10/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Living with Fire: Lessons from a Tragedy

When I was a rookie rabbi, a decade ago, I wrote a spontaneous, emotion-driven piece about my watching Flight 801 crash into the ocean on CNN, following it from the time it disappeared off radar until they found it three hours later in the ocean. I questioned the morality of flying and whether we should be putting ourselves at risk to die such horrible deaths, or is that just too much technology to justify? I put out the piece to the 2000 family congregation, Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, where I was serving as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow. I was overwhelmed with fear and spewed my thoughts down, not recognizing that what I was really scared of was my own mortality, not dying in a horrible plane crash, and I shouted out that this must stop, we mustn't fly, it is abnormal. I got a slew of responses, mostly negative, calling me childish, naive, silly. I was told to take some valium and relax! There were complaints to the senior rabbis about this nonsense that I wrote, asking where my compassion was for the victims. Needless to say, it was not a highlight moment in my career! It does, however, remain a hugely laughable legend in the history of this fellowship! But it also taught me a lesson that remains with me.

I tell you this because as I sit to write about the horrible fires burning around me in Pasadena, CA, I have some of the same feelings of fear that engulfed me a decade ago. Yet, today, I understand that the message is one of compassion, and acknowledgement that life is so precious. In the moment of true danger, all of the stuff we have becomes mostly inconsequential. When we are threatened, as members of my community are, along many other residents in the fire zone destroying huge sways of the San Gabriel Valley and beyond, the priorities of life come into full focus. People pack the most important papers, usually just a few, maybe some photos, a favorite memento, and they leave with their lives. Returning to find a home burned to the ground is an unimaginably horrible thing to experience. There is devastation, despair and fear; and yet, most people that I have heard who are survivors of this kind of tragedy, often speak of the gratitude they feel for their lives, and thankfulness they feel for the firefighters who risk their own lives to save others. The tenacity of the human race is always exhibited most profoundly in these moments of adversity and tragedy. Especially since it is usually another human being who causes the destruction in the first place. I see it as a tribute to our capacity for compassion and our ability to see most deeply, when pushed, the holiness and amazement in just being alive.

Unlike ten years ago, when my own fear blinded me to the deeper message of the moment, I understand now what this moment can teach. It is so simple, yet so allusive. Each day is a gift, each breath is an opportunity to reach for goodness, appreciate one another, and spread kindness. Our stuff, while important, is not crucial to our existence. Homes can be rebuilt, cars can be replaced, stuff can be bought again. There is sadness and pain, to be sure, but nobody ever wishes, in that moment, that the stuff survived and they didn't. Of course not! But, what about tomorrow and the next day?

We shouldn't need horrible brush fires, hurricanes, plane crashes or illness, to feel grateful we are alive. We shouldn't need them to recognize that stuff is stuff. Why are we blinded to that most of the time? That is the challenge we all face. When we meet it, which I suspect we probably won't this time either, our world will be a remarkably different place.

May God bless, and may we bless, the firefighters battling the blazes and all those affected.