I’ve been enthralled this week by the story of the late Ralph Steinman, awarded the Nobel prize for his work on the immune system. Unknown to the judges he had actually died just before the award was made, although his death had not yet been announced, and Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded posthumously. After an emergency meeting, the judges decided, rightly I think, to uphold the award and it’s just sad that he didn’t live to hear that he’d won the ultimate accolade.
Steinman’s story made me think of more extreme cases of people who lived their lives in relative obscurity only to become famous after their deaths: people like Van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Franz Kafka, William Blake and Emily Dickinson. They never knew the fame they would eventually achieve.
And then I thought of the strange case of the founder of the awards themselves. One morning as he was having his breakfast Alfred Nobel found himself reading his own obituary in the national press. It turned out that a journalist had made a simple mistake. It was Nobel’s brother who had died. But Nobel was shocked by what he read. His obituary was all about his discovery of dynamite and his life as an arms dealer. Is that what I want to be remembered for? Nobel asked. That was when he conceived the idea of the awards that bear his name.
What do we want to be remembered for? That’s the question at the heart of the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, which we’ll be observing this Saturday. It’s that rarest of phenomena, a Jewish festival without food. It’s a time when we ask God to write us in the book of life, and when God, as it were, asks us how we’ve used our life thus far.
At one level it’s a day of confession. But at a deeper level it’s the day when we realise how short life is, and we give a reckoning of how we’ve used our time thus far. The tragedy of mortality is that, like Ralph Steinman, we never live to see how we are remembered and for what. Too often we spend our time on things that are urgent, and neglect the things that are important: the good we do, the love we give, the difference we make to other people’s lives. Yom Kippur is God’s way of asking, What do you want to be remembered for? When it comes to doing good, don’t leave it too late.