courage to link our name to the constructive enterprise, not the destructive one. All around us are those whose visions are shortsighted; who sow seeds of hate or selfishness because it serves their purposes today not caring for tomorrow, who pursue policies for immediate personal gain while dooming generations to come, who take care of their own while neglecting others; or even while exploiting others. There is another call.
Judaism is by far the longest lasting invisible legacy to which we can link our names. It is not the only one, but it is ours, and it places within our hearts a goal towards which Jews have striven for thousands of years. Jews can agree on the goal, though we may disagree on how to reach it. Our primary purpose as a people is to build and foster a world that is whole. To establish a world where humanity sees the spark of divinity in all people, even if they act differently, look differently, believe differently than we do. A world where everyone’s basic needs are met; where hunger, homelessness, and preventable disease are eradicated. A world where fear is banished—both fear for the well-being of those we love and fear of the stranger and our neighbor. A world where all can be secure in their homes. Where rulers and judges act with equity and justice. Where the stranger feels as dear to us as our sister, and where brothers know they are one another’s keeper. That is the work of Judaism. Everything else is commentary; that is the ikar—the essence—of a Jewish life. The short hand we use for that goal towards which we strive is the Messianic Age.
Judaism created this blueprint for the world as it ought to be and then passed the plans down through every generation. Each generation knew they couldn’t complete the project, but that if they did their best and reared another generation to revere the blueprint, perhaps over time it could be achieved. Martin Buber wrote that pursuing this vision is the work of thousands climbing on each other’s shoulders forming a ladder to heaven. And how many countless millions in fact have lived and died toiling for that goal; each one of them now an eternal rung on that ladder. We do not know their names, but they live on because so too does the vision of what the world can and should become. It is why Rabbi Louis Grossmann endures, whether we know his name or not. He linked his name to something eternal.
We can do the same. We only need to make a conscious decision to take up that Jewish blueprint and set to work. We can consult it. The prophet Jeremiah said we should champion the cause of the poor if we want to know God. So, we might regularly feed the hungry or look to do our small part to end systemic poverty. Isaiah said God demanded that we, “comfort all who mourn” and “bind up the wounded of heart.” So, we might lead and attend shiva for mourners, even when it is inconvenient. Or we might make a habit of extending our presence to those on the outskirts or who feel alone and forgotten. Isaiah also declared that we should banish evil speech so we might call out bigoted or misogynist comments even when shared by co-workers, friends, or family. We might challenge the gossip in our circle of friends. Almost all the prophets condemned a justice system that worked for one class of people but was broken for another class. Heeding their words, we might ensure that no one languishes in jail awaiting a trial because they cannot afford bail. Isaiah declared that God’s sanctuary will be a House for all people. We might gather with those who believe and look differently from us to pray together and act together because we see one another’s shared divinity. Ezekiel chastised his contemporaries for caring for themselves while not, “sustaining the weak, healing the sick, bandaging the injured.” We might treat and visit the sick or even work to ensure access to affordable care for all.
And sometimes it isn’t any one specific action, but rather our way of walking in the world. The bigness of the little deed. It is more often our small deeds of kindness, courage, and caring that do the most good. But make no mistake, it is about deeds and doing. To link our names to this eternal invisible legacy we must do something. Feeling Jewish will not further the Jewish dream of a world that is whole. We have only so much time to build as best we can. What will we do with that time?
We’re taught that at the end of their hours of study the ancient rabbis would depart the study hall sharing these words of blessing: “May You behold your world during your lifetime, but may your end be in Life Eternal, and your hopes, may they endure throughout all the generations.” At the dawn of 5778 may we all live fully in the world as it is. And work harder to make the world as it should be. May our gaze not be limited to our lifetime. May our effort and exertion be for hopes that will outlast us. Through Jewish living, through linking ourselves to a worthy vision and to worthy deeds, may we fashion for ourselves an invisible legacy. For when the work of our lives and the hopes of our hearts live on beyond our allotted years, so do we.
- “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” A popular paraphrase of Kohelet 5:17
- “Slow News Day” The West Wing, directed by Julie Hebert. Written by Aaron Sorkin, Eli Attie and Josh Singer. 2004; NBC.
- Martin Buber, On Judaism. ed. by Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 131.
- Jeremiah 22:15-16.
- Isaiah 61:1-3.
- Isaiah 58:9.
- Micah 3:9-12, Jeremiah 5:25-31, Isaiah 10:1-3; 11:4; 29:20-21.
- Isaiah 56:7.
- Ezekiel 32:1-4.
- Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 17a.