Friday, September 16, 2011

Ki Tavo

I have been thinking about memorials. On Sunday we watched as the new 9-11 memorial was dedicated. I of course have not yet visited but I imagine it is a powerful testament to that terrible day. The structure appears appropriate and meaningful. New buildings were not constructed in place of the towers but instead these memorial fountains, etched with the names of those murdered. To build anything else in place of these ruins would be to suggest that we wish to erase memory.

Memorials offer us places to mourn and remember. As the people who experienced the tragedy grow older memorials become instead places to educate future generations. I have visited many memorials. It occurs to me that not one of them commemorates a natural disaster. All are built to memorialize the evils that human beings do to one another. I think in particular of the vast expanse of Gettysburg, the site of the largest battle in the Civil War, where nearly 8,000 were killed in that battle’s three days. The Vietnam War memorial, by contrast, is an endless wall of names rather than Gettysburg’s endless fields of grass and gravestones.

Often when walking through the streets of Jerusalem I stumble upon a simple stone etched with the names of those killed at the spot at which I find myself. At one I find the names of soldiers killed in the Six Day War’s battle for Jerusalem. At another I discover the names of victims murdered by terrorists at a bus stop. And at yet another spot I read the names of those murdered at CafĂ© Hillel on Jerusalem’s trendy Emek Refaim street. These stones are part of modern Jerusalem’s landscape. Most of the time I hurry by. I rarely notice the piles of stones, notes and even flowers that friends and loved ones leave. I have noticed that the more recent the event the greater these piles. As the years go by the stones, notes and flowers appear to diminish.

In some ways the Western Wall is also a memorial. It represents the surviving remnant of the destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of thousands upon thousands of its inhabitants. The scale of that destruction 2,000 years ago was a holocaust for its generation, and according to historical records even surpassing the tragedy of 9-11. We of course no longer view it as such. We recognize the stones as the remnant of our ancient Temple. And so there we come to remember the Temple and its glory. We come to connect to our people and our history. Do we also resolve never to forget the evils human beings commit against one another?

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, Moses commands the people to build a memorial, but not to the evils that Amalek committed against the Israelites. Instead Moses charges the people with this command: “As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 27:2-3) The first thing that the people must do upon entering the land is to write the words of the Torah for all to see. It is the words of Torah that serve as testimony. We are also commanded never to forget Amalek and the atrocities his people did as we journeyed through the wilderness. But it is not those evils in particular that are inscribed in stone. It is instead the words of Torah in their entirety.

Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg. “…In a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground… It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This too is the Torah that we must inscribe on each and every stone that we erect as memorials.

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