For most Americans, Sept. 11, 2001 was a day we can never forget. Where we were when we heard, the images on TV, the fear in the voices of our loved ones, the horrible loss of life: every time the anniversary rolls around, we encounter our own traumatic experiences.
However, as the event moves further into the past, and a new generation of Americans who don't remember 9/11 grows up, we begin to ask ourselves a series of questions: How should we come together to remember 9/11? What parts of 9/11 should we remember? Is there anything we should forget? How should we memorialize 9/11 for future generations who do not remember that day?
This week's Torah portion, Ki Teitze ("When you go" in Hebrew), concludes with a command to remember the actions of a nation of archetypal terrorists: the attack of Amalek. Amalek waged a war of terror on the children of Israel as they fled slavery in Egypt. They did not attack the soldiers. They attacked the weak and tired stragglers at the back of the camp. Like today's terrorists, their goal was to incite fear and panic by inflicting as much harm on innocent civilians as possible. While the mainstream Jewish view is that the nation of Amalek does not exist physically today (see Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 28a), the Torah contains three specific actions to take when remembering this trauma:
- Remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt...
- You shall erase out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.
- Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25: 17-18)
Let's begin with zachor, which means "remember." The Ramban, a classic medieval commentator, teaches that zachor must happen through the mouth. The trauma must be transformed into speech, into a told story. Telling the story contextualizes the tragedy within our personal and national narratives. If we do not tell the story, the event stays both meaningless and all powerful. Telling the story is a critical step toward healing.
After being told to remember, we are told to erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. How can we remember and erase a memory at the same time? A close reading of the biblical text offers an insight into specifically what is to be remembered, and what is to be forgotten. "Remember what Amalek did to you," followed by "erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens." This suggests we are to remember our experiences (where we were when we heard, the images of the falling towers, the names of those who were lost), but we do not remember the enemy itself: we aren't to dwell on the sick strategies of the murderers, their story, glorify them through conspiracy theories or turn them into martyrs. Remember what happened -- to us.
I'm reminded of President Obama's decision to not release the photos of Osama bin Laden's body. Though many clamored for them, releasing the photos would have served as rallying points for those who emulate bin Laden, strengthening the evil forces he channeled.
I'd like to suggest another way of erasing the memory of evil: do not become it. The hatred and nihilism that was released into the world on 9/11 can exist in each of us. When you feel it rising up inside you, in ways big or small, note it and then do whatever you can to erase it from under the heavens. Evil's most precious victory is not military or political -- it is the corruption of the good.
The final guidance the Torah offers is lo tishkach -- don't forget. Remember ... and don't forget? The Ramban again offers insight when he writes that zachor, remember, happens with the mouth through speech, but lo tishkach, don't forget, happens with the heart. According to the Ramban, telling the story with only cognitive awareness is insufficient -- we must experience the loss. For some, like those who lost loved ones, there's no way to avoid the heart when remembering tragedy: there is no day, anniversary or not, when they do not feel the pain. Others fortunate to not experience that constant pain must find ways to connect to the memory in both our heads and our hearts. This ensures that we don't just learn from trauma on an intellectual level but that we internalize the lessons into our hearts and will, transforming how we act in the world.
Remember. Erase. Don't forget. These three ancient, seemingly strange and contradictory ways of memorializing trauma in a collective consciousness offer profound insights into how to respond to trauma. On this 10th anniversary of 9/11, may we find ways to do all three, telling our stories to bring healing, erasing evil around and within us, and integrating the trauma's unique truths into our fullest selves.