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Translating a Loved One’s Life

by Rabbi Evan Schultz, March 2018/Shevat-Nisan 5778

Probably like many of you, I have been swept up in watching the NBC hit series, “This Is Us.” Not only are the characters and their stories quite well scripted, but I find the question of memory, and how we look back on our loved ones, a compelling one. 

For those who have not seen the show (I won’t give away any major spoilers), we are introduced to the Pearson family, learning that the family patriarch, Jack, had died some years ago.  The unique aspect of the show is that we see Jack’s surviving family living now, in 2018, his widow Rebecca, and his three kids, Kate, Kevin, and Randall, and how they speak about their deceased father. But we also get a window into those events as they happened. We the audience are transported back to Jack and Rebecca’s wedding day, the birth of their children, and their elementary school and high school years. 

In other words, we see what actually happened and then how the family remembers that particular event later on.  For example, Rebecca often recalls that her husband Jack was “perfect,” and we the audience can look back on those events and think about how we might remember him, after being given a lens into his most intimate and key life moments.

We all carry memories of loved ones who have died. As a rabbi, I encourage individuals and families to always keep talking and sharing stories about the lives of the people they loved. I, too, with my family and kids, now tell the stories of my family members to them. To me, it is the most powerful and poignant way of harnessing their spirits and souls, keeping them present in our lives. But what stories do we tell? We know nobody can be truly perfect, yet perhaps we look back and remember them that way. Some of us carry difficult and challenging stories of family members and friends who died, how does one share the stories of those individuals who lived deeply imperfect lives?

I recently came across a piece of Talmud that maybe in some ways, may help to process this question that perhaps some of us struggle with and carry. In Tractate Megillah, chapter 3, there is a discussion about certain biblical texts that are read in public but are not translated (In the days of the Talmud, texts were translated aloud, as opposed to nowadays, when we give each person their own translated copy of the Torah texts). This was done because there are certain biblical texts where we see the deep imperfections of certain characters. Aaron, for example, who participated in the creation of the golden calf. Or Reuben, who layed with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.  The Talmud is concerned that if we translate those verses, those who are not well versed in Torah may walk away with a skewed impression of that biblical character.

Perhaps we too, when telling the story of a loved one’s life, want to think about what we translate and what we don’t. What is the full story we want to tell? What are the stories that we want to leave untranslated, because they don’t fully capture who that person was. What are the stories we want to translate for all to know? Memory is a powerful and profound device that we carry. How we look back, how and when and what we choose to translate, shapes the story of those who were most dear to our lives.