Fighting Fire with Fire

5 Dec

It did not take long for the all-knowing self-enthroned prophets of Jerusalem to let us know exactly why the fire has consumed some 12,000 acres of forest and taken the lives of 42 Israeli citizens – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, has declared in the name of the Talmud that an outbreak of fire only happens in a place where Shabbat is desecrated.  In the same lesson, delivered this past Saturday night while the fire was still raging and firefighters were continuing to risk their lives to prevent the fire from reaching  into Haifa and other nearby communities, he called upon everyone to “study Torah, engage in good deeds, repent, observe Shabbat, and know the entire Halacha, and thanks to this God will provide a full recovery.”

An ultra orthodox newspaper (Hamevaser) carried the story and wrote that an investigation committee would probably be set up, but said we must not forget that there are things beyond human control. The editorial noted that in legal language it is known as “force majeure,” (“greater force”) and that “we know there is a directing force from above without whom it is impossible to even lift a finger here below. The Heavens caused the events and lead them to such disastrous levels,” the editorial claimed.

Be a scholar, not a prophet

Why is it that when faced with catastrophe some Torah scholars set aside their knowledge and study of halakhah, which I would assume fills up the majority of their study time, and resort to feigning some sort of pseudo-prophetic knowledge based on Talmudic or midrashic homiletics (often cited completely out of context!)?

In his lesson to his  students, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was citing the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b:

Rav Judah son of Rav Samuel said in Rav’s name: An [outbreak of] fire occurs only in a place where there is desecration of the Sabbath, for it is said, But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day and not to bear a burden … then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched. (Jeremiah 17:27)

A closer look at this passage from Jeremiah in its context makes it clear that the prophet was castigating the Jews of Jerusalem for their lax approach to observance of Shabbat, and promising them that if they do not change their ways, Jerusalem, its gates and its palaces would be destroyed – this is just one small section of a book filled with warnings against the people living in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. THIS IS NOT AN ETERNAL CATCH-ALL PROPHECY AND SHOULD NOT BE READ AS SUCH.  The interpretation offered in Rav’s name and cited here in the Talmud serves to introduce a full page of theories as to why the first Temple was destroyed, each theory presenting an interpretive reading of a different Biblical passage.

It is completely inappropriate to apply this teaching of Rav to the Carmel Forest fire.

A look at Torah and at Jewish Law

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution. (Exodus 21:5)

The catastrophic fires in northern Israel should direct us rather to an important practical discussion that begins with the verse from the Torah cited above, and moves onto the pages of a different tractate of Talmud.

The Talmud records a discussion about the liability of one who lights a fire that gets out of control causing damage to another‘s property.  Rabbi Yochanan states that isho mishum chitzoone’s fire is like his arrow. (Baba Kama 22a) Rabbi Yochanan means to say that lighting a fire that is caught up by the wind and spreads to cause heavy destruction is the equivalent of pulling back a bow, taking aim and shooting an arrow; in both cases the perpetrator is responsible for all the damages caused by his actions.

And even though in the case of the raging inferno, we might want to say that it was exacerbated by heavy winds, nonetheless, the person who struck the match is considered to be responsible for all the damage done, and if death is involved, according to some opinions, he is even to be considered a murderer for lighting the match irresponsibly. While a differing opinion is recorded as well, ultimately the halakhah follows the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan.

The Heavens caused these events

Shame on all those who would be so smug and self-righteous to remove the ultimate blame from those human beings who lit the fire. How dare they have the brazen nerve to place the responsibility for this national catastrophe squarely on the shoulders of God.  How absolutely reckless and irreverent!

When is a fire the work of the Heavens? Rambam, when citing the halakhah writes the following:

If one were to light a fire in on his own property he needs to distance it from the boundary in order to ensure that the fire not pass over to his neighbor’s field, and how much that distance is will be determined relative to the height of the flame he lights. And if he does not distance the fire as necessary and the fire passes over and causes damage he is culpable for paying for the full damages caused. If he did take proper precautions by distancing the fire and nonetheless it passed over and caused damages, then he is exempt from payment for that is a blow from the heavens. (Laws of Monetary Damages, 14:2)

In other words, according to Rambam, negligence, and all the more so, arson, is not a blow from the heavens, it is not the hand of God.

According to Jewish law then, the issue here in the Carmel Forest fire is the question of what combination of human error is responsible for this tragedy, and how can it be prevented again in the future.

Was it arson? Was it negligence? Who was responsible?

If there is any soul searching to do, it will be related to the question of how a country so committed to forestation of the barren land can be so ill-prepared for forest fires. (You can’t have it both ways.)  Lessons will be learned, changes will most definitely be made.

