Stories of Loss and Chaos: The Ninth of Av and the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

Tisha B'Av has been a way for the Jewish community to confront and contain trauma through the telling of stories. But after 9/11, how can we have unity when we aren't clear what story we are telling?
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Stories change with every retelling -- sometimes the details and sometimes the meaning. The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks will be here soon, and then the stories will begin again.

I was in New York on 9/11. From a bus entering the Lincoln Tunnel, I saw the fireball go up when the second plane hit the twin towers, and I remember that in the days that immediately followed, every gathering or chance encounter began with the telling of our 9/11 stories. Over time, as the chaos and pain and ruin moved into the background, the ritual of the telling of stories diminished, only to resurface as summer moves into fall, reminiscent of a blue-skied day when the world fell apart.

The Fast of Tisha B'Av, which begins this year on the night of Aug. 8, has been a way for the Jewish community to confront and contain trauma through the telling of stories. First established to commemorate the destruction of First Temple in B.C.E. 586, it has become the day to relive the trauma of many other national calamities: the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the Holocaust, among others. While some have decried the over-identification of calamities with this date (surely, not everything bad that has ever happened to the Jewish people began in late July or early August), there is something to be said for containing all the communal rage and pain to one day, and then on that date, letting it all pour out. We read the Book of Lamentations, and imagine ourselves to be the survivors of a ruined and desolate nation, wondering where God had gone.

The rabbis tell the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua visiting the ruins of the Second Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. Rabbi Joshua bursts into tears, anguished that the place where Israel atoned for its sins had been destroyed. Rabbi Yochanan comforts him, declaring that deeds of lovingkindness (chesed) had more power to achieve atonement and heal a broken world than sacrifice ever could. Chesed is not just something God shows us; it is our obligation to our fellow human beings in light of unimaginable tragedy. Chesed and not hatred or revenge.

Over the past six months, I struggled with how Rabbis for Human Rights-North America would commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 as an organization. What is the message of a Jewish human rights organization, particularly one that has focused on the darker legacy of 9/11, the use of torture in the War on Terror and the rise of bigotry against Muslims? Would anything we said be heard as prophetic admonition, or an inspiring challenge to hold fast to our most cherished values as a nation? Doesn't the anniversary belong to those closest to the events, the survivors and families of victims, the first responders and the disaster chaplains?

One theme that has emerged in some of the interfaith settings I have posed this question to is "Remember Sept. 12." The memory of the day after 9/11 is one of unity: people reaching across boundaries of faith, race and class to connect with their neighbors, with their friends and with perfect strangers. Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists and agnostics, we were together in our shock. It was the strength of unity that helped us survive those first days of trauma. Out of the trauma, chesed.

But it is important to acknowledge that for many people, this message of unity and chesed is completely false. After I posed "Remember Sept. 12" as a theme to a group of rabbinic colleagues, there were loud objections to what was seen as a glossing over of the experience of real pain and suffering. Many of my colleagues had counseled those who had lost family members. For some who had been in New York and D.C., the visceral memory was the fear that the planes were just the first wave of a larger, more sustained attack. Some complained that one dishonored the memory of 9/11 if he or she did not also talk about the two wars that have followed (both the soldiers who have fought and the politic quagmires that have resulted). "Remember Sept. 12" seemed like a rosy nostalgia for a day that never really was.

More recently, when I participated in the interfaith "Our Better Angels" master class for Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders, one of the Muslim participants challenged the entire paradigm of telling stories about 9/11. Certain stories get privileged over others, she reminded us. For example, who remembers those people turned away from the intake centers at the piers because they lacked documentation?

How do we acknowledge the fact that one's experience of 9/11 is profoundly affected by his or her race, class and religion. How can we have unity when we aren't clear what story we are telling?

I don't know the answer. Maybe we'll just have to wait to see what Sept. 12, 2011, feels like. It took the Jewish people generations to figure out what the narrative of the destruction of the Temple on Tisha B'Av was, and we still incorporate new episodes of pain and loss into the commemoration. Even the official story is still open. As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, may we have the wisdom to hear other, competing stories with hearts of chesed.

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