Shortly after 5:00 am on Wednesday, December 6th, my ringing phone startled me from my sleep. “Wake up,” a member of my congregation said, “The hills are all on fire.”
I quickly turned on my television and saw flames engulfing the massive hillsides framing the Sepulveda Pass, the main thoroughfare through the northwest part of Los Angeles. And I could see my synagogue, Leo Baeck Temple, situated directly underneath the looming fires.
I instantly thought of our congregation’s eight sacred Torah scrolls, including one which had once been stolen by the Nazis from its synagogue home in the Czech Republic and was permanently entrusted to us after the war. I had to rescue our Torah scrolls.
When I arrived at the temple, I encountered unimaginable mountains of flames threatening our campus directly below… and not a single fire truck. I knew, of course, that the firefighters were surely on the way. But would they make it before it was too late? Realizing I had no time to spare, I entered both buildings where our Torah scrolls are kept, collected all eight of them in my car, and escaped the property unscathed. But as I prepared to leave, I noticed that the firefighters still hadn’t arrived. I took one long last look back at our beautiful campus and the flames rapidly advancing toward it. I was sure I would never see those buildings again.
Incredibly, our buildings still stand, thanks to the skill and bravery of the men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department, who clearly must have arrived shortly after I had departed. The entire hillside is barren and black, but the grounds and structures below are unharmed. It is our congregation’s Chanukah miracle.
There is a temptation, however, to see messages, not miracles, in such extreme events. Some look at a monstrous, raging inferno and see divine punishment. Or a symbol of the fury of the times in which we live. Or a sign that the end of days is surely drawing near. Amid every calamity in nature, one can scarcely escape the many voices declaring that God is speaking to us through the tragedy.
Could there be a more abhorrent abuse of God than to ascribe mass destruction to the Creator?
Scripture certainly doesn’t teach us to think like this. In the First Book of Kings, a story is told of the legendary prophet Elijah, who holds great mythic significance in the Jewish tradition. Elijah is a symbol of the messianic yearning – the soul-stirring vision that all of humanity could someday coalesce in a common rhythm of unity and love. In his darkest hour, when he most fears that all is lost, Elijah experiences God: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)
Anyone who attempts to frighten you into believing that God is found not in the still, small voice, but in the tempests and temblors, doesn’t know much about God.
Just three days after the fires, my congregants and I gathered outside at the foot of the blackened hills that rise above our temple. The smell of smoke was still thick in the air. It was the end of the Sabbath, which is to be marked by a ritual in which the flame of a braided candle is extinguished in sweet wine.
I had thought long and hard about whether to burn that candle directly next to a hillside where firefighters were still patrolling. Ultimately, I decided that we needed to reclaim that vision of fire when we think of our spiritual home, not the harrowing vision we had seen for hours on TV as the flames threatened to destroy our campus.
Kindling that candle made us anxious at first, but in the end, the idea that fire is not just something that scares and dominates us – that it is also an implement we deploy for human life and progress, as well as for religious meaning – slowly won its way back into our hearts. In that tiny flame we held in our hands, the still, small voice of God could be heard and felt – not in the raging blaze that had terrorized us.
These are times of great division in our country. Those who misappropriate religious faith and twist it into an unholy alliance with a politics of fear and hatred speak loudly and with anger all around us. God speaks with a still, small voice. We know the difference.
It is now the Jewish festival of Chanukah. Jews everywhere are kindling tiny firelights every night in their homes to celebrate God’s miracles. We who nearly saw fire consume our congregational home are lighting our own fires once again. Fear is subsiding. Love is emerging. And once again, the still, small voice can be heard.
Rabbi Ken Chasen, Senior Rabbi, Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles www.leobaecktemple.org
Ken Chasen is Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and an outspoken commentator and author on a wide variety of subjects pertaining to Jewish life, with a special emphasis on social justice in the U.S. and in Israel. His writings have appeared in a wide variety of books, print and digital media publications. Rabbi Chasen is also the co-author of two books which guide Jewish families in the creation of meaningful Jewish rituals in the home. In addition, he is a nationally recognized composer whose original liturgical and educational works are regularly heard in synagogues, religious schools, Jewish camps and sanctuaries across North America, in Israel and in Europe.