Wildfires and Rain, Sukkot 5778
The world, it seems, is on fire. I’m reading the news from the comfort of the sukkah I helped build; its nylon walls blowing in the breeze, its wooden frame screwed and zip-tied together, schach above me offering a glimpse at the blue beyond. It is, truthfully, a precarious structure, built on the porch of a friend’s apartment.
I woke up to the news that the campus of URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish camp in Northern California, was virtually destroyed by the wildfires currently raging in the region. When I was born, my father was finishing up his tenure as the director of UAHC Camp Swig, another NorCal Reform Movement camp that has since closed its gates but whose community was absorbed into the Camp Newman family when its campus was sold. Though my visceral sadness stems from this familial connection I feel toward the Jewish camp community of the Bay Area, there is a sadness and fear I know we all feel at the thought of our own homes being swiftly taken from us. As a longtime camper and staff member of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, the thought of waking up to find that my summer “home,” with all its sacred history and contained memories both individual and collective, had been consumed by flames, is almost too devastating a thought to contemplate. And yet, it is a reality that so many people are facing at this current, terrifying moment.
As I glance at the world from inside this sukkah, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Warsan Shire: “what they did yesterday afternoon.” It is a poem that gives voice to specific disaster (war crimes in Somalia) and goes on to sing the universal pain of the universe:
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
Indeed, it hurts everywhere, and as we pray for geshem (rain), there are hurricanes, and while we are commanded to feel joy, people’s homes are burning to the ground. And that’s just in the US. In this time of pain, I find myself wondering if we are peers of dor hamabul, the generation of the flood. When will the destruction cease? When will our leaders be held accountable for protecting their citizens? When will we finally be able to earnestly call ourselves: America, the land of the free? Will it be in our generation, or will we not live long enough to see the change so many of us desperately pray and work for every day?
During the joyous festival of Sukkot, we are meant to move our lives outside and surrender ourselves to the fragility of nature. Sukkot are at once protective shelters yet totally vulnerable to the elements. We learn in Mishna Sukkah 2:9 that a person is required to make their sukkah “kevah” — Fixed, permanent, regular. There is, however, a catch: if it rains, we are no longer obligated to dine or dwell in the sukkah, a rabbinic recognition that nature’s realities might dampen our simcha, our joy. This safeguard didn’t stop my siblings and me from layering up to sleep in our family sukkah as children, amidst fierce Minnesota sleet, but the message is clear: the moment our joy and contemplation of God’s eternal presence turn to fear and discomfort, we are permitted to seek more permanent shelter elsewhere. Regardless of our dwelling place during these seven days, we are meant to spiritually dwell on the ever-present sukkat shalom, shelter of peace, that God provides us. In doing so, we realize that there is nothing under the sun that is truly permanent. Our homes, from Puerto Rico to Florida to Houston to Santa Rosa, can only offer us an illusion of eternal security in the face of nature’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying power.
As we near the end of Sukkot, our hopes for good weather turn to prayers for rain. On Simchat Torah in Israel and on Shemini Atzeret in Jewish communities across the world, we will recite Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain. The liturgy is linked to the agricultural cycles of the land of Israel, but this year, I will cry out to God, perhaps louder than I ever have, to bring a rain that might fight the flames raging not only in California, but across our utterly broken and wounded world. I will call on the merits of my ancestors: “Remember Avraham, his heart poured out to you like water. You blessed him, as a tree planted near water; You saved him when he went through fire and water. For Avraham’s sake, do not hold back water” (translation taken from “Supplement for Festivals, Machzor Lev Shalem, 218). In 2017, we are scorched with fire, soaked in water, in wild flames and hurricanes, and we must let this prayer offer itself to us as a temporary refuge, a stop on the way towards healing and action. Save us, God, as we move through fire and water. In Man is Not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comments on the relationship between nature and spirituality, carefully drawing a distinction between human power and human piety:
“In the dimension of the holy the spiritual is a bridge flung across a frightful abyss, while in the realm of nature the spiritual hovers like the wafted clouds, too tenuous to bear man across the abyss…Words do not stem the flood, nor does meditation banish the storm. Prayer never entwines directly with the chain of physical cause and effect; the spiritual does not interfere with the natural order of things. The fact that man with undaunted sincerity pours into prayer the best of his soul springs from the conviction that there is a realm in which the acts of faith are puissant and potent, that there is an order in which things of spirit can be of momentous consequence” (239-240).
We’ll pray, not in place of action but in partnership with it. We’ll pray because we need the shelter of tranquil transition before we spring into helping, into offering resources, into making phone calls. We’ll pray because somewhere deep inside, we still believe that our words might touch the Divine ear, the Master of the Universe, the One who commands the wind and brings down heavenly rain. We’ll dwell in the place of prayer even as we are carried into the new beginnings of Bereishit, perhaps before we are truly ready to start anew. I want to hope and believe that our primal, familiar stories, that the cradling motion of turning the Torah back to its sacred start will bless us with a new beginning. I hope that the world can begin to heal, someday soon. For now, it feels like we are in the midst of deep destruction. The flames and torrential storms continue to rage around us, and we have only each other and God to grasp onto for support as we come dangerously close to the porch rail. I’m wondering what it means for us as a Jewish people to start our calendar over, to seek a fresh start when we as human beings are not yet ready for a new page — still stuck in a dark era of the same story.
I do know this: No matter what nature brings, we are compelled to roll our scrolls back and continue to reach for what we believe to be God’s will. Before evacuating, the staff of Camp Newman was able to save the sifrei Torah that were housed there. I pray that these sacred scrolls will be redeemed this yontiff, that their words will be read in tears and in joy. And as I turn to Tefilat Geshem in my machzor, I will hold the community of Camp Newman in my heart, along with every devastated city, neighborhood and home, along with the whole of our vulnerable universe out on that ledge. I will pray for rain, for life and not for death, beneath the shelter of my tallit.