The Names We Carry, by Rabbi Roni Handler

Somehow, hearing a list of individuals who’ve been lost brings us together.

When I first tuned in Sunday morning to the commemoration at Ground Zero, my mind was transported to Yom Hashoah observances (Holocaust Memorial Day) in which the names of those who died are read. In this case, of course, I was hearing the 2,983 names of the men, women and children who perished on 9/11. It struck me that the reading of the names makes these rituals intensely personal, brings us close to the victims, yet also keeps us at arms’ length.  

As I listened to the television, all I could know of each person was a name given by parents, taken upon marriage, or chosen at another formative moment. I could not know all the other names these people were called.  Names that signified their identity, defined their relationships, created meaning, and held the stories of their lives. We have names we use in our professions – Doctor, Professor, Rabbi, Sergeant.  We take on names as we add to our families—Mommy, Papa, Bubbe, Uncle.  And we have intimate, private names given by our partners and closest friends.

So what do we know of those who died? We know a single name for each. We don't know what made them smile or laugh. We don't know what brought them pride or filled them with fear. In some ways, it is this very distance from the individuals we lost that allows us to feel deeply connected to the shared experience and the narrative of the moment. This is the art of a communal ritual. Whether we’re commemorating the trauma of 9/11 with a nation or sharing the Passover story with the Jewish community, we can feel close to one another even though we don’t feel a sense of intimacy with every person involved.

We can retell this story of communal significance as if we ourselves had been there at the fateful moment. The reading of names is powerful precisely because it draws us just near enough to imagine our own names on that list—and keeps us far enough away to feel the deep relief and ambivalence of survival. Careful choreography and orchestrated drama bring us the emotion of the original moment and take our breath away. That’s what makes these rituals of remembrance “work.”

And just as we make a name for ourselves in life, so too do our names and our story continue after death, as Zelda’s poem “Each of Us Has a Name” (translated here by Marcia Falk) reminds us. May the memory of all those who perished in 9/11 forever be a blessing and an inspiration.