I met Rachamim Melamed a couple of weeks ago. He has written about 10 books, most of them after he contracted ALS, a degenerative disease that little by little renders all of the person’s limbs immobile. The occasion for meeting him was a celebration to finish the cycle of Talmud study, what’s known as the Daf Yomi. At this stage of the degeneration he is only able to move one eye, but this did not deter him from delivering an exceptionally good speech by means of his son who read it out loud.
This was not the first time I had seen him. A film was made about him a few years ago, which I saw as part of our logotherapy course at Gordon College in Haifa. At that time I was moved to tears. The film depicted his day-to-day life. In one part he was taken wheelchair-bound to a big public park. He struck up a conversation there with a little girl. He was enjoying nature, letting it fill his senses, and he was sharing his experience with the little girl. “Isn’t this beautiful?” he said to her with all the simplicity of someone who knows how to appreciate life. In another part he spoke about how active he continues to be in the building committee and in various projects, because he had made a vow to himself that he would spend only a very small percentage of his time involved with his illness. The lion’s share of his time would be taken up by important matters.
The film showed him speaking to various groups of people who had ALS or other illnesses, giving them a reason to go on, speaking of the absolute, unconditional meaningfulness of every life and every moment of life. In contrast there was a short clip taken from an earlier time, before he had gotten ill. He was speaking in his capacity as an educator par excellence to a large audience. I was saddened by the obvious contrast between his polished appearance then and his deteriorated state now.
Yet at the same time there was something that moved me particularly in the similarities between his previous and current condition. Then, as now, he had the same flair for public speaking, the same positive outlook on life, the same engagement with people and the same humor.
One could see the same spirit buried beneath the externals that could in no way be squelched. It reminded me of a mask that no matter how good cannot succeed in concealing the person’s true identity, or the look of recognition when meeting someone you haven’t seen for 50 years. It reminded me of what Frankl says about love. He says that the body is the outer core which the spiritual core “wears.” Each individual is a completely unique spark with such endless depths. The shallow person can’t grasp the depths, while the deeper person sees the surface as an expression of those depths.
This is the living spirit I saw now this night when he couldn’t even speak to us. I went up to him afterward and told him about our class and how inspired we were seeing the film that was made about him, how transformative it was for us. He became clearly animated, if one could say such a thing about a man who can only move one eye. His caretaker informed me that he is saying “Thank you.” There is such depth to a human life. If only we knew.