9/11 and the Importance of Memory

This week, as my family and I celebrated Rosh Hashanah, my mind has also been on those we lost on 9/11 twenty years ago. My family, like so many others, is directly connected to this tragedy. Among the 2,997 people lost and the more than 6,000 injured that day was my wife’s oldest and very close childhood friend, Edward (Teddy), z”l. Two months later, when our son was born, we gave him the middle name Ezra (“help” in Hebrew) in Teddy’s memory. Losing Teddy and naming our son after him made this historical event very personal for my wife and our family.

History and memory often intertwine in ways like this. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, spoke frequently of the differences between history and memory. History is what happened to someone else. It’s distant, fact-based, and more rooted in the objective than the subjective. It is the number of people who died on 9/11, the ideologies that motivated the attack, al-Qaeda’s elaborate planning, how the attacks unfolded, and the American response.

Memory, on the other hand, is our connection to what happened. It is the lessons imparted to us and how we carry them into the future. It is the mark etched into our hearts and souls that shapes who we are as human beings today. It is the bittersweetness of remembering what has passed. It is my wife’s recollection of Teddy during their childhood; pondering the enormity of losing a parent, child, or friend; and the ways people came together following 9/11 to support each other and honor those we lost. It is these memories that shape who we are today and how we build tomorrow.

With tragedies like 9/11, it’s natural to reach out to people who have lost a loved one on the anniversary of the event. But I wonder about a different approach. We all want to remember those who have passed as they were in life. We honor them by remembering who they were and the joy they brought to others, rather than when or how they died. This brings to mind what we say after someone has passed: “zichrono(a) l’vracha—may their memory be a blessing.” We strive to remember people in the context of their good works, the lessons they taught us, the example they set for others—and we hope their legacy will make the world a better place.

Tomorrow, I’ll be thinking a lot about that cloudless day exactly twenty years ago, and how the events of that morning changed the direction of the world. I will remember where I was when I first heard of the attacks and how I felt watching the collapse of the World Trade Center. Most importantly, however, I will seek to remember and honor those who were killed that day and read stories about who they were and the incredible gift that they were to their families and this world. May their memories always be a blessing.

In just a few days, many of us will be saying the Yizkor service, which honors those who have passed. This year, it will be especially poignant for me, as I know it will for so many in our community.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Tov,

Feelings of loss and grief may be even more palpable as we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11 during a global pandemic. If you or a loved one need help during this difficult time, we encourage you to call 703-J-CARING: the Jewish Community Support Line (703-522-7464).