Why Do We Remember? Reflections on Pittsburgh

Some grafitti witnessed in the middle of Athens, Greece.
Some grafitti witnessed in the middle of Athens, Greece.

I was only a young, unaware toddler when 9/11 happened. I don’t remember much, but I do recall growing up hearing the numerous accounts from my friends’ parents, experiencing yearly moments of silence, and feeling a subconscious sense of relief after Osama bin Laden was assassinated in 2011.

Flashback to even earlier: The Holocaust. Russian Pogroms. Gezerat Tach v’Tat (Chmielnicki’s Uprising). The Spanish Inquisition. Both destructions of our Temple. And, unfortunately, many, many others.

I wasn’t alive during any of these tragedies. Most of the first-person accounts who were personally affected are long gone. All we have left are archives of various memories. Yet we still try our very best to remember, to understand, and to mourn.

Why though? Why do we put in so much effort to remember the painful parts of history?

This past week, we read Parshat Bereshit. For the first time in the history of the world, we experience an account of murder: Kayin killing his brother Hevel after G-d only accepted Hevel’s offering. Many commentaries ponder: Why the focus on this particular scene? Kayin, like all human beings post-Adam, must have committed numerous wrongdoings during his life. And why was Kayin allowed to remain alive for so many years as a “fugitive and a wanderer” (Bereshit 4:12)?

The answer is simple: G-d was trying to teach Kayin, and the rest of mankind, the value of human life. G-d did not wish to create a culture of zealous massacre in the world, and Kayin’s utter mistake was indicative of that. G-d wanted the people of the world to recognize that Hevel, a human being, was killed, and that is not something we should forget.

A few months ago, I was in Greece for a few days, home to the largest ideologically anti-Semitic population in the world. With this knowledge, my friend and I had the idea to find bits and pieces of Jewish history wherever we went. We vaguely knew about the destroyed Jewish community of Greece at the end of World War II, but we hardly knew much else.

We were in shock to find that the three cities we visited had next-to-nothing, aside from some old anti-Semitic cartoons at the library in Nafplio,  some outdated books in the Chabad House in Athens, and quite a few neo-Nazi grafittied walls in largely-populated places. A memorial signifying the 67,000 Jews that were murdered in Greece?  After inquiring from some Greek citizens, it’s not even part of their frame of knowledge. Yes, there was a beautiful memorial march in Rhodes this past summer, but if one were to walk through the streets of Greece, it’s easy to find that our community’s past is hardly recognized.

Today, we commemorate the Pittsburgh shooting. Last year, we experienced the pure shock as we heard news about the eleven lives lost. I’m sure any Jew can relate to that horrible mixture of fear and sadness whenever they walk into a synagogue, regardless of personal relation. As a friend noted to be over the weekend, the sheer fact that we attend synagogue makes it our story. As it occurred just a year ago, we still feel a tremendous amount of pain. But as the years fly by, and the firsthand accounts slowly fade away, it has the potential to merely become another part of history.

Shlomo HaMelech powerfully utters in Kohelet 1:11:

“.אֵ֥ין זִכְר֖וֹן לָרִֽאשֹׁנִ֑ים וְגַ֨ם לָאַֽחֲרֹנִ֜ים שֶׁיִּֽהְי֗וּ לֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֤ה לָהֶם֙ זִכָּר֔וֹן עִ֥ם שֶׁיִּֽהְי֖וּ לָאַֽחֲרֹנָֽה”

“[But] there is no remembrance of former [generations], neither will the later ones that will be have any remembrance among those that will be afterwards.”

It is up to us, the generation who was aware of that fateful day in Pittsburgh, to ensure that it is never forgotten. Today, as we commemorate, let us also brainstorm concrete ways to keep their story alive.

May the mourners of Pittsburgh, Poway, Halle, and everyone else who suffered a loss this year, be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.

About the Author
Sara Schatz is currently a graduate student at GPATS (Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies). Some of her passions include expanding Torah learning opportunities for women, Religious Zionism, and advocacy against world crimes. She hopes to use this forum as a pathway to start conversation about all of these topics, and welcomes any feedback. She can always be reached at for any questions or discussions.
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