The Way We Were – Anniversaries, September 11, and Standing Together Again

Today is the 16th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. For awhile, 9/11 changed much about how we see ourselves, each other and the world. For many, these changes are permanent – in lives lost, innocence shattered, industries changed, and political ripples around the globe. For awhile, we stood together as a nation, and with the goodwill of people around the world.
For many others, post-9/11 life has returned to “normal.” Years later, we forget about 9/11 until something – a picture, a story, a smell or a day on the calendar – reminds us where we were, even who we were.
Anniversaries naturally loom large in human consciousness. They remind us where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going. That’s how anniversaries take on significance. Days of birth, death, marriage, and divorce are perhaps most prominent, but so too are life’s countless firsts and other personal and historical moments that imprint on our hearts and minds. These times return with every turn of the calendar. Each time they evoke memory and pull on our heartstrings, we’re apt to not only remember but also re-live.
Re-living an event that was especially traumatic can re-traumatize us; persons having powerful post-traumatic stress reactions should seek help. More routine remembering and re-living are healthy tools of life: they help us continuously make meaning in our lives.
What the human condition evokes naturally, Jewish life seeks to evoke deliberately. Each Rosh Hashanah ritually re-lives Creation. Each Passover ritually re-lives the exodus from bondage. Each Shavuot ritually re-lives the giving of Torah at Sinai. We re-live to remind us who we are, drawing from who we’ve been to shape who we can be.
The cyclical reading of Torah is like that – constantly inviting us to re-live our spiritual past to remind us who we are and who we can yet be. This is especially so for this week’s double Torah portion (Netzavim-Vayelech): “All of you are standing here today ” (Deut. 29:9); God renews the Covenant not only with “all who are standing here today … but also all who are not standing here today” (Deut. 29:13-14).
We stand today in the shoes of those who came before us. Their covenant is ours. Today calls us to live ever more into that covenant. That’s who we’re supposed to be.
In that same spirit, this week’s Torah portion is a poignant prelude to Yom Kippur, a faint precursor of that awesome spirit-filled day, just a few weeks from now, when these same words will return in our liturgy. Once again, we’ll stand together – all of us imperfect, all of us broken, all of us hoping to do better and be better. Once again we’ll stand to be reminded who we are and who we can yet be.
I remember so vividly the days after 9/11. For a few precious days, we all stood together in the shadow of shock and tragedy. For a few days, distinctions of race, color, and creed seemed to vanish. For a few days, we all stood together. I don’t miss the shock and tragedy, but I dearly miss the sense of unity, the sense of shared purpose, the basic decency and humanity.
Would that it didn’t take shock and tragedy to help remind us who we really are, and who we can be.
On this poignant 9/11 anniversary, as Jews worldwide prepare to re-live the creation at Rosh Hashanah and stand together at Yom Kippur, let’s re-commit to really stand together. Let that be our covenant. Let that be who we will become.
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