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The California Fire Within

May 9, 2009 | by Aryeh Markman

It all begins with one match.

I live in Southern California where seven major fires in four counties have destroyed over 3,300 homes. I called a friend whose son lives in harm's way. Her son put the family to sleep one night, only to be awakened before dawn and informed that he had five minutes to grab his two toddlers, get out of the house and make a run for it. What would you grab if you had five minutes to evacuate? The 100-foot-high flames traveled at 20 mph, passing from tree to tree, and even jumping across interstate highways. You cannot outrun that.

The fires caused 2 billion dollars in damages and most tragic of all, 20 lives lost. Nearly 750,000 acres were burned and 100,000 people were forced to flee. 13,000 exhausted firemen worked two weeks straight from sunrise to past sunset to control the burning, while the smoke invaded millions in the concrete jungle, blotting out the sun and bringing midday darkness.

And it all started from one match.

Huge fire trucks shrunk in size to a pixel against the backdrop of fires the size of Rhode Island.

Nothing could stop it. We watched on TV from a helicopter vantage point, as a caravan of five fire trucks lumbered up the vacant, closed-down interstate to battle the blaze. As the video panned back, those huge trucks shrunk in size to a pixel against the backdrop of fires the size of Rhode Island. It was humbling to accept that we humans never had a chance.

One guy managed to save his home in the mountains; his property was ringed with a $30,000 water and foam irrigation system.

In the end, relief came only when Mother Nature (i.e. the Almighty) said "enough." The temperature dropped, the winds abated, and cool rains began to fall.

If the Santa Ana winds wouldn't have stopped, there's no telling how far the fire would have spread. Even Schwarzenegger couldn't have stopped it.

I thought a lot about what message the Almighty was sending us. For this fire to rage, it took a few years for all the dominos to be set in place. The recent infestation of the Bark Beetle had killed thousands of trees that, even though they remained standing, where nothing more than gigantic Roman Candles in wait. The rains had not come for five months, the park rangers in the mountain recreational areas had eliminated campfires by mid-July. Dead dry trees abounded everywhere and the dry, hot Santa Ana winds were blowing in from the Mojave Desert. All was ready and waiting for that one match.

And maybe, just maybe, the Jewish people are being set up for the same.

I read about the recent Jewish Population Study, showing over-50 percent intermarriage, and a tragically low level of Jewish affiliation, especially with the younger generation. Young Jews in Israel are leaving their country in droves, forming pockets of expatriates in New York, LA, and throughout Europe, even Berlin. The hot winds of anti-Semitism blow worldwide. And I think: What is the realistic chance of a Jewish renaissance, of a Jewish people infused with the fire of Torah, and a fervor for our destiny as a light unto the nations?

What is the realistic chance of a Jewish renaissance of a Jewish people infused with a fervor for our destiny as a light unto the nations?

Yes, it is possible. Precisely because the so-called deadwood of the Jewish people are ripe timber for a conflagration. One match of Torah -- set to a generation that is dry of Torah knowledge and yet thirsts for meaning -- is all is takes. For when a Jew is set ablaze, with passion for his heritage, there is no telling how far that fire can spread.

Such is the power of the baal teshuva movement. Most every Jew knows a story firsthand -- a cousin or a child has attended classes on Judaism, and attains a little more balance, sanity, moral direction, and a whole lot more commitment to the Jewish people.

The modern return to Jewish tradition began slowly after the Six Day War, which fanned the latent spark in Jews worldwide, giving rise as well to the refusenik movement in Russia. Over time, the Fire of Torah has spread and grown, building momentum, but still has not overtaken the Jewish people as a whole.

These past weeks in Southern California I have witnessed how when certain atmospheric conditions prevail, nothing can stop a fire unleashed. So, too, nothing can stop the Jewish people so inclined. We all yearn for a perfected world. Working together, the Jewish people can bring about that vision, just as we have taught humanity so much over the millennia.

And it all begins with one match. Our own spark, flickering deep inside.



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