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Rabbi Lyon's Blog - 07_12_2013
07/11/2013 07:00 AM Posted by:

From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
July 12, 2013

 

Don’t tell me everything happens for a reason. Don’t tell me that they’re in a better place. And, don’t tell me that God needed them for a higher purpose. These are some of the comments, sentiments and explanations I heard after the tragic deaths of 19 firemen in Arizona, last week. Known as “Hot Shots”, the double entendre is not lost on us. The name reflects the youthful and courageous spirit of the young men who signed up for a “hot” job to take a “shot” at extreme fires. As the country joined the families of the fallen firefighters in mourning, many questions were raised about how it happened and what the firemen were doing when they were overcome by the conflagration.

                Officials will examine the events over many months, but their initial conclusions already reveal that while they were young and trained, the circumstances left them little chance of escape and even less chance of battling the flames that ultimately overcame them. The questions that are more difficult to answer tend to be religious in nature. Why did it happen? What responsibility did the young firefighters have to themselves and their families? Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question “why” isn’t always ours to know. Many answers will remain a mystery buried in the ashes, or aloft in the gusts of winds that have passed, or in the untold efforts of those who perished. However, Judaism gives us another more useful question. The Book of Lamentations, in Hebrew, is known as “Eicha”, which means “How”. This becomes our question: How did it happen? How can we learn from the tragic events? How can families without their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers move on? These questions give power to the powerless and engage them in choosing life again.

                While I’m awed by the young men who knowingly risk their lives in forest fires, I have to assume that some of them do so despite their wives’ and young families’ protests and perhaps even against their own better judgment. The awesome power to choose even to be a “Hot Shot” doesn’t preclude their duty to be wise in their choosing. Should a young man, though strong and able, choose a job as a “Hot Shot” knowing that he will always work in high-risk settings that will put his life and his family’s life on the line? It’s a judgment call, but it should be weighed against sacred values that rank human life and safety as our highest priority.

                Every day, policemen, firemen, and soldiers, among others, knowingly serve to protect us at their own risk, too. One could argue that there’s no difference, but I think there is. The cities we live in, the buildings we occupy, and the threats we defend against all come with rules, laws and boundaries that give policemen authority on the street, set reasonable limits for firemen battling a blaze, and even define rules of engagement in war aimed to limit human loss and suffering. But, “Hot Shots” battle nature’s wrath. Mother Nature knows no limits; she can be unpredictable and destructive. Tornadoes in Oklahoma, hurricanes in Texas and on the Gulf Coast, and tsunamis in Asia, tell the same story. The difference is that young and able men don’t stand up against them. Experts try to predict them so that we can outrun them. Cities in Oklahoma are rebuilding; New Orleans and Galveston are healing if not healed, and new systems predict tsunamis to save human life.

                Forests can be replenished, homes can be rebuilt and cars can be replaced. A “Hot Shot” is someone’s husband, father, brother, son, or friend. He cannot be replaced. To call them heroes is appropriate and an honor. But, don’t tell me everything happens for a reason. Don’t tell me that they’re in a better place. And, don’t tell me that God needed them for a higher purpose. These are terrible consolations. How can we learn from this terrible tragedy? Begin with Jewish wisdom (Talmud) that teaches: Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation and then pray for a miracle.

                My heart goes out to the families who suffered the death of a loved one. My prayers are filled with hope that they will find meaning in the ways they answer “how” and not “why”. And, I pray that in the future, fires of such magnitude are respected for their ferocity, and that even the youngest and ablest among us will hold human life more sacred than anything else on earth.

                From my family to yours, Shabbat Shalom.

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