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Wildfires  (Yom Kippur Morning)

09/30/2014 01:36:05 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

It was near midnight as our plane began its descent over the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.   I strained to look out of the windows at an unusual sight.  There were several orange lines glowing on the ridges of the dark mountains:   Wildfires.    

I didn’t give the wildfires much thought – I was in “vacation mode.”  My husband David and I go to the Pacific Northwest every year.   We have our favorite destinations, beautiful places where we start to relax the moment we arrive.   This year I was especially ready to seek refuge from the bad news that dominated the airwaves before I left.  The news included:    Three Jewish teenagers murdered in Israel; an Arab boy tortured and burned to death in revenge; the murderous group ISIS on the ascent; anti-Semitic demonstrations on the rise in Europe. I didn’t want any more bad news.   

But the bad news kept coming.

We began our vacation in Dayton, where we visited my brother and brother-in-law.   In our hotel room, David read to me from a news report about a huge fire burning in the mountains of Washington State.  This fire had cut off power to the Methow Valley, one of our favorite destinations.  We planned to spend some time there towards the end of our vacation.  David wondered aloud if we needed to make other plans.  I didn’t want to take that possibility seriously, so I replied that I was sure that things would be okay by the time we were set to arrive.

We left Dayton and drove to the Oregon Coast.  As we traveled we listened to an interview with Benjamin Netanyahu on the car's satellite radio.   Netanyahu was trying to explain the impact of Hamas’s rocket fire on the citizens of Israel.  He said:  “Imagine if 80% of the cities in the United States were under rocket attack, as is the case in Israel.   Just think about it:  New York, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago – don’t you think such an attack would demand a response?”    I thought about what it must be like to live in fear of incoming rockets.  I imagined myself hearing the wail of the sirens, hurrying into a shelter, waiting for the boom that signaled an Iron Dome interception, or the crash of an explosion.   Before I left on vacation, I had begun to plan an interfaith tour of Israel for the next summer.  If the war continued, would anyone want to go with me?  

Days later we drove into Portland and ran into a traffic jam.  A car eased by us, a Palestinian flag draped over its rear window.  I was momentarily confused – what was that flag doing in Portland?

As we checked into our hotel, two large televisions in the lounge area by the reception desk were tuned to CNN, with breaking news from Gaza.  I saw images of crumbled buildings with dark smoke billowing from the rubble.  Even worse was the footage of bleeding children on stretchers, some stunned, some wailing, others lying still.   I knew that Hamas had launched rockets at Israeli citizens from the place that had been bombed.  I knew that Hamas wanted its citizens, its children, to die at the hands of Israelis, for that would inflame public opinion against the Jewish state.  But knowing this gave me no comfort.   We were watching human suffering, plain and simple.  If I closed my eyes and my heart to this suffering, what kind of person would I be?

As David and I walked back to the hotel after dinner that night we saw a large group of people assembled in a nearby park.  They carried placards and Palestinian flags, chanting words that we could not hear.  I remembered the car with the Palestinian flag that had passed us when we drove into the city, and I suddenly understood.  We watched the group only for a moment before returning to the hotel.  We didn’t want to get too close to them. 

The horror of the bombing of a UN shelter in Gaza led to a 72 hour cease fire.   But it was broken shortly after it went into effect, apparently by accident.  Not all of the Hamas fighters had gotten the word about the cease fire, and one group launched rockets at Israel.   Fighting resumed once again.   Once again we saw images of smoke rising over Gaza. 

And the smoke was still rising in the mountains too.    It turns out that we had arrived in the Northwest on the same evening that the largest wildfire in Washington State’s recorded history began.  Dry lightning had ignited several small fires.  These fires quickly spread and merged into what became known as the “Carlton Complex” fire – over 400 square miles in scope.  The cool wet weather of the spring had been followed by a hot and dry summer, leaving lots of grass and undergrowth to fuel the fire.   The “Smoky the Bear” signs posted along the highways warned travelers that the fire danger was "extreme."

