In Israel it was not a happy Chanukah as fires raged for 77 hours. What it will be is unforgettable, a time when the Festival of Lights turned into an inferno, destroying (until now) 50,000 dunams of precious land including 5 million trees and shrubs in the Carmel Mountain Range.
Of course, worse than the ecological disaster, is the human one. So many tragedies. The tally is devastating. A busload of trainee guards in Israel’s prison system, sent north to help evacuate prisoners, inexplicably got trapped in the flames themselves. Out of forty, only three escaped. Forty-three people were killed, including Haifa’s popular Chief of Police, Ahuva Tomer. Seventeen thousand Israelis were forced to leave their homes. Many from Kibbutz Beit Oren, which just celebrated its 70th anniversary, spent the night watching helplessly as their homes burned. Seventy-four of those houses were totally consumed by fire, and another 175 homes were partially destroyed in Ein Hod, the Yemin Orde Youth Village and other places.
In Israel, nothing happens without God, without meaning. An editorialist wrote in YNet that although he has long removed his kippah, he cannot ignore the wrathful hand of God in all this. “Whether or not the fire was an accident or deliberately set, if the winter rains had started on time, it would not have resulted in such a conflagration,” he wrote. “It’s time for every single one of use to look into our deeds and repent.” I think this is a sentiment we all share.
Surprisingly, this catastrophe has not been without its comforts: The number of Israelis volunteering to help those made homeless by the fire has overwhelmed authorities, who say they have more volunteers than they can use. As reported in the Jerusalem Post: “Israel Air Force bases in Ramat David in the North were preparing to host European fire suppression aircraft from Greece, Spain and Cyprus which were scheduled to arrive Friday morning to help battle the fire. Additional aid was coming from Britain, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Romania, Jordan and Bulgaria.. In addition, a Boeing 747 loaded with a fire retardant chemical is scheduled to leave the United States for Israel Thursday night, thanks to New York City Mayor Bloomberg, Israeli Acting Consul General Ido Aharoni, members of the FDNY and Tom Harbour, the director of fire and aviation management for the US Forestry Service.
The irony of Greek planes flying over Israel helping to put out fires on Chanukah has not been lost on Israelis. We are all very, very grateful for the help of some of our neighbors and all of our friends. Truly a blessed and welcome surprise.
We pray that the mourners find comfort. But most of all, we pray that we shall never see the likes of such a fire again.
We will replant, rebuild. As Benjamin Netanyahu, our prime minister, said, “We have this one little country, and it is very precious to us.”