Where is Leonard Cohen when we need his maudlin adaptation of our most famous Yom Kippur refrain: “Who by fire?” Little did we realize when we recited it in prayer this past Yom Kippur that it was not merely moving medieval prose, but a signal to pay attention to all of the ways that danger will strike us in our beloved homeland this year.
Only a month after our holidays ended, arsonists in Israel had only to light a match in Israel’s driest season to watch mass destruction spread from one forest to another, from one region to another. It makes terrorism even more unforgiving for its wanton devastation. And here are the rough statistics: An estimated 2,000 fires, 20 of them major. One hundred thousand Israelis evacuated from their homes. Seven hundred houses destroyed. More than 120 people treated for smoke inhalation and related health concerns. An entire yeshiva burned to the ground with only one of its Torah scrolls untouched. Close to 40 people arrested and charged with arson, as of this writing. All of this while we in the American diaspora ate turkey, watched football, and pondered election results.
Fire is, arguably, the most pernicious method to destroy something because it leaves nothing but ash in its devastating path. Anyone who has lost anything to fire knows that Prometheus had power at his fingertips. Fire burns with its mystique and its capacity for evil. It attracts and repels. We, who light candles once a week to honor Shabbat and throughout the holiday year, see the beauty of light. Our small candle ushers in domestic peace and reminds us of Isaiah’s mandate to be a light to the nations, to be a member of the covenant who takes people out of darkness. Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed, understood the power of language as a lit match in a dark room that highlights a pearl. But all of these examples are of fire contained.
We can reflect on the miracle that of all of these hundreds of fires, no one died. True. But there is something almost biblical about this plague. It called attention to two Bible passages. In Numbers 11, God was angered by Israelite complaints and created a fire on the edge of the camp, mimicking the way that complaints are a form of conflagration, an agitation that mounts and decimates. “Now the people complained about their hardships, and when God heard them His anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. So that place was called Taverah, because fire from the Lord had burned among them.” (11:1-3) The fire was so traumatic a warning that the Israelites named the place “Fire” so that no one would forget what happened there. You never forget a fire.
The other biblical text is from Deuteronomy: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” (20:19) The message is clear. Even in wartime, nature is not your enemy. Destroy it at your own peril because whether you win or lose a war, if you destroy trees, you destroy your own food supply. Your short-sightedness will cost you dearly. The irony of the last clause hurts. Trees are not people, who in wartime somehow seem more dispensable.
An Israeli-Arab parliamentarian observed that this form of terrorism damages everyone in a country beset by so much conflict already. “We all live in a house on fire,” Tennessee Williams wrote in The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, “no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” We were not trapped, however. We had firefighters to call from Israel, the U.S., from Russia. The fires prompted thousands of acts of kindness from strangers.
But here’s an ugly observation: a child filled with hatred has only to light one match to destroy a village, a school, a forest. A simmering rage burns in me. Where are all the human rights activists and campus protestors who are so quick to find fault with Israel now? Why aren’t they speaking out and demanding justice? If not for our people, then at least for our trees? “And who shall I say is calling?” Cohen asks with his haunting lilt. Our brothers and sisters are calling. They need us to protest. They need us to help them rebuild.