Moving Beyond 9/11

Some years ago, as I recuperated from serious orthopedic surgery on my ankle, I went to the surgeon’s office for a follow-up appointment. My recovery was in that awkward stage where I was no longer in a cast or on crutches, but clearly not foot loose and fancy free, either. I remember asking the doctor something along the lines of “how much is too much?” Should I be walking more or less if it hurts? Should I be pushing this recovery along, or would pushing it slow down my overall progress?

As clearly as if it were yesterday, I remember what the doctor said. He said “Your body will tell you.” I also remember not liking the answer. What does that mean? It almost always hurt when I walked. Was my body telling me to sit down, or to work through it? And he repeated: “Your body will tell you.”

As we marked the observance of ten years since the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, I found myself thinking of what my doctor said all those years ago. How are we supposed to know what is the appropriate way to think or feel a decade after the attacks? It’s not so much an issue of my body, but of my soul. Is my soul going to tell me when it’s healed? Will I just know?

In the weeks leading up to this momentous anniversary, I read every article on the subject that I could find. Most- not all, but most- attempted to focus attention on how far New York has come since that awful day, and how the appropriate response ten years removed from the event itself is to rededicate ourselves to cultivating and sustaining a just, humane and pluralistic society and culture. In other words- work to make America the very best version of exactly what the perpetrators of 9/11 were attacking.

Who could disagree with that noble goal? I certainly don’t. We, and future generations of Americans, will be well served by strengthening precisely those commitments and values that make America so special, and insuring that, in the famous words of George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, R.I., America would always be a place that would give “to bigotry, no sanction.”

But here’s the rub. As the day of September 11 came and went, I found myself- as did my wife- stunned by the degree to which our souls, to return to the metaphor inspired by my doctor, were telling us how very not over the events of that day we both were. The chronicles of the children who never knew their parents who died because they were so young then; the struggles of the first responders dealing with the myriad psychological and medical issues they are confronting as a result of their heroism; even the magnificently creative and moving commercials that were shown during Sunday’s football games… they were all painful in an almost physical way, and overwhelming in their impact.

For me, the takeaway from that day of remembrance is that I’m not completely ready to sing Kumbaya yet and proclaim the universal brotherhood of man. My inner self, as it were, is telling me to honor those memories and not be so quick to sequester them in the name of “getting past” and “moving on.” Of course we move on, and of course we seek understanding and tolerance. But honoring grief is part and parcel of working it through. For me, at least, and for my wife, there’s a long way to go before we’re there.

A post-script… During the weekend of this tenth anniversary commemoration, New York City was turned into a virtual military zone. With multiple Presidents coming to town, and the much-reported “credible terror threat” looming large, the city was almost impossible to travel in. There were roadblocks at all the bridges and tunnels and many major intersections, and helmeted police and soldiers with machine guns at the ready in busy train stations and pedestrian thoroughfares.

On the night of September 11, 2011, with the formal commemorations over and New York slowly starting to come back to itself , my wife Robin and I, already in Manhattan, decided to make our way- by car- to Ground Zero. I assumed that it was a fool’s errand, given the remaining security all around that area, but we very much wanted to see the “Tribute in Lights” that was obscured by fog from where we live in Queens. And I suspect that we were also looking for some closure to this painful anniversary, and thought that this private pilgrimage might afford us that.

Though we did indeed get caught in roadblock traffic approaching lower Manhattan, we actually made it to Ground Zero. There were still lots of people on the streets, and the lights that reached into the night sky were amazingly powerful. We didn’t talk all that much as we passed; there wasn’t that much to say. But we did leave with a measure of peace of mind. We had said goodbye yet again…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.