Parashat Ki Tetze

September 8, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Dvarim, News

September 11th: Remembering to Forget, Forgetting to Remember

By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips


“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, in your going-out from Egypt….erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17, 19).

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the tragedies that shook our city, our nation and our world, the final words of this week’s Torah portion are stark: Evil can be personified, and Amalek − the personification of evil throughout the ages − must be destroyed.

Yet questions present themselves. How do we “Remember” to “erase…memory”? If memory is erased, how can we “not forget”? And how do we understand exactly “what Amalek did”?

In the original narrative, we are told only that “Amalek came and fought with Israel” (Exodus 17:8). As the story is retold in this week’s portion, we learn of Amalek that “he tailed you, all the weakened-ones behind you; and you, weary and exhausted − and not revering God”(Deuteronomy 25:18). The phrase “he tailed you” is generally understood to mean an attack from the rear.

In virtually all English translations, an additional pronoun “he” is inserted to make the case that Amalek is the one “not revering God.” But there is no identifying pronoun in the original Hebrew, and the phrase “velo yarei Elohim” is as grammatically fitting for “you” as it is for “he.”

While ambiguous, “…and you, weary and exhausted − and not revering God” seems to point most literally to the Israelites, not to Amalek. The image that presents itself is one in which our people leave their most weak and vulnerable stragglers exposed to violence from behind − denied the vigilance of protection by leaders and fellow travelers who have lost, however temporarily, their reverence for God.

Whom do we remember? Whom do we forget to remember?

When I think of September 11th, 2001, the primary image that comes to mind is not the face of the mastermind, recently killed by U.S. armed forces in the midst of two protracted wars. Nor is it one of the relentless images of airplanes crashing or buildings collapsing in flame − although I bore witness to the aftermath of those horrors.

The primary image that comes to my mind is the “Walk of Bears.”

Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, shipments of teddy bears and other stuffed animals began pouring in from all over the country for distribution to survivors and displaced people. I saw how stricken adults clutching these bears − ostensibly to pass along to the children in their lives − were able to derive comfort and solace, and sometimes even to accept the bears for themselves.

Not all of the teddy bears were for distribution. At the Family Assistance Center set up by the city, an entire wall at one end of the huge complex was designated as the “Walk of Bears.” Posted signs explained that the many stuffed bears of all shapes, sizes and colors arranged on the floor against this wall were a gift from the people of Oklahoma City, and were not to be removed.

The shipment had arrived on September 19th, 2001. One of the signs explained that, after the horrific explosion at the Oklahoma City Federal Building on April 19th, 1995, survivors and disaster relief workers began to find teddy bears left on the chain-link fence. No one knew who was leaving these bears, but they kept showing up. The people of Oklahoma City decided that it was time for the people of New York City to take comfort in these bears.

And posted on the wall of the NYC Family Assistance Center, above the bears, were the photographs of the missing and the dead. Like the teddy bears, their faces reflected all shapes, sizes and colors − people from all over the world. Every day, the Walk of Bears would be visited by family members and friends, law enforcement officials, support agency staff and disaster relief volunteers. People came to write and read messages on the wall, to meditate, to cry, to reflect, to honor the memories…to tell and hear stories.

The Walk of Bears was a place of reverence.

The masterminds of the Oklahoma City bombing could not have been detected by racial profiling. While certainly “not revering God,” their faces never became icons of Amalek. Yet the horrors that they perpetrated − like the horrors of September 11th − allowed those who responded to access an essential reverence, allowed the best in us to come to the surface and be shared.

As we move through the 10th anniversary of September 11th, may we choose our memories carefully, so that we can best care for the most vulnerable in our midst − with reverence.


Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH, AJR ’99, is an independent chaplain and educator who served as Assistant Officer in the 9/11 Disaster Spiritual Care Services of the American Red Cross of Greater New York. She went on to provide support for the lower Manhattan Jewish community as Director of Spiritual Care Programs for the Downtown Kehillah, and teaches applied ethics and professional skills as adjunct faculty at AJR.