I don’t know the names of any of my great-great-grandparents. I’m sure if I asked my grandmother, she could tell me. I’m sure she would say their names with pride, extolling their virtues, their kindness and compassion, their work ethic and insight, their smile and their warmth. But I haven’t asked. It’s never come up.
The other day, I saw a commercial that got me thinking about them. It told the story of Sebastian Artois, the man who founded the beer company Stella Artois. In the commercial Sebastian saw an advertisement for a brewery and got an idea. In a somewhat comical way, the commercial chronicles his mad rush to sell all of his possessions to buy this brewery. In about thirty second he sells his clothes, his piano, even his dog. The commercial ends, with him staring into the camera, now a successful brewer, saying the lines: “So, what do you want to be remembered for?”
Thus is born Stella Artois’ brilliant ad campaign, “Be Legacy” which on the surface seems inspirational and uplifting. Find a passion and pursue it. Then you will achieve greatness and outlive your time on earth. However, a deeper look into the messaging shows something a bit more insidious. My great-great-grandparents lived a few generations after Sebastian Artois, and like him, I imagine, they had the same fear of being forgotten. It’s a fear that our ancient ancestors shared and one that I imagine many of us worry about as well.
However, few people achieve immortality and I imagine that if some advertising executive hasn’t sought to resurrect his image, Sebastian Artois would have been forgotten to us as well. In fact, studies have shown that if we count three new generations forward from a person’s death, there is a very good chance that not a single person on earth will remember them. Rhetorically, how many of you know the names of at least a quarter of your sixteen great-great-grandparents?
In fact, fame may not even be a good measure of legacy. In a matter of years people might still forget Sebastian’s name again. In his book, But What If We’re Wrong?, the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman, puts up a challenge. He begins by reminding us that for many decades, much longer than rock or pop music has been around, marches were the dominant musical form. People attended concerts and after the invention of the phonograph, bought records. Countless musicians achieved fame and fortune from the artform until it was overshadowed by Jazz in the 1940s. But if you ask most people below a certain age to name an important composer or musician from the era of the march, most, outside of a select few music historians can only come up with one: John Philip Sousa, the author of Star and Stripes Forever.
If the same thing happens to rock music, Klosterman asks, who will survive between the Beatles and the Stones, Dylan and Joplin, the Doors and the Eagles. Time is the great eroder of memory, and life (to quote our prayerbook), seems but “brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos.”
Though it might seem depressing, our tradition understood the fleetingness of memory as a fundamental part of life. In the book of Ecclesiastes we get some of the hardest truths of human existence. In one place we read, “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth endures for ever” (Kohelet 1:4). In another we read, “For who knows what is good for a person during their lifetime, during the few years of their futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a person what will be after them under the sun?” (Kohelet 6:12).
For centuries, philosophers have struggled to understand the purpose of life in light of Kohelet’s reality. What does it mean to live in a world where we might be forgotten?
Epictetus, one of the most famous thinkers in Ancient Greece was one of the first philosophers to offer an explanation. In his view, fearing non-existence wasn’t worth the trouble. Think, he tells us, of all the time we didn’t exist before we were born. Humanity has existed for many hundreds of centuries. If you don’t mourn that lost time of the past, he asks, why would you mourn the time when you don’t exist now?
Other thinkers have taken a different approach. They implore us to lean into our fear of disappearing. Existential philosophers like Camus and Satre remind us that our brief time on earth is absurd. Fearing death can only make us feel trapped. We may never achieve immortality or assure ourselves that we will be remembered, but rather than mourning our lack of control we can embrace it and in that moment greet the ridiculousness of life with happiness.
Our Jewish texts take a different approach. Like other religions (and despite what many think) they offer up a path to immortality through the afterlife. People may not remember us now, but God will never forget and our lives now will continue in the hereafter.
But unlike other faiths, there is an added facet to Jewish practice that assures at least partial immortality; when we name our children after dear relatives that have passed, we invoke their name and assure that at least a piece of them is not forgotten. My Hebrew names is Moshe after my great-grandfather Moishe, who ostensibly was named for a deceased relative before him. Though I cannot trace back the many permutations of my name, it carries with me the memory of many who have come before.
The problem with all of these secular and Jewish answers, however, is that while some intellectually satisfy me, most do not touch on the emotional element of being forgotten. I want my existence to matter. I fear fading into the cruelty of anonymity. And I’m not alone. In his book, the Denial of Death, Ernest Becker reminds us that many of the great wars of history, much of humanity's legacy of suffering has been due to the pull to build something great in order to escape being lost to history. We fight with futility against being forgotten with the tools of power, violence, and passion, hoping that if we can disturb that natural order enough, we will find our way into the history books.