We had already received word that we would have to delay our visit to our favorite destination, the Methow Valley.  So we made alternative plans.  One afternoon we drove into Leavenworth, a town that used to rely on logging as its economic base.  But eventually the town needed to find a new source of dollars.  So Leavenworth’s leaders decided to take advantage of its beautiful mountain setting and transform this logging town into a “Bavarian village.”  Every building in town was remodeled to reflect Bavarian architecture.   Stores sold specialty items:  Bavarian chocolates, elaborate cuckoo clocks, Hummel figurines.   Normally on a summer day, Leavenworth would be crowded with tourists strolling its streets, quickly lapping melting ice cream before it dripped down their hands.  

But as we drove into Leavenworth, I noticed how few cars there were on the road.  Then we realized that the highway was closed just up ahead due to the wildfire.  It was brutally hot.  A smoky haze hung over the town and the sidewalks were empty.  The opening words of Aicha, Lamentations, came to my mind:  "אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙Aicha yashva v’dad ha ir -- Alas, lonely sits the city, once great with people."[1]  It is Jewish tradition to read Aicha on Tisha B'Av as we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.   I thought about Jerusalem and its past destruction.  And now?   Half a world away, the rockets were still flying.   

That evening the smoke to the west colored the sunset a brilliant red.  But the smell of the smoke made it difficult to enjoy the beautiful sight.  The wildfire was still burning.

In the morning we set out to drive to the Methow Valley.  We were quickly surrounded by burned brush and blackened soil.  We could see little green islands in the charred landscape where firefighters had successfully saved some homes.  But we also saw charred foundations of homes that burned, plywood signs with NO LOOTING spray painted on them.  As we drove along the Methow river, we were startled when a helicopter suddenly appeared.  It hovered for a few moments, drawing water from the river.  Then it quickly ascended, off to keep fighting the wildfire.    As we drove through the small town of Twisp, signs appeared thanking the firefighters for their efforts.  One reader board by a church urged people who had lost their homes to “Stop here if you need anything.” 

I know that wildfires are important to the health of the forest.  Fires enrich the soil and clear the way for new species to emerge.   And in fact, some plants reproduce only when fire breaks open the outside coating of their seeds.   Destruction brings renewal.  Can the same be said of war?   Are not wars waged because people believe they are beneficial, whether for defense or for the advancement of a greater ideal?   But the fact that wildfires and war may ultimately be beneficial is small comfort to those who are affected by them: Small comfort to those who watch flames consume their homes; Small comfort to those who must place their child’s body in a grave.

The magnitude of suffering demands a response.  But how can we respond? 

I am a rabbi, so I turn to the wisdom of our Jewish tradition.  We are not the first to ask how to respond in the face of events seemingly out of our control.  One answer emerges:   focus on the small.  Our earliest rabbis taught:  He who saves a single life is as if he saved the whole world.[2] As individuals we cannot save the world.  We cannot stop the wildfires, we are powerless to bring peace to Israel and the Middle East.  But we are not asked to do that which we cannot do.  We are asked to do what we can:  we are called to do our small part to alleviate suffering. I think of the sign on the church in Twisp:  “Stop here if you need anything.”  And I think of the Israelis who set up a field hospital to help the Gazans injured in the fighting.  Save a single life, and save the world.

And we are also called to hope.  Every worship service ends with the Aleinu, a prayer that presents a vision of the day when people will be united and the world will be perfected.  We are called to cling to the hope that somehow good people everywhere can join together to build a better future from the rubble of the present.   

David and I couldn’t stay long at our favorite place in the mountains.  We were evacuated after one day because sparks from a flat tire ignited another wildfire and the winds drove the flames in our direction.  

As our plane ascended on our flight back to New York, the wildfires had been mostly contained.  But I could see layers of smoke still clinging to the mountains.  Thousands of miles away, meetings were underway in an attempt to preserve the fragile cease fire in Gaza.  For the moment all was well.   But I knew that the mountains and the Middle East could reignite with the smallest spark.    I knew this.  Yet I allowed myself to hope that the wildfires were over and that the smoke would soon dissipate on the wind.


[1] Lamentations 1:1

[2] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779