Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mitrachayk min HaKavod

Glory is like a circle in the water,/ Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.
--Joan of Arc to Charles, Dauphin of France, in William Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, part I
Normally on TTV I tell a story giving a positive example of a virtue, as shown (and shone) through the life of a person, actual or legendary. Today’s story may be the first time I illustrate a virtue by its absence, highlighting a negative space whose dimensions give the shape of what’s missing. Fittingly, the virtue in question is one of the Jewish middot, many of which are expressed in terms of pitfalls to avoid rather than actions to embrace. Today’s story is a sad episode in American-Panamanian relations, the “Day of the Martyrs,” and our virtue: Mitrachayk Min HaKavod (Keeping Distance from Honor).

Mitrachayk (pronounced “mee-truh-HAKE”, with the ch pronounced like a guttural “h”) Min HaKavod has to do with avoiding pompousness or false pride. The Hebrew word kavod is usually translated as “honor,” although sometimes as “glory” or “respect.” The Talmud directs observant Jews to show kavod towards their parents and spouse, for example. Rabbi Jonathan Blake, Renée Holtz, and Birgit R. Sacher explain about this midda that it “is natural for people to seek honor from their fellow human beings. However, the rabbis consistently warn that honor cannot be acquired by one who pursues it. In fact, the sages warn that if you pursue honor, it will flee from you.”

Mitrachayk Min HaKavod again touches upon the slippery notion of Honor, a virtue we visited last year in the story of Giles Corey. At the time I pointed out that Honor has to do with staying true to principles of our higher Self (known in Feri as Ori or the Sacred Dove, and in Kabbalah as Neshamah). We can easily confuse the Self with the self, the small ego. Sometimes people attempt to assuage the smallness of their individual ego by associating with a larger group--say, for example, a sports team, a nation-state, or a religion. While larger than the individual, however, such assemblages have no guarantee of Transcendence.

In his novel Cat’s Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut distinguishes between two species of such assemblages. One, called a karass, indicates “a group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God's will.” He contrasts the karass with something he calls the granfalloon: a group whose members claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose association in fact has no meaning. A granfalloon leads its members not to Honor, but rather to vainglory.

Our story today might be titled “When Granfalloons Collide,” and it reminds me a little bit of West Side Story, as it started with a clash between two groups of ethnically divided teens, with tragic results. The time: January 9, 1964. The place: Panama--specifically, the Canal Zone. While Panamanians were grateful for the United States’ assistance in their winning independence from Colombia, many resented the U.S. appropriation of the Zone. Zonistas, expatriate Americans and their descendants living in the Zone, operated it as a U.S. colony, separated from the rest of Panama by a huge wall.

Only American flags flew in the Zone, a particularly touchy issue. In 1963, in recognition of Panamanian resentments, President Kennedy passed a law calling for the Panamanian flag to fly with the U.S. flag at all non-military sites in the Zone. Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, however, the governor of the Canal Zone decided instead to forbid the flying of either flag. He underestimated the “patriotism” of the rather jingoistic Zonians.

At Balboa High School, a group of irate Zonista teens raised a U.S. flag up the empty flag pole in front of their school, and posted a guard to keep it there. Panamanian teens at the Instituto Nacional, angry at the snub, marched to Balboa High with their own national flag. The police had trouble controlling the mobs of increasingly angry Zonistas and Panamanians. As noted in Wikipedia:

A half-dozen Panamanian students, carrying their flag, approached the flagpole. The Zonians would have none of it. They surrounded the flagpole, sang the Star Spangled Banner, and rejected the deal between the police and the Panamanian students. Scuffling broke out. The Panamanians were driven back by the Zonian civilians and police. In the course of the scuffle, Panama's flag was torn.

As you can imagine, all hell broke loose. A riot of rock-throwing and pulling down of the “Fence of Shame” by nightfall had escalated to 5,000 angry protestors burning American businesses in the Zone. Fighting spread all over the nation of Panama, with shooting by military on both sides resulting in numerous casualties. Alison Weinstock, a webmaster of the Ruben Blades website, has assembled an amazing scrapbook about the Martyr’s Day riots here. In the end the riots destroyed $2 million in property, with 28 dead, 300 wounded and 500 arrested.

All for the sake of some flags. Granted, the anger had to do with real substantive issues about America’s imperialism and Panama’s sovereignty. Truly, though, most of the squabble had to do with “honoring” pieces of cloth--and citizens’ belief such “honor” could justify violence and destruction.

It’s an interesting coincidence that this essay on Mitrachayk min HaKavod fell during this weekend’s tragic events in Arizona, which has put a national spotlight on the potentially dangerous effect of divisive political rhetoric. Out of a misplaced sense of patriotism--which certainly qualifies as one of Vonnegut’s granfalloons--some of our citizens may escalate from rhetoric into actions that don’t truly represent their higher Selves.

So let’s take a moment of mindfulness about the difference between a granfalloon and a karass, between our self and our Self, between Honor and simple vanity. Let’s remember that the virtue of true Humility can elevate a nation or people just as much as an individual.

May we see the gates of Mitrachayk min HaKavod, and perhaps make a home there.

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