Selichot and September 11

Sometimes there’s just too much symbolism.

This is September 11. It’s been 19 years since those planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania. It’s been 19 years since nearly 3,000 people were murdered by terrorists.

I guess that in some ways we’ve moved on. Almost 190,000 people have died of covid-19 in the United States this year. It’s hard to be proportionate about those numbers, but we know that the September 11th victims were slaughtered on purpose, by terrorists who didn’t know and didn’t care who they were killing, but knew that they wanted Americans to die.

The victims now are killed by a tiny virus that doesn’t think anything. It’s not even really alive; it’s sort of the border between being a living and an inanimate thing. We can’t say that it’s a ruthless killer, because it feels nothing. It knows nothing. It just kills.

But September 11th….

One of the many legacies of September 11th, for those of us lucky enough not to have known any of the victims, is what it’s done to the memory of the intensely blue sky. That entirely cloudless sky — the color of joy, the color of glory, the color of perfection on a late summer day — has become the color of death. It’s a sort of warning of the danger of perfection. Or something.

It might take generations before no one looks up at a flawless cobalt sky and imagines crashing planes and demolished buildings and death.

But. But. But. There has to be a but, right?

And of course there is.

We are confined to our homes by a tiny virus, and by incompetence and bad judgment and toxic politics, but it will end.

Back in the Before Times, when we could live like normal people, when we could kiss and hug and go out without our muzzles on, when we were unlikely to spread aerosolized disease, or to breathe it in, we — many of us, at any rate —used to go to shul. In person. Inside. Sitting next to other people. But I digress.

So we would go to shul, and the night of Selichot would bring the magic of the holiday music, of the melodies that we hear only this time of year, those majestic, hypnotic sounds that evoke so many years. So many memories.

My shul, B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, where I live, often offered piyyutim, liturgical hymns, mainly from the Mizrachi tradition, songs of great, haunting, sinuous beauty, for Selichot. The one that I remember most clearly from those Before Times is Achot Ketana, a song that my good friend Google tells me comes from 13th century Spain.

“The little sister — her prayers she prepares and proclaims her praises. O God, please, heal now her ailments,” it begins. Then there’s the refrain, which follows every verse but the last one. “Let the year and its curses conclude!” the singer begs

Please, the singer pleads, again and again. “Let the year and its curses conclude!”

And we beg for that too; that this year of disease and death and economic collapse and racial tension and violence end. Please. Soon. Faster, please.

But then, the piyyut ends.

“Be strong and rejoice for the plunder is ended; place hope in the Rock and keep His covenant.

“You will ascend to Zion and He will say: Pave! Pave her paths. Let the year and its blessings begin!”

We know it’s not that easy. We will continue to mourn our dead, we will have to work hard to resurrect our economy, and our society has to fix the structural racism that no longer should deny and that cripples all of us.

We can’t even have Selichot in person, together.

But please! Let that start to change.

Let the year and its blessings begin!


About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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