In early February 1950, Dr. Robert Marcus of New York City was absolutely devastated by the loss of his eleven-year-old son who had succumbed to polio. Interestingly, Marcus, who was a Rabbi, did not reach out to his rabbinic mentors and friends, but rather to Albert Einstein, a legendary man of science, who was also a father of two sons. As you read Marcus’ eloquent and emotional letter, you cannot help but feel the profound depth of his anguish. And if you are a parent, you will find yourself fighting back tears — there is no greater grief than that of a parent who loses a young child. Marcus asks the famous physicist if perhaps immortality may be found in the scientific principle of energy conservation:
Dear Dr. Einstein,
Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of Polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world…
What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have said to myself: “It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed; things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?
I have said to myself: “Shall we believe that they have gone out of life in childhood before the natural measure of their days was full have been forever hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who have died the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pangs of persecution have utterly perished? Without immortality the world is a moral chaos…
I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension… such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child… has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?
May I have a word from you? I need help badly.
Sincerely yours, Robert S. Marcus
A few days later, on February 12, Einstein responded to Dr. Marcus, a complete stranger, with a brief (consisting of only 78 words), but thought-provoking letter of comfort:
Dear Dr. Marcus:
A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
With my best wishes, sincerely yours, Albert Einstein
Einstein relates to this heart-broken father that only religion, not science, can provide the promise, the gift of immortality. What science can provide, which may provide some level of comfort to this father’s heartache, is the concept of “oneness of the universe” — the idea that everything in the universe is one — we and everything in the universe is made of stardust. In her fascinating book, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, Naomi Levy reflects on Einstein’s response: “Einstein offered Rabbi Marcus and all of us a vision of heaven on earth. Did Einstein’s words bring some measure of comfort to Rabbi Marcus’s broken heart? I’d like to believe that Rabbi Marcus did receive solace from Einstein’s words, but we’ll never know for sure… When you seek out a man like Einstein for inquiries about the soul, you are bound to get an answer that is out of the ordinary.”
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Read related posts: Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
The Memory of a Departed Friend
How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
The Wisdom or the Ancient Greeks
Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Best Books on Eulogies
High Flight: Touching the Face of God
In Mourning the Heart Does Not Forget
For further reading: Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children by Alice Calaprice