Several years ago, I had a sixth grade student who attended both the Milwaukee Jewish Day School and my congregation’s religious school. She came to me with a complaint that she was learning the same things at each school. When I asked her to explain more about this, she said that she had already studied Torah in day school and thus it was repetitive to discuss the content in religious school. She was (and is) a smart young woman, so I inquired if she had ever read her favorite book more than once and why. As we continued discussing this, I shared with her my perspective that we are given a great gift by being able to return to the same portions of the Torah in a yearly cycle. Although the text may be the same, we are not. I asked her to challenge herself when she felt that the material was “repetitive” to find something new in it or find a new approach to it. That way, Torah, and all aspects of our tradition, provide both a connection to the past and a new perspective on today.
Our portion for this week, Ki Tetzei, merits these returns. With 72 mitzvot, on a wide range of topics, surely something new can be learned with each reading. Yet this week, as we approach the ten year anniversary of “9/11” that follows on the day after Shabbat, it is the final verses of this portion that speak the loudest. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey…you shall blot out the memory (often interpreted as “blot out the name”) of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
For each of us, 9/11 is both a collective memory and an individual one. Surely, most of us remember where we were and what we were doing as the reports of planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania came across the news and the events that followed. Some of us suffered the great personal loss of loved ones; some of us were grateful that our loved ones were spared; and, as a nation, all of us joined together and wept. The days and months that followed were filled with questions, sadness, and great anger. And those days and months turned into years. As we reach this 10-year anniversary, while the deepest of pain may have lessened, the questions have only increased. What do we do with this day and how do we most appropriately mark it?
When asked to consider the words of this week’s Torah portion in relation to those acts of terror committed against us, how do we respond? What would it mean to say “Remember what Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden did to you?” After the attack of Amalek upon the Israelites (Exodus 17: 8-16), we read “I (the Eternal) will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek.” In Ki Tetzei, we find, “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek.” Do we have this obligation in this situation, as we did with Amalek? Again, more questions.
In our portion, the last statement “Do not forget” is clearly in reference to the command to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” yet, we may ask ourselves what it means to “not forget” 9/11. How do we best remember? What do we remember? How do we teach about 9/11 to those who were not yet alive or too young to remember? Do we remember the acts of terror and speak of them? Do we focus on the urge to “blot out the memory/name” of the terrorists? Or do we focus on the message of those who lost their lives and on the acts of heroism and bravery? Again, we have more questions, many opinions, and no single correct answer. And this is not the first time we have confronted these questions, as Jews.
Yet, if we return to our portion, and consider that there is this grouping of seventy-two mitzvot which may seem unrelated on the surface, but indeed really direct the Israelites on what the sensitive and appropriate actions are in a variety of situations (with the caveat that these were considered the most sensitive behaviors for the particular culture, time, and place, even if we would not regard them as such today). These mitzvot offer us the wisdom that we should always consider not only ourselves and how we have been affected, but also those around us. When we consider how we should respond and how we should remember, let us do that which offers the utmost sensitivity and appropriateness, focusing on what is good and righteous, just as the Torah has shown us each and every time we return to study it.
D’var Torah: Ki Tetzei
Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro serves as Rabbi-Educator at United Hebrew and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.