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A Fiery Chanukah

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The terrible tragedy that engulfed Israel over the Chanukah holiday raised again the age old question of why seemingly innocent people suffer. From time immemorial this question gnaws at the heart and soul of every faith and believer. It somehow projects a feeling of helplessness and the idea of a world of randomness that runs counter to our emotions of justice, fairness and an ordered universe. In the midst of all of the commissions, investigations and finger pointing and blame that is certain to arise from this disastrous fire, the real question that lies at the heart of the issue is what message is being sent to us here with this event. And our apparent inability to answer that question undoubtedly weakens our resolve and strengthens our omnipresent self doubts. Chanukah, the holiday of cheer and lights, vacations and food, has suddenly been transformed in our memory to the time of fire and death, destruction and fear. Once again we stand defenseless and perplexed in front of tragedy and disaster and we resort to platitudes because we have no ability to express in correct words the turmoil that now lurks within our minds and souls. The scoffer and nonbeliever will chalk the matter up to the randomness of nature abetted by the cruelty, negligence and pettiness of humans. But for the believer there is no such easy answer and escape from the problem. Joseph’s brothers in their moment of anguish and despair stated: "What and why is this that the Lord has now visited upon us?" That question has reverberated throughout all of human history. It is certainly the major theological issue in all of Jewish history and the Chanukah fire now joins many more such incidents in our story of destruction, persecution and seeming unfairness.

I would not attempt to deal with a problem of this magnitude. The book of Iyov stands as a stark reminder of the futility of reading God’s mind, so to speak. The finite cannot effectively deal with the infinite and attempting to do so is only wearisome and frustrating beyond end. But there is an obvious insight that all of us can certainly glean from such an event as the Chanukah fire. And that is the lesson of the uncertainty of life and its events. It is this very uncertainty that makes life precious and drives us to make it meaningful and productive. We are therefore commanded to exploit it to the fullest together with the time and circumstances that life provides for us. That is what Rabbi Akiva meant when he said that one should never postpone Torah learning or any other good and productive deed or program for tomorrow, "for who knows what tomorrow brings to a human being?" Therefore Judaism abhors procrastination and twiddling delay. Life is too uncertain to allow for unnecessary postponements and the wastage of time and opportunities. If there is anything that inexplicable events and tragedies can teach us it is that the very uncertainty of life forces us to live it in a prudent and immediate state of mind. We planned on celebrating a Chanukah of lights and instead we are forced to commemorate a Chanukah of raging, uncontrollable murderous fire and conflagration. There is certainly a telling lesson in that stark fact that we have just witnessed.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, according to the traditional Ashkenazic rite, one of the main prayers of the musaf service concerns itself with what is inscribed in the book of judgment in Heaven for the coming year. Various forms of death and tragedy are mentioned in that poetic prayer. One of them is "who will pass on because of fire." I thought of that passage upon hearing and following the sad news of the great forest fire in the north of Israel and of the resultant loss of life - seemingly innocent young life. The prayer advances no reason for the long list of possible fatal mishaps that can and do occur to human beings on a regular basis. It is so inscribed in the book and the justification for that inscription is not revealed to us in this world. The Rebbe of Kotzk pithily stated: "For the believer there are no questions and for the scoffer there are no answers." That is probably the only sensible comment that can be made regarding the great Chanukah fire that we have just experienced. May the bereaved somehow be comforted and the wounded and injured healed speedily and completely. And may only good events surprise us in the future, uncertain as it is certain to be.
Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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