January 18, 2019

Holy Fire

Sometimes in the midst of destruction, there is holiness. Sometimes in the smoke and ashes, there is kindness, love and meaning.

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was the leading rabbi of the town of Piaseczno in central Poland during World War II, when he was sent, along with many of his followers, to the Warsaw Ghetto. There he worked tirelessly at great personal risk to support Jewish life. He operated a secret shul, arranged for mikveh immersions, and conducted weddings.

He became best known for the inspiring sermons he would deliver each week. Although the rabbi ultimately was murdered by the Nazis in 1943, many of his teachings from that period were rather miraculously saved and later published in a volume that came to be called “Esh Kodesh” — Sacred Fire.

In a sermon he delivered in August 1941, immediately after Tisha b’Av, the darkest day in the Jewish year, Rabbi Shapira taught:

“There are calamities for which it is possible to accept consolation. A person may have had an illness from which he recovered. Although he had been in great danger and in tremendous pain, when with God’s help he was healed, he was immediately consoled for all the pain he endured. Similarly, if money was lost, then when God restores the lost fortune, consolation follows quickly. But when lives are lost, it is impossible to accept solace. It is true that when the pain is due to the loss of family and loved ones, or to the loss of other Jewish people because they were precious and are sorely missed, it is possible to take comfort in other surviving relatives and different friends. But any decent person mourns the loss of others not simply because he misses them; it is not only his yearning for them that causes pain and distress. The real cause of his grief is the death of the other — the loss of life.”

Those who have been affected by these fires will be comforted in the arms of friends and in the embrace of a loving community.

What an amazing teaching for the moment in which we find ourselves right now. (And, by the way, part of the extraordinary glory of our tradition is that the wisdom of a man taken from us prematurely some 74 years ago can still teach and guide us today.)

We have suffered losses in recent days in Southern California. We have lost sleep. It has been difficult at times to breathe. Some of us have been evacuated from our homes. Some of us have had to remove our Torah scrolls for safekeeping. Property has been damaged. Homes have been destroyed. But, thankfully, injuries have been few and, so far, there has been only one death attributed to these devastating fires.

And so let us be consoled. What has been destroyed will be, with our help, with our hearts and hands, rebuilt. Those who have been affected by these fires will be comforted in the arms of friends and in the embrace of a loving community.

In the midst of destruction, there is goodness. As we were removing the Torah scrolls from our temple last week, three rabbis in our Los Angeles community phoned to offer their assistance. Congregants and board members called to see how they could help. From all over the world, we have been contacted by friends reaching out to express their love and concern.

Fires rage, but eventually they go out.

Those who risk their own lives to protect others from the flames bring holiness to the fire. Those who reach out in love to help others rebuild bring holiness to the fire. Those who cry out for support and are met with a loving embrace bring holiness to the fire.

Let us be consoled and let us console one another.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple.