“And Who By Fire?”

Photo by Ashish Joshi on Unsplash

By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

As I stare at the title of this article (thank you Dan Brown, for allowing us to craft our own), I am conscious of the fact that, in view of the horrific wildfires once again devastating the American West, some may question my judgment. Yet, I have no real alternative; this is the only title I could possibly choose given my current circumstances and the liturgical landscape in which we find ourselves.

At 3:00 in the morning on Wednesday, July 22nd, I woke from a sound sleep to the harrowing sound of crashing glass. I opened my bedroom door and saw flames breaking through my home from the outside deck and raging, as if with a purpose, in my direction. I screamed for my wife as we scrambled to find our way to the front door. By that time the fire alarms were screeching, the security company had called, and we struggled in the darkness to fidget with the lock that separated us from fresh air. For years I had heard that it was the fumes, not the flames, that will kill you, and in a moment’s time I suddenly understood what that meant. While trying to answer the questions of the alarm company call person – Is everyone okay? Are there any children in the house? Any pets? – I realized I could no longer breathe. I was trying to speak and nothing came out. I could not catch my breath, I couldn’t even utter a sound. I felt for my wife as we turned the lock and escaped the house. Once outside, I sucked in some much-needed oxygen, and fell face first down the stairs of my front porch smack onto the cobblestone walkway that only the day earlier I had proudly blown clean of leaves.

As Mary helped me up we knew instinctively we had to move further away from the house. We cried a tearless, soundless lament as we waited for the fire fighters to make their way up the steep road into our neighborhood. Powerless, we watched our beloved mountain home go up in flames.

Within what seemed only a matter of moments, some 15 fire trucks and emergency vehicles, many carrying water since we lack immediate proximity to hydrants, broke the early morning silence and rumbled up our driveway. We stood paralyzed, mesmerized in a way by the orange flames that danced across the mountain ridge, which had drawn us to this spot seven years earlier. Once the firefighters began their work, the paramedics moved us further down the hill to the ambulance in order to attend to my injuries from the fall, which painful and bloody as they were, were only “superficial.” Because I had taken in a considerable amount of smoke, it was also necessary to connect me via cannula to oxygen in an effort to reduce my then significant levels of carbon monoxide.

It was there in the ambulance amidst the whirring of the fire engines and the flashing of the lights something truly surreal took place. Perhaps it was my depleted oxygen, but almost in spite of myself, I began to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” reverberating in my head. His words, of course, are adapted from Unetaneh Tokef, those Hebrew verses I recited dutifully for years, perhaps, a bit too perfunctorily, that now overwhelmed me. “U’me va’esh – And who by fire,” were no longer words spoken about someone else. Now, we were part of the “who,” the paytan (liturgical poet) had in mind. It was our life that was forever being transformed by fire.

In the weeks that followed, as we moved from one hotel to another, and finally to a temporary apartment (we’ve been told it will likely be a minimum of six to eight months before we can even think of returning), we’ve begun the process of navigating the tempestuous waters of rebuilding our lives. Sea tossed between the Scylla of adjustors and the Charybdis of contractors we are coming to understand the totality of our loss. My mother, of blessed memory, always used to say when something broke, “It’s only a thing.” We try to remember that as we begin to take stock of the many “things” now gone, either because they burned or because the soot and smoke have rendered them what insurance-ese calls “non salvageable.” And, of course, we do all this appropriately masked and socially distanced because being a “who by fire” is no inoculation against the coronavirus.

Throughout this ordeal we have sought to maintain some semblance of perspective. While I’ve always been a bit of a cynic. this experience keeps me deeply aware of the fact that my “who by fire” pales in comparison to that of others. People who lose their lives to fire, people without insurance or the resources to start over, and many more who have it so much worse than we do, reinforce my mom’s oft-cited truism that if you take all your troubles and put them in a pot with those of others, you’d still reach in and take out your own. I’m trying my best to avoid “why me-ism,” especially when I find myself slipping into self-pity.

Scholars of the liturgy point out that there are six parts to Unetaneh Tokef. The one most of us know best, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” followed by the “who bys” – “Who by water, and who by fire …” – is actually the third section. I’m pretty sure that between COVID and our fire, I will never read these words the same way again. The litany of random disasters that can change one’s life in an instant is for us, and for so many others, no longer a theoretical enumeration.

With new insight into a portion of the Unetaneh Tokef, however, I still struggle mightily with part four, the one with the challenging formula that posits “repentance, prayer and righteousness can” have some sort of an impact on the “evil decree.” I deliberately employ vague language here because the Hebrew text itself is unclear. Is it, as some assert, that these three things (which appear originally in the Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’aniyot, Chapter 2) can, in fact, avert the evil decree? Or might it be that these three things can simply lessen the impact of the decree, thus helping us cope? Is it the evil decree or the evil of the decree that is lessened? The Hebrew supports multiple readings. And in my struggle to make sense of it all, this year in particular I am reminded that translation is its own form of commentary.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot make peace with the notion that repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the evil decree. After all, suggesting that had I only prayed harder, repented more, or increased my philanthropy this past year, my house might still be standing, seems a bridge too far. But this year, I may be coming to a new understanding of how to interpret this verse. For all of its complexity, it seems plausible, at least to this “who by,” that “teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah” may be the exact things that will help us deal with our loss, thus softening the pain. Our own teshuvah leads us to a new understanding of and sensitivity to the suffering of others, that we will be hard-pressed to ever again ignore. The tefillah of our many friends and neighbors, even when their lexicon of prayer differs from our own, has been the source of so much comfort. And the many acts of tzedakah from family and loved ones, students and colleagues are helping to get us through these trying times with more grace and certainly more humor than might otherwise be the case.

I cannot say that I am grateful for what it took to get me here, but I do feel thankful to have arrived at this point and enormously indebted to all those who have helped us, and will continue to help us on this journey.

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the current Chancellor and former President and CEO of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. He is the Principal Consultant for Leadership For Impact LLC, an executive coaching and organizational consulting firm, specializing in nonprofit organizational leadership. Grateful to be alive, he and his wife, Mary, are currently living in temporary housing as their beloved mountain home in Asheville NC is being rebuilt.