Twenty years later, I remember
The weather was eerily similar to the same date on the calendar twenty years before: A bright and sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, a soft breeze, and if you heard no news from the outside world, you might think you were experiencing a slice of heaven, a taste of the world to come. As the sun was setting on the day of September 11, Rabbi Drill and I stood at the podium, surrounded by public servants in uniform, and offered the 23rd Psalm to the hundreds gathered on the lawn of Orangetown’s Town Hall. The psalm, we explained, is offered for those mourning the loss and seeking the presence of their loved ones; for those who wish to feel God’s presence in dark times; and for those who turn to friends and community as a source of strength and comfort.
Looking out at the crowd before us, I was struck by the realization—especially as the names of the fallen from our community were read—that I was not certain whether any family members of the 9/11 victims were actually with us to commemorate the day. This feeling only served to reinforce my belief that, at some level, the magnitude of the 9/11 tragedy robbed individuals who suffered loss the opportunity to grieve and have their personal losses acknowledged by the community. The tragedy became one that belonged to our country, and in the processing of our collective trauma we lost sight, to some degree, of the individual stories of loss, grief and mourning. Stories of heroic first responders, of courageous acts of selfless sacrifice, and of how united our country stood in the days that followed continue to shape the way we remember. We focus far less on the stories of the families that were broken by the sudden loss of a spouse, child, parent and sibling.
The circle of subsumed individual stories expands further. Two weeks before 9/11, a dear personal friend to me and many others, a beloved husband, father of two young children, son and brother, died very suddenly while on vacation with his family. Bruce Cowen was an integral community builder in our congregation. His death left his family traumatized and reeling. The shock left many members of our community devastated. But two weeks later, when the World Trade Center fell, everyone was stricken. The loss belonged to us all. And the processing of individual grief, and the communal support that was supposed to accompany that process, was somehow cut short. Some of us never fully processed Bruce’s death as a result, and some of us could never fully process the full scope of 9/11 because of our personal sense of loss.
In the Jewish tradition, comforting the mourner is a communal obligation. There are times, however, when (to paraphrase two of my favorite fictional characters) the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. When a death occurs during the intermediate days of the festival of Sukkot, for example, formal mourning for the deceased is postponed until after Simchat Torah. If the death occurrs before the festival and shiva begins, it is truncated with the onset of the holiday. Obviously, the bereaved is in an emotional state of mourning; the communal obligation to comfort the mourner, however, is outweighed by the communal obligation to celebrate the holiday to its fullest.
I understand the tension inherent in this rule, especially as a rabbi who is charged with leading the communal celebration of the holiday. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Sometimes the needs of the one do indeed outweigh the needs of the many. Tragic loss, in my opinion, is one of those times.
That’s why, when remembering six million, it is so important to remember one story. That’s why, on every 9/11, I call a congregant who stood at Ground Zero and witnessed horror all around him. That’s why, on Bruce’s yahrzeit every year, I reach out to the ones most immediately and profoundly affected by his absence.
May we never forget, even as we are called upon to celebrate life. May we never forget the opportunity we are given, individually, to bring comfort, solace, and the blessing of memory to those who may only remember their pain.
Rabbi Craig Scheff