Zochreinu L’Chaim: Amalek, 9/11 and the Potential of Human Goodness

Like anyone above a certain age who was in New York on September 11, 2001, I can tell you almost anything about what happened that day. I can tell you where I was when I heard, what I wore to school that day, and about the piercingly blue cloudless sky. I can tell you about the smell of burning buildings that reached five miles north of the World Trade Center to our windows. I can tell you about what it was like to pay a shiva call to someone who never got to bury her father. I can tell you about how the I was sure the world was ending.

I can also tell you about the impromptu shrine built outside the police department a block from my apartment, or the strangers holding each other while lighting candles in the park and by the firehouse. I can tell you about the thousands of people who showed up at shul that Friday night, wanting—and needing—a place where we could cry together, and then commit ourselves to goodness in defiance of what had been done to our home.

Every so often, the Jewish and secular calendars intersect in a way that makes them feel cohesive, even as they exist in their own separate spheres. This year is one of those years. Last Shabbat, we read Parshat Ki Tetzei. In two weeks, we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter into the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. And today, in between, we commemorate the thousands of lives lost on that bright September day.

The intimate link between these three moments on the calendar is memory. At the end of Parshat Ki Tetzei, Moshe retells the story of the war with Amalek. He implores the people, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, when you left Egypt. How, without fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were hungry and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Hashem your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Hashem your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” These three verses, known as Parshat Zachor, ensure that the story of Amalek will be with us forever. Even if we merit to know peace, we must never forget this war. Because it is only through the act of conscious and active remembering that we can build a world where there is no space for the Amaleks who seek to destroy us and the values we hold dear.

In fact, even if we had wished to, we could never forget Amalek, because a new incarnation of this evil has arisen in every generation. Sometimes it feels like the whole of Jewish history is made up of these terrible events and horrible acts of evil we must remember. Amalek—zachor. The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash—zachor. The Crusades—zachor. The Inquistion—zachor. The Holocaust—zachor. Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali—zachor. And as an American, I can add to this list. Slavery—zachor. Internment camps—zachor. Oklahoma City—zachor. 9/11—zachor. Columbine, Aurora, Newtown—zachor.

For the events that we ourselves have experienced, forgetting seems impossible. Even if we wished to ignore the trauma of these terrible acts of violence, how could we possibly do so? What we do get to choose, however, is what, and how, we remember.

Since we must remember, perhaps we can find it within ourselves to remember the love, the goodness, the fundamental ways in which we have affirmed our humanity in those terrible moments of darkness. Let us remember Aharon and Chur, who held up Moshe’s hands towards the heavens when he was too weak to do it alone, to ensure that Amalek would not prevail. Let us remember the vision of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who found a way to ensure Judaism’s survival out of the ashes of the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Let us remember the many silent heroes of World War II who risked their own lives to save the lives of others. Let us remember the policemen, firemen, and ordinary men and women who ran into the burning buildings, instead of away from them, to save the lives of people they have never met without regard for protecting their own. Let us remember the people who lined up to give blood, or money, or time—anything they possibly could—in an effort to do something, to promise the world that most of us are committed to building, and not to destroying.

In two weeks, on Rosh Hashanah, we will stand before God and asked to be remembered for life. We evoke our actions, the times that we have succeeded in being who we wish to be, and the times when we have failed, in hopes that we will do better next time. And we say to God, please, zochreinu l’chayim, remember us for life. However, if we are honest, we want something beyond this. We want a life of goodness, of kindness, of security and of love. We want a life where strangers reflexively show compassion for one another, rather than seeking to destroy one another.

Rosh Hashanah is a moment when we confront the best and worst parts of ourselves, just as September 11 was a day when we saw humanity’s tremendous capacity both for hatred and for love. It is rare that we experience either of these two extremes, and even rarer for them to come in such an intimately connected way. So as we remember these deep tragedies, those of thousands of years ago and those of our own generation, I pray that we also find a way to remember the intensity of the good that came in response, so that we may do good and be remembered for good. Amen.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.