For the week ending 11 December 2010 / 3 Tevet 5771

"Who in Fire"

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
Reflections on the Great Fire in the North of Israel
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"On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed... who will live and who will die… who in fire and who in water..."

When we uttered these words some three months ago we could hardly imagine the tragedy which struck Israel the past week as over 40 people lost their lives in the massive conflagration on Mount Carmel in the north of the country.

The damage to the environment was extensive and it will take years to replenish the destroyed forests, but this pales beside the loss of lives which cannot be recovered.

Let us reflect on what our reaction must be to this tragedy.

The reflex reaction of the public was "Who is responsible?"

Responsibility, as expressed in the media, was limited to who was guilty of starting the fire and who was lax in preparing the nation for such a challenge.

But is this the way Jews who pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur should react?

Of course there is a need to learn from the shocking lack of preparedness of the government how to better organize the firefighting capacity of the nation. We would be sadly remiss, however, if we failed to point an accusing finger at ourselves. Just as virtually an entire nation saw the long period without rain as a heavenly reminder that humans are not in control of their fate, so too have the flames on the Carmel called to our attention how vulnerable we are despite all of our technology.

Little will be gained by appointing a national commission to investigate the matter. Nothing will be gained by exploiting the tragedy to vilify a political enemy who did his best to prepare the nation but was blocked by a parsimonious treasury. What can and must be done is some serious soul-searching which begins with an honest admission of our dependence on Heaven whether it is in regard to rain, fire or enemy threats.

One consoling thought about the recent tragedy is the concern shown by the public for the victims of the fire. People evacuated from their homes because of the fire found a warm welcome in safer places. The international effort of sending planes and people to help put out the fire helped restore our faith in the basic decency of mankind.

But why must we wait for tragedy to unify us?

Discord between people has been compared to fire because of its consuming power. Perhaps this tragic fire is a signal from Heaven that we must work harder on eliminating strife between individuals and between our communities and create a sense of unity that will spill over into an end of strife between nations.

Once we have internalized that we can only try to solve such human problems and are totally dependent on G-d to spare us from the vicissitudes of nature, we will be on the road to prayer and self-improvement which will bring an end to our suffering.

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