Sunday, December 05, 2010

Observations on a Tragedy

As of this writing the devastating fire of the Carmel mountain range in Israel seems to have finally come under some control. According to a Cypress police officer who is in Israel to help fight the fire about 80% of the fires have been extinguished. Officials are expressing cautious optimism about full control and an end to the blaze as early as this evening.

But there has been a very heavy toll. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post:

The Carmel blaze has scorched over 12,000 acres (50,000 dunams), killed 41 people and injured scores… The majority of the dead were Israel Prisons Service staff who were burned alive in their bus near Beit Oren on Thursday.

I can’t think of a more horrific death than that. And yet they were involved in one of the greatest Mitzvos anyone can do - saving lives.

If there was ever a demonstration of theodicy this is it. How can it be that the only ones who were killed were those who were involved in life-saving acts at the very moment of their deaths… and in such a horrific way?!

Then there are those who were injured but survived. One of the most seriously hurt was Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer (pictured). She is burned on over 80% of her body.

It is beyond my capabilities as a human being to understand. I can’t even begin to imagine how their loved ones are dealing with this.

It is ironic that this national tragedy occurred almost at the exact moment I posted about the idea of looking ‘inward and upward’ when things like this happen - the idea of looking at a disaster and seeing it as a message from God about something we are doing wrong as a people.

I have always had trouble with those who point to specific issues they see as God’s message for us. But at the same time I agree that God does control the world. So – yes - God is perhaps sending us a message and perhaps we should all do Teshuva. But to point to something specific is usually (though not always) a function of some kind of agenda on the part of the ‘pointer’.

Which is why I agree with what the Chofetz Chaim did when he heard about that 1923 earthquake in Japan. He fasted and said we should all repent. He did not point to anything specific. That is an appropriate response for a religious person. Indeed it is in part the responsibility of rabbinic leaders to lead us in this way.

And yet there are those who insist on pointing at specific things. As did Sephardi Gadol, Rav Ovaida Yosef. Basing himself on a Gemarah he said (from the Jerusalem Post): “Fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated…”.

I would ask him why then in the only fires to date in Chicago (in my memory) two of the Torah world’s finest Orthodox Jews - both of them Charedi and both Klei Kodesh - had devastating fires that completely destroyed their homes. I can assure Rav Yosef that there was absolutely no Chilul Shabbos by anyone in either of their families.

Interestingly Rav Yosef had company on this one. Although not blaming it the same ‘failing’ both saw this as a Divine message each from their own perspective. From Ha’aretz:

The de-facto Palestinian Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya said Sunday that the massive forest fires in northern Israel was a 'strike from Allah (God).

I doubt this Hamas leader was referring to Chilul Shabbos. Nor do I think that either those gentleman have given any comfort to the loved ones of those who were burned alive and who must all still be in a state of shock over this.

If there is a bright spot to any of this very tragic event it is the response of the world community. From the Jerusalem Post:

A fleet of international assistance aircraft from Russia, Greece, France, Bulgaria, Britain, Italy and Turkey flew sortie after sortie over the flames, dropping large quantities of water and fire retardants, before returning for more runs.

And the US has sent the Evergreen Super Tanker Aircraft, the largest firefighting aircraft of its type in the world. From the Jerusalem Post:

The US "Super Tanker" completed two runs, dropping 80,000 liters of water and flame retardant on the fires over Ein Hod in the Carmel on Sunday.

It gives me hope that there is a world out there that cares enough about what happens in Israel to actually send help. It is ironic that on Chanukah - Greece was one of the first to respond. And Turkey did not hesitate despite the strained relations they have recently had with Israel.

I’m not saying that Europe has now become pro Israel. They are still pro Palestinian. But maybe – just maybe - they are not anti Israel either.

These are all nations with a history of anti-Semitism. They are of the ‘blame Israel first’ mentality. I’m not sure this attitude is going to change. But it is heartening to see that they do not want to see Jews harmed and have actually sent help to the Jewish people in their time of need.

Of course there is a bit of poetic justice here. Israel has always responded quickly to world tragedies by sending teams of their best rescue and medical personal to help victims.

Nonetheless I don’t think this is really why the world community has responded. That gives me a glimmer of hope about the future of the Jewish State. It is jst a glimmer – I’m not about to declare all is right with the world vis-a-vis Israel. But I think it is definitely something to consider.

Update: (i2/6/10 - 8:07AM CST) According to a report in Ha'artez, Ahuva Tomer has passed away as a result of her wounds. Baruch Dayan HaEmes.