The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a time to commemorate, as people will in places around the Commonwealth tomorrow.
Over these two decades, more often than not – at least for me – the conversation this time of year has been one of sharing experience. Where were you? When did we know? Did you lose anyone? And so on.
But twenty years clarifies that as time has passed, this sharing of our own experiences begins to shift to conveying an experience to those who have none of their own from that horrific day; who did not live through the change in our nation and the world in the days and years that followed. Tragically, we’ve been reminded, in recent weeks, that there are soldiers serving and dying for our nation who were not yet born on that day. There are students in college, young adults in the workforce, who are of the generation after. They have no experience of 9/11 or the world before that day. They only learn about that day from others and experience their world, the world that came after.
For them, and for more and more people in the years ahead, 9/11 is history. Recent, vital, history, but still. Something that is learned about as a fact, at a distance.
In Biblical Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, we do not have a word for “history.” We of course have history; our ancestors wrote chronologies (divrei hayamim), and we have a deep record of events, but the word we use to understand that narrative and its meaning to us, the descendants of those who experienced events, is the word zakhor, or memory.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’tl, writes in his commentary on Deuteronomy that “there is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is ‘his story,’ an account of events that occurred sometime else to someone else. Memory is ‘my story.’ It is the past internalized and made part of my identity. History is an answer to the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory is an answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’
Rabbi Sacks further observes, that “as with an individual suffering from dementia, so with a culture as whole: the loss of memory is experienced as a loss of identity.”
9/11 is part of our collective identity. It should never be limited to the transmission of history. It is formative to who we became as a nation on that day and since then, an experience to be transmitted from generation to generation as part of our memory.
As Rabbi Sacks writes: “you can delegate history to computers, looking it up when you need it. But you cannot delegate memory. Memory is inescapably personal. It is what makes us who we are. If you seek to sustain identity, you have to renew memory regularly and teach it to the next generation.”
For every one of us who lived that day, 9/11 is part of our experience. But how I, and you, and we, convey that experience to the next generation is how we make sense of it as part of our shared identity, a memory to be transmitted.
And so, I continue to remember that beautiful, near perfect late-summer day in Manhattan going to vote, before the sky came down and the air stank for weeks. I remember the experience of learning about specific individual losses, about the hopes of neighbors then shattered. I remember the emotions, the anxieties, the fears and vulnerabilities that have been so present these past twenty years, and I remember that they were not always as so, so very present in our national identity. I remember what was lost that day, and I commit to helping future generations to remember as well.
This date of memory also comes amidst, for us, a season of remembering; as we gather in synagogues to pray the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur and Sukkot for our loved ones who have passed. It is also a season when many Jews visit the graves of our ancestors.
For many survivors of the Shoah, there are no graves to visit of those taken from us in the Holocaust. Here in Boston, we have a developed a tradition of holding a “Yizkor service” at the Statue of Job on the Brandeis University campus on the Sunday before Yom Kippur. Organized by JCRC in partnership with the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants of Greater Boston and Brandeis Hillel, the event will, as it was for the first-time last year in this continuing period of COVID, be available online this year. I invite you to join us this Sunday at 11:00 am in this service of memory.