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Bringing meaning to tragedy

This Veterans Day, honor the living vets, remember the fallen, and mourn the recent senseless losses, so the nation can start healing
People cry as a law enforcement motorcade escorts the body of Ventura County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Ron Helus from the Los Robles Regional Medical Center, November 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, California, after a gunman opened fire Wednesday evening inside a country music bar, killing multiple people including Helus. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
People cry as a law enforcement motorcade escorts the body of Ventura County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Ron Helus from the Los Robles Regional Medical Center, November 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, California, after a gunman opened fire Wednesday evening inside a country music bar, killing multiple people including Helus. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Well, that didn’t take long.

Here in the United States, we awoke Thursday morning, yet again, to news of another shooting, this time at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California. And we awoke to pundits already discussing what various failure modes have led us to yet another tragedy.

Let’s discuss tragedy. Our pundits, God bless them, say, variously: Lack of strong gun control is a tragedy. Watering down our Second Amendment right to bear arms is a tragedy. The Democrats taking over the House is a tragedy. Republicans retaining control of the Senate is a tragedy. You might agree or disagree that any of these are tragedies: they are subjective tragedies.

Hopefully, we all can agree and focus on this most recent loss of life due to senseless and random violence as a tragedy, regardless of cause. This shooting, as so many shootings before, is an objective tragedy.

Our tradition guides us in how to frame objective tragedies. The majority of Mishna Tractate Ta’anit delineates what constitutes an objective tragedy and describes how we as a community respond at times of such tragedy. It is clear from the Mishna that our first response to objective tragedy is to engage in mourning and self-reflection. Only after mourning and self-reflection, can and must begin the process of thinking about root and proximate causes, the healing which will hopefully follow, and the giving of meaning to the tragedy which was mourned.

Too often in our world, we are tempted to skip over the process of mourning and focus on fixing problems. Open up a newspaper or go on the internet, and you will find no shortage of individuals offering various solutions to the vexing problems with which we are beset. Sometimes, it feels almost as if the very real people who lost their lives are mere props in a discussion about fixing a problem, further evidence of the “rightness” of my solution and the “wrongness” of yours. In our valiant attempts to solve problems, we tend to objectify victims, compounding the first tragedy with yet another.

It might be worthwhile to remember that each victim of this most recent tragedy, as well as each victim of the numerous preceding tragedies, was a unique human being. They were a mother, or a son, or a sister, or a lover, or a daughter, or a teacher, or a father, or a student, or a brother, or a friend. Their lives were ended too soon, for no good reason, and each individual tragedy ripples outward, like waves on a pond, affecting numerous other people. Taking Exodus 12:30 almost literally, there is a grievous outcry in our country because there is not a single home in which there is not someone who has died.

This Sunday, Veteran’s Day, marks the 100th anniversary of the formal end of World War I, as we call it now. Back then, it was known as the “war to end war,” at first, idealistically, and subsequently, more sardonically. World War I, which directly resulted in the loss of 16 million lives, and indirectly, in the loss of perhaps 50 to 100 million more, was an objective tragedy of epic proportion, regardless of what caused it. The question now is, how do we give meaning to a tragedy like World War I, or the tragedy of loss of life in subsequent wars (since the “war to end all war” didn’t, unfortunately) or the most recent tragedies?

My suggestion is that we engage in a collective day of national mourning, as the Mishna recommends. This Sunday, November 11, 2018, is an entirely appropriate day to do so. Only through mourning, and being able to feel grief about what has happened, will we be able to find meaning in these numerous senseless tragedies.

In the United States, we are a diverse population with an amazing multiplicity of faiths and cultures. Therefore, I am reticent to recommend specific mourning practices. Nonetheless, I suggest that whatever mourning practice individuals choose to adopt, that such practice have the following characteristics:

• Allow time for inward focus, to be in grief, silently. This is not a time for searching for reasons, it is a time to be in grief.

• To be able to connect with the loss, find information about one or more of the victims. Find someone who might have led a life similar to yours and think about what their dreams and aspirations might have been and what their relationships might have been like. Imagine what it might be like to have that all disappear in the blink of an eye, without warning.

• Connect with others who might share your same mourning tradition, and acknowledge the loss to each other without engaging in any analysis of the tragedy. This loss, like the preceding ones, is a grievous loss, and we owe it to the victims to acknowledge it as such.

• Don’t blame or analyze. Sunday is not an opportunity to place blame or search for root or proximate causes. Although it is tempting to do so as a way to assuage grief, it is really a way of avoiding feeling the grief that we each must feel at this time.

This Sunday, as we honor our holy living veterans, we also recall the memories of so many more holy veterans who gave their lives in defense of our country and the ideas embodied in our great experiment in democracy. As we honor our living veterans, and as we mourn our fallen heroes, veterans or no, may God enable us to open up a space where we can begin to give our various national tragedies meaning by being able to come together as a nation and begin to heal.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Daniel Geretz grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and currently serves as the rabbi of Maayan in West Orange, New Jersey.
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