The United States is flying flags at half staff right now, in compliance with a proclamation by President Obama, demonstrating that “the American people stand with the people of France.”
I understand the motivation, but I disagree with the proclamation.
In our synagogue, during religious school, we recited Kaddish for those who died in the terror attacks in France and Lebanon. Kaddish is a Jewish prayer designed for Jews to say in memory of their first degree relatives – not cousins, not dear friends, not whole villages, not a classroom full of elementary school students – but parents, children, spouses, siblings.
I understand the motivation, but I disagree with the choice.
The motivation is some parts grief and some parts compassion mixed with many parts helplessness. We just don’t know how to respond to the loss of life in Paris, nor the loss of life in Jerusalem, nor Syria, nor Tennessee State University.
However, by that logic, how could we ever fly the flag at its finial?
How do we respond to the preventable deaths in Nigeria where, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (http://www.acleddata.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ACLED_Conflict-Trends-Report-No.40-August-2015_pdf.pdf
Political violence in Nigeria resulted in 980 reported fatali-
ties in July, the highest count since March 2015. This in-
crease in fatalities is largely due to the actions of Boko
Haram, which has increased its campaign of violence
And children who die of starvation and preventable illness? How do we respond to those losses? To the stabbing victims in Jerusalem and to the Palestinian shooting victims at checkpoints? How do we ever let a single flag rest at its finial?
How do we ever let a day go by without reciting Kaddish for all innocent victims if we ever say Kaddish for any innocent victims?
And, in the case of the Kaddish, aren’t we doing the same thing the Mormon’s do when they baptize our ancestors by proxy when we recite the Kaddish for people who may not want us to recite Kaddish for them? Can you imagine Bill Maher’s horror at the idea of me reciting Kaddish for him? Surely there are victims in Paris who would also be offended . . . but I digress.
And, it is very important to remember, we don’t all agree on who is a victim. We can be blind to the people who are too different from us or the people whose aims are not our own aims. No one’s blood is redder than anyone else’s, and most causes are righteous in someone’s eyes. But I digress . . . kind of.
I want to suggest that we find another act of reverence, another spiritual practice worthy of the tragedies in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, Newtown, and in our communities. If you want to pray, pray for peace and wholeness, relief and understanding, compassion for us and compassion for others. If you want to publicly display your reverence and solidarity, find a new symbol, flying our flag with the flags of other nations, lighting a special group of candles or a candle with the colors of all the flags of the world. Come up with something else; I’m listening.
And yet, these expressions of grief and unity still miss the point. The best way to honor the memories of people who lose their lives to the horrors of terrorism, war, poverty, disease, gun violence, and every other preventable cause is to lend our hands to the work to end these preventable causes. We should dedicate hours of volunteer time to social justice projects; do it in the name of the people you are aching for if that helps. Or simply reach out to someone who seems disaffected, listen to her story, hear his experience, ask for ideas.
Maybe it’s appropriate to use our national mourning practice to mourn international tragedy and maybe it’s appropriate to use our Jewish mourning practice to mourn the multitudes of victims of poverty, violence, and hatred. It is good to say that we care about all who dwell on Earth, kol yoshvei tevel. I just hope that we will be particularly mindful of what we might lose when we co-opt a sacred, reverent observance that can’t be replaced by some other practice.