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Kami Knapp Schechter

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Dvar September 13 2019 & September 14 2019 Ki Teitzei

September 14: Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah portion: Ki Teitzei is full of commandments, the most in the entire Torah- 72 mitzvot. The mitzvot range from treatment of a woman taken captive during war, how one should treat wives if they have two, what to do with a rebellious son, returning items to their rightful owner, mixing species and types of clothing, we receive our commandment to wear tzitzit on our clothes (which we now wear on our prayer shawls), and much more. With so many mitzvot it is overwhelming to think about where to start or which ones to study, they all should be studied individually and they all have so many nuances behind the commandment. 

But today I want to talk about memorializing, why, because just a few days ago we commemorated one of the worst tragedies in our country’s history, 9/11. And so, sometimes, despite the interesting things to study within Torah, we must stop and talk about tragedy and perhaps even receive a teaching that we may use in our last few weeks of self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah. If you are interested in studying some of the mitzvot, I invite you to join me at kiddush lunch and we can explore a few.

9/11. A day that I know everyone in this room remembers. Where they were, what their first thoughts were, who they called first. Every year on the date of 9/11 we return to the chaos, deep suffering, questions of why, and the lives lost on that day. Perhaps some of us knew the victims. Perhaps some of us had family members who were close by or even in the building and were able to escape.

Why is this such a remarkable tragedy? Because it did not discriminate. The people in the twin towers were not targeted because they were black, Hispanic, or even white, because they were Jewish, Taoist, or Muslim. They were targeted because they were Americans, all of them, those born in this country, those who immigrated to this country, those Hispanic, white, black, Jewish, Taoist, Muslim, and many more were targeted because they were American. It resonates so deeply with us because the target was the only identity that holds all of us together, regardless of color, faith, or political leanings, our identity as Americans. 

Some would argue that our country has respectfully honored this tragedy, others would say we can do better. But we memorialize the tragedy, every year. 

This is very close to our understanding as Jews. Our tradition holds a deep imperative to honor people and tragedies. We honor those have passed every year on their yahrzeit, the day of their day, with mourner’s kaddish, perhaps hosting a meal in their honor, sharing memories of them. Why is this important? Because this keeps them close to us. 

I wrote this dvar on 9/11 and throughout the day I reflected on the power of our traditions of honoring the dead, through yahrzeits, mourner’s kaddish, and through yizkor. It drove me to look a little deeper into the history of these traditions.

Anita Diamant writes: “Beloved from its earliest days, parts of the Kad­dish date from the first century B.C.E. Written mostly in Ara­maic–the spoken language of most Jews from the fifth century B.C.E. until the fifth century C.E.–it was recited not only by priests but by common folk as well.” 

If you read the translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, it does not speak of death or memorializing, it speaks of praising G-d’s greatness. This is because the prayer began in the house of study, not the synagogue, and was traditionally recited when a scholar would give a particularly stellar teaching, it then became tradition to say it after dedicating study in the name of someone who has died. During the Crusades, it intimately was linked with loss and mourning. And here it’s meaning remains today.

Yizkor is said 4 times a year, one of these times is steadily approaching and will occur on Yom Kippur. Originally it was recited only on Yom Kippur because it was thought to elevate the souls of those who departed because we give tzedakah and memorialize them on the day of judgment. Medieval Germany began the practice of listing names of the deceased. 

After studying more deeply our traditions of loss and mourning on the day of 9/11. I realize that both as Jews and Americans we come together in mourning in the midst of national tragedies. Mourning after national tragedies and it’s subsequent memorializing, brings us, the living, together. We see past each other’s differences and remember those dear ones we have lost and we support each other amongst the pain. 

As in previous Saturdays in which I have brought themes to ponder in the days of Elul, we receive two themes from both our Torah portion and the American calendar. As we reflect in Elul let us 1: reflect on fairness, how we are or are not fair to others, and how we live out fairness, and 2: mourn as our tradition encourages us to, both our American tradition and Jewish tradition, and during this time of reflection think of those you have lost this year and lean in to the support of our mourning traditions as American Jews.