I wrote this originally for a s'lichot service in2005, after the attacks. Portions of it were read at a community remembrance five years ago, and I posted it here in 2007. Today Sam and I will sing in the choir at the 10th-anniversary community service. I could write all day and I would not improve on what I wrote before, so I offer it again.
May we find peace.
central prayer of Judaism is an act of witnessing. When the sh’ma is
written out in the Torah, the ayin and daled are enlarged. Ayin daled.
Ed. Witness. The sh’ma itself is an act of witnessing the presence of
God. It is also a command to be witnesses, for it is not enough to
“listen, O Israel”. We must also speak the words, and teach them.
Witnessing is an act.
We do not always know what it is we are
called to witness, and on September 11th, 2001, I do not know. First
there were voices – announcers on the radio; patients coming in and
sharing what they knew; my brother, finally, at his office in midtown
Manhattan. Then there were images, compressed into a terrifying
narrative arc – see the first plane, see the second plane. Then the
fire. Now the towers collapse. Watch it again. Watch it again.
watching is not witnessing. We watch only with our eyes. Watchers
don’t participate. Watchers stand apart. Our tradition calls us to do
more than watch; our tradition demands that we witness. Witnessing is
an act that requires our entire beings. It calls on memory, courage,
voice and spirit. It is not enough to watch. We must also know. What
we know, we must remember. And that memory calls us to act.
televised narrative arc: a black-hooded head on a concrete hotel
balcony in Munich. I am twelve years old. My parents do not shield me.
I hear my mother say “Don’t you ever forget: this is what it means to
be a Jew”. Twenty years later, a single shot of that hood, that
balcony, on another television show leaves me shaking. I have not
But remembering alone is not witnessing. It is not
acting. It is simply terror. It leaves us silent, isolated, paralyzed.
At twelve, I could not be a witness. Thirty years later, I had
learned that there was more to being a Jew than being afraid, alone, and
powerless. So on September 12th, I found myself at morning minyan,
holding my daughter and feeling both at home and out of place in a
different shul. The prayerbook was unfamiliar. I realized that I was
worshiping in a congregation where I could not stand and recite the
Kaddish Yatom unless I were officially in mourning. At first, I
resented what felt like an archaic rule. I wanted the comfort, the peace
that comes from raising my voice in the ancient cadences. I did not
want to listen; I had heard enough of other voices. I wanted to speak,
but I did not. But as I chanted the lines of response, I realized this
was why I came – it was the act of witnessing. It transformed the
watching of the day before into something far more powerful. Mine was
one voice in many that said “I see. I hear. I am present for this
moment of grief”.
To act on that presence is to raise my voice
against the re-interpretations and misinterpretations of events, to
speak my truth about what happened that day and why. That narrative arc
we see on television is only one heavily edited version of reality. If
I am truly to be a witness, I must find the courage to speak out
against the abuse of that powerful tool, the visual image of tragedy and
fear. Fear can isolate us. We may feel safer if we lash out or hide
away behind walls. It is easy and comforting to demonize the Other, to
hold onto our grief as it transforms into rage. But when we do so, we
forget the lesson of the sh’ma; we no longer are witnesses to God’s
presence. The presence of God lives in each of us, in that small piece
of the Schechinah that we were each created to hold. I catch glimpses
of it when I am lucky enough to be in the presence of healing, of that
deep connection that exists when I am really seen and really see-ing.
is the Shabbat after my grandmother’s death. We meet on our screened
porch for services, and we do not have a minyan. I know that we are not
supposed to say Kaddish, and
yet I deeply need to do so. My friends, my witnesses, willingly
participate. It is a gift I treasure. My grief is eased by their
From that moment of presence both the mourners and the
witnesses gather strength. We come together at terrible times to act as
a community, to forge new memories and hear stories that will help us
to act on our values, to live out our prayers and our hopes rather than
our fears. The Kaddish we speak
out of our deepest grief is composed words of praise for the Divine,
and by witnessing that paradox of praise and pain we can conquer the
isolation of terror. We can become true witnesses: not just those who
remember, but those who act to heal the world.
Never forget, this
is what it means to be a Jew. To be both a mourner and a witness. To
hear, to see and to act. Never forget.