William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Twenty years ago

5 year-old Noam Saul had just been dropped off for school in Lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. Less than 1500 feet away from his classroom window, he witnessed the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He and his classmates were evacuated and brought safely home.

“Ten days later I visited his family” writes leading trauma-survival expert Bessel Van Der Kook. Young Noam presented a picture he had drawn the morning of September 12th. He had drawn a black circle at the bottom of the towers. When Bessel asked what it was. “A trampoline,” replied Noam, who explained “so that the next time when people have to jump they will be safe.” Bessel marveled over how, after “the alarm bells in his brain had quieted,” his mind was free to “even imagine a creative alternative to what he had seen – a lifesaving trampoline.”

I wonder what 25-year-old Noam is thinking about today. This is because the passing of time has a fascinating rapport with our emotions – including our most arresting fears and our most infernal angers. Today, in the immediate here and now, such feelings stab and clutch. By next week, their sensation may feel more like a duller twinge. Next year, even scarring wounds have a way of receding into memory. How about after twenty years?

Remembering precisely where we were twenty years ago may be easier for us than remembering exactly what we were feeling.

This week’s portion reinstates a word we haven’t seen since the opening chapters of Genesis, the word for ‘our self-serving inclination’ (yetzer) (Gen. 6:5, 8:21). Ever unreliable, fickle, and intimate with cravings and urges, a text that accompanies us through this Sabbath devoted to repentance, virtually expects us to do wrong and to be harmful. “Because I know its inclination” (yitzreynu) (Deut. 31:21). Sin is not inevitable. But it is temptingly close to coming to feel as though it is. So, the same verse invites us to internalize a song (shira) that prepares us for our own stumbles and missteps.

Can we prepare ourselves for upheavals? Not really. But we can learn to hum a quiet, resilient rhythm, one that vibrates inside us and can be awakened on demand. It’s harder to be upset when you’re singing.

May you make a melody of your works as you approach Yom Kippur, one that makes them sing. And may your gentle song grant space to remember the losses and the heroism of twenty years ago.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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