One: Why must we continue to have victims of war, genocide, and terrorism to commemorate? Why can we not stop this cycle of meaningless and murderous violence in which innocent lives are lost and many lives have been changed forever – not just in the Middle East, but globally? Sadly, this question has no answer. Nevertheless, we must continue to hope and pray – and most importantly, to act – to fulfill the prophecy made by Isaiah in the 8th century BCE (Isaiah 2:4): “…and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning forks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall learn war no more.”
Two: Why must we commemorate victims of war, genocide, and terrorism? Commemoration, the creation of memorials, can be a significant part of the bereavement process as it continues the commitment to a loved one after his or her death in a world that has been challenged by loss. Furthermore, commemoration helps us to bear witness and leave a legacy so that the victims and the survivors will not be forgotten. As so eloquently expressed by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Poet Laureate, and Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.” And as engraved in stone at the Museum’s entrance – “For the dead and the living we must bear witness.”
In Israel, the commemoration process is known as hantzacha, which means perpetuation or immortalization, and has been described as remembering. It is one way in which the bereaved create a new presence of the deceased so that a continuing bond can be maintained with him/her. It is a conscious attempt to preserve the memory and eternalize the essence of the deceased in both the personal and the collective contexts.
There are different types of commemoration. It may be spontaneous,as in the placing of flowers, pictures, and memorial candles at the siteof a terrorist attack, or in the handwritten messages of love and remembrancepainted on nearby stone walls. Later, the family and friends of theperson who died may design and fund private commemoration at theplace of the attack, in schools or playgrounds, on the internet, in thesynagogues, and elsewhere, allowing people who never met the fallento know something about them and, more importantly, to rememberthem. Some may search for and find meaning by sharing their stories, creating a work, or doing a deed. Others may create meaning through altruism – selflessly helping others, contributing to society, and turning tragedy into action or activism. Finally, public municipal and state commemoration allows the society as a whole to mourn and remember, for example at the national cemetery at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s national memorial day for the fallen soldiers and the victims of terror).
Last week the world commemorated and remembered the 13th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attack with the toll of a bell and a solemn moment of silence, followed by the reading of the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington DC, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. For the first time, the National September 11 Memorial Museum, located at the World Trade Center site in New York City, was opened on the anniversary. The Museum’s mission is to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 and the essence of its purpose is to never forget. The victims of these attacks are honored for how they lived their lives rather than for how they died through personal artifacts and stories of loss and recovery. The Museum also honors all those who risked their lives to save others, the thousands who survived, and all who demonstrated extraordinary compassion in the aftermath, attesting to the triumph of human dignity over human depravity and affirming an unwavering commitment to the fundamental value of human life.
As the toll of the bell at the site of the World Trade Center still echoes in our hearts and as we approach the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar, the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – to be ushered in by the sound of the shofar, let us commemorate and remember in our prayers the victims and the survivors of all wars, genocide, and terrorism throughout history, including the six million who perished in the Holocaust, the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11, the 1,327 killed by Palestinian violence and terrorism in Israel since 2000, the more than 7,000 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000, and the thousands more who have been maimed or psychologically scarred for life in these acts of violence. As we conclude in the Mourner’s Kaddish, “let us pray for peace to us and to all the people Israel”…and to all the world. And let us say Amen.