Our worst nightmare is to become like Ozymandias, the subject of Percy Shelley’s famous poem by the same name, whose ancient statue is chanced upon by a traveler through the desert, faded and crumbling in the “lone and level sands” time. A once great king, all that is left of Ozymandias is a broken and cracked visage and a barely legible inscription, that read in irony, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
With all this in mind, it is easy to despair. We entered this world against our will and then when we finally grow comfortable in it, we wake up to the reality that our existence is fleeting. However, the antidote to the anxiety of obscurity exists in the fact that while we can’t achieve immortality of name, we can perhaps do something greater. Our influence can outlive us, echoing into eternity, an invisible hand steadying future generations long after they are aware of its source.
We are all part of cultures big and small. Our workplaces have cultures, our families have cultures, our societies have cultures. CBE has a culture and these cultures last. I’ve heard it said that you can take all the players out of an institution and replace them with totally new people and the culture will remain. For some these cultures are pathologies. Many of us have workplaces where the predominant culture is cutthroat competition, workplace martyrology, and backtalk. Some families exist in cultures of self destruction and defeatism.
However, most of us, if we are lucky benefit from positive cultures. Our families have cultures of openness and support. Our synagogues have cultures of respect and spiritual yearning. Our neighborhoods have cultures of altruism and hospitality.
The amazing thing about most of the cultures for which we are part is that we cannot identify their sources. We don’t know why for generations our family has been more generous than most or conversely more broken. It is just the way things have always been. Yet, as the Bible teaches, there is a genesis, a beginning for everything, and our cultures are no different. We may not know our great-great grandparents but our families were shaped by them and their existence matters because their actions influence us today as we participate in the cultures they shaped.
While I can’t speak about my great-great grandparents, I was fortunate enough to know some of my great grandparents who will one day become my children’s great-great grandparents. If I’m lucky they will know their name and story, but odds are good that they won’t. However, they will still benefit from them.
One of my great-grandmothers was named Sarah Gottleib but I called her Hup. She was a religious women who wore disheveled wigs and spoke with a strong Yiddish accent. Sarah was open and warm and though she understood that families have conflicts, she also believed that arguments had limits. Sarah was famous in our family for coining the adage, “enough with this...let’s talk about love.” A constant presence in my father’s life, her words echoed into my childhood. When someone would get angry around the dinner table or cruelty would creep into our conversations, Sarah’s enduring words would enter the room and we would be reminded to “talk about love.” Sarah spent her time on earth, shaping a family culture of love, helping us understand that all conflict must be surrounded by a shield of affection and fence of respect.
Another of my great-grandparents was named David Katz. His story is the story of America. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, he arrived to New York with basically nothing. He began as a gas attendant, eventually working his way up to manager. Soon he raised enough money to buy that station, turning it into a used Car dealership, which he ran until his retirement when he passed it down to his children. As a child I was taught to look toward that small corner of Hillside Ave in Jamaica Queens as a symbol of hard work and perseverance. I am a fourth generation American on his side but his legacy and presence were palpable in my family. His hunger, his perseverance, his passion are mine. My family has a culture of optimism, values hard work, and understands opportunity because he engendered it in all of us.
My children one day may not know the names Sarah Gottleib and David Katz. But they will benefit from them. I am more loving because Sarah was in this world and I work harder because David lived. And the same will be true of them. My dream is that long after I am gone, my great-great grandchildren, in the middle of dinner, will pause from the heat of discussion and tenderly say, without knowing why, “Let’s talk about love.”
Wordswoth once wrote that the “best portion of a good [person’s] life” is their “little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and love.” Our names, our achievements, our words, and even our deeds may not be remembered. But it doesn’t mean that our kindness, our compassion, and our love will not survive. Each day, we weave our virtues into the fabric of our families our workplaces and our communities ensuring that a piece of us exists in the future.
The High Holy Days are meant to remind us of our mortality. Our prayers remind us that we are finite beings who are only on this earth a short while. In ten short days it will be Yom Kippur, a holiday that is meant to rehearse our death. We wear white shrouds and starve our bodies to remember that our time here is limited. But while we hold our fleeting vitality in one hand, we hold a powerful truth in the other: our existence matters and our reach is long. Our image may not endure but our influence surely will.
I’ve always loved the story of Honi, who one day, while walking down the street noticed an old man planting a carob tree. Knowing that it took seventy years for the tree to bear fruit, he chided the man, “Why would you plant a tree from which you will never eat?” The man smiled and replied with confidence, “My ancestors (whose names I do not know) planted trees for me, so I will plant them for my grandchildren.”
Walk through life dropping seeds. Plant your compassion here, your love there. Nurture your soil with dignity and decency. Cultivate your future by living in the moment. Years later, someone will walk into your garden, surrounded by the flowers of deeds long forgotten and they will wonder aloud and ask “who brought such beauty to the world?”