Responding to the Rim Fire

Much of the reporting of the Rim Fire around Yosemite National Park has focused on the remarkable response to the disaster, and rightly so. But the 4,359 firefighters in their yellow shirts and helmets, wielding hoses and axes with courage and skill against the encroaching destroyer, are only part of the story.

Dozens of scientists from at least four different government agencies have sped to the area to make a coordinated, rapid risk assessment of the effects of the fire. Hydrologists, botanists, archeologists, biologists, geologists and soil experts are surveying the vast area for the potential of erosion and mudslides, water contamination and flooding, and to make on-the-spot recommendations for precautions to take before the rainy season begins in just a few weeks.

Modern telecommunications has focused national awareness of the devastation with images of destruction that are more than statistics can convey. It is one thing to read about an $89 million firefighting effort and the tens of millions of dollars it will cost to repair the environmental damage. It is another thing to view the images of campsites reduced to rubble; the charred hulks of vehicles; the smoke hanging over the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Yosemite itself; the herds of wildlife alert to an unprecedented peril.

Nor do we only read reports of a five- square-mile area engulfed by the great fire. NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard Terra, orbiting 443 miles above earth, provides us with an instant map, showing the precise location of the Rim Fire, a bright, jagged line cutting into the edge of Yosemite.

But despite all the technology, the response is elemental — mostly of men on the ground. It is mostly they who combat the huge blaze with the age-old tools of water and axes, and they who struggle with the heat, the grime and acrid smoke. It is a classic image of man — not against nature, not as conqueror — but as protector and preserver of the wonders of creation.

And if the response has been a blend of man-made technology and timeless human courage, the cause was ancient, and uncomplicated by any advance of civilization.

Officials say an investigation has already determined the identity of the hunter who “allowed an illegal fire to escape” and was responsible for starting the conflagration.

How could such a thing happen? Only because he wasn’t sufficiently careful to keep his own fire safely under control. Only because he was thinking of himself before anyone else, of his own enjoyment of the great outdoors before — and ultimately to the exclusion of — anyone else’s enjoyment. Thus did one small, heedless act lead to vast, destructive consequences.

The response to this event cannot be limited to firefighters and scientists. We cannot be mere spectators. We too have to respond to the Rim Fire.

One lesson is obvious enough. The fire is a result of a single person’s irresponsibility, an infraction of the law in a remote area where no one saw it, where it seemed no harm could come of it. Nor was it a major fire all at once; the flames first caught on nearby brush and then spread, little by little, on a dry, tinderbox landscape.

So, too, a single Jew acting wrongfully in some obscure place, seemingly far away and unconnected with anyone else, is capable of causing untold damage. We too live in a tinderbox, in which latent resentments and animosities can be kindled by a moment’s anger or indiscretion. A single word of lashon hara can ignite the fires of hatred and controversy.

By the same token, a single encouraging word can lift a person from despair. The actions of an individual can inspire an entire community to great deeds. The merit of a single mitzvah can serve as a protecting shield for Jews  across the globe.

If the matter be concealed from you, between blood and blood, judgment and judgment…words of strife in your gates… (Devarim 17:8).

The Maggid of Kelm explained that when we find ourselves bewildered by the sight of the blood of Jews spilled like water, by anti-Jewish governmental decrees rained down upon us — we need look only to the “words of strife in your gates.” Disunity, machlokes, is likely to be the cause.

But like the impressive human and technological response to the Rim Fire, we too have an elaborate response system. The laws of teshuvah and the voluminous words of our Sages which explain them and inspire us provide the tools with which to contain the destruction and extinguish the fires of chet.

Ultimately, however, the “technology” of teshuvah — abandoning sin, confession and resolution for the future — necessary though they are, cannot work alone. It requires the heart; it takes an arduous struggle on the ground, the courage to face up to one’s own shortcomings, and the fortitude to commit to a new path, to undertake to become a different, better person.

As Yom Kippur approaches, it is incumbent upon us to use these days to monitor and put out the fires within and without that threaten the peace of the Jewish people. And the situation is no less urgent than the one at Yosemite.