All of the prophet-want-a-be’s would do well to go back and review the beginning of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud where it is written:

Rav Hiyya  son of Ammi said in the name of ‘Ulla: “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Halakhah.” (Berachot 8b)

God’s interaction in our world today is manifest as an extension of our application of the Torah that He gave to us.  Ours is to study its teachings and apply its wisdom to our behaviors and interactions, not to attempt to interpret current events as the manifestations of God’s anger or disappointment in us.  We know what what we need to do, and we will suffer the natural consequences of our actions should we choose to do otherwise.

As Rabbi Yochanan is also quoted as saying, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” (Baba Batra 12b) We would do well to stick to what we know and stop looking for messages in bottles.

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13 Responses to “Fighting Fire with Fire”

  1. Esther Zimand Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

    Kol Hakavod, Morey,
    thank you for taking the opportunity to teach us Torah as we mourn the devastation and lives that have been taken in the Carmel over the last few days.
    may we all enjoy a happier Chanukah in the coming days.

  2. Marion Hamermesh Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    While my heart is broken over the burning of so many trees and the deaths of so many people, I have much hope for the strength of Israel to rebuild.
    Plus c’est change. Plus c’est la meme chose. — This story reminded me of the idiotic responses from the right (Jerry Falwell here) after 9/11 “…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen.”

  3. Abe Weschler Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    My daughter has already come home from school telling me how she heard this fire was predicted in Tanakh somewhere. I wish a proper understanding of a single verse would spread like “wildfire” instead of these prophecy seeking utterings.

  4. Sheila Mills Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 8:04 pm #

    Thank you for making sense of this horrid catastrophe. I’m passing on your thoughts to as many as possible to see “the other side”.

    • Morey Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 10:45 pm #

      Sheila, please do pass it on! Thank you!

  5. Responsible Citizen Monday, December 6, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    “Affliction is G-d’s wake-up call to a deaf world.”-C. S. Lewis

  6. Morey Monday, December 6, 2010 at 8:21 am #

    Yes. The actual quote is : “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”

    C.S. Lewis was a Christian apologist, committed to presenting a rational basis for the Christian faith. Pain and Christianity go hand in hand together: the savior’s pain stands at the center of God’s healing; his pain leads to the salvation of mankind.

    He had the right to his opinion, and so do you. But I don’t buy it, and base my thoughts on the teachings of Jewish sages. You might want to read my book on the subject. It is called “Where’s My Miracle: Exploring Jewish Traditions for Dealing with Tragedy.”

  7. Responsible Citizen Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 1:19 am #

    Rav Morey-I would submit that the Rambam would have agreed with Jack Lewis.

    • Morey Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

      You need to read more of the Rambam’s writings before you can make that assumption, i.e. his Guide to the perplexed, Book III, Section 12.

  8. Jordan Hirsch Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 5:14 am #

    Morey, you attack the issue with clarity, Torah scholarship, and human sensitivity. Thank you for raising a moral voice about the true responsibility of
    Torah leadership!

  9. Responsible Citizen Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 6:13 pm #

    Rav Morey-Here’s what Rav Yosef Yavetz, a survivor of the Gerush Sepharad, said about that mishap:

    (Courtesy of the OU’s website)

    Great Leaders of our People

    Rabbi Yosef Yavetz (The Chasid or The Darshan)
    (died 1507)

    Rabbi Yavetz was born in Spain and left there during the Expulsion in 1492. He finally settled in Mantua, Italy, and assumed an honored place in the community.

    He was absorbed with the meaning of the Spanish Expulsion and why it occurred, and wrote an entire treatise, Ohr HaChaim, in which he provided his interpretation. According to R. Yavetz, the catastrophe resulted from Spanish Jewry’s preoccupation with philosophy and secular knowledge which became their central focus, whereas Torah and mitzvot no longer were the primary purpose of their lives. He was not opposed to knowledge per se, but rather to the fact that it had supplanted Torah and mitzvot in importance.

    C.S. Lewis was spot on with Jewish tradition.

  10. Morey Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    There will always be those who will theorize as to why bad things happen, and there can always be a scapegoat since in our long history, we have never got it perfectly right – ever – and probably never will. How did R. Yavetz know that it wasn’t because of the fact that Spanish Jews had become so comfortable in Spain and not picked up and moved to the Holy Land(the Ramban did!)?

  11. Responsible Citizen Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    Rav Morey-Just assume that both the Yavetz & Chacham Ovaida were right. That means many Jews today are in big trouble. That, I suppose is why you have reached the conclusions that you have. But as Charles Colson once said, it’s not always the job of people of faith to make others feel comfortable.

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