The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.

brothers

This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Update 12/6/16, 3:46 pm, PST: 36 bodies have been recovered, and 90% of the building has been searched. The Oakland Fire Dept does not expect to find more bodies. I know of one family who expects bad news; they are still waiting for identification of the remains. I know that this is no longer fresh news, but keep in mind that families are still waiting for identifications, no funerals have yet taken place, and the criminal investigations are just beginning. California Governor Jerry Brown set an example for all of us when he declined to speculate on causes this morning.

Life is Unfair. Now What?

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing the shofar. Photo by Tamir Blank.

Yesterday I wrote about the Unetaneh Tokef, one of the harshest prayers in the Jewish liturgy. It reminds us that we do not know what lies ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

After the “Who will live and who will die” section, though, it talks about “how to avert the severe decree.” That’s the second place at the prayer loses many of us: what? We can avoid dying? Avoid tragedy? What sort of foolishness is that?

The prayer seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is nonsense. Bad things happen to good people every day. If we know anything at all about life, we know that it is not fair.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune with teshuvahtefilah, and tzedakah. Instead, I believe those are means with which we may work our way towards a life after tragedy.  Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build a bridge towards life. If we have not yet suffered misfortune, we can use the three to build a strong, rich life that may be a source of sustenance in bad times. If we have already suffered a tragedy, these are the tools for working our way back towards life.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

If you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

For individuals who suffer trauma,  the Unetaneh Tokef offers a possible path not to forget a tragedy, but to find a way to choose life despite everything.

Shabbat Shalom

In the midst of Shabbat preparations, in the midst of preparations to go to the CCAR convention to participate in a ritual of grief and stubborn hope, I have only a few minutes to type today.

If you turn on your TV, it seems that grief is everywhere: authorities are still searching for Malaysia Airlines MH370, still searching for the place where they should search. North of me, in Washington State, the community of Oso disappeared under an avalanche. And in the local news, there’s more grief: shootings, car accidents, death, death, death.

I am headed to a rabbis’ convention where I will join in a ritual of grief and stubborn hope: I’m one of over 70 rabbis who will shave my head to raise funds for childhood cancer research. It is a ritual of grief because a little boy died last December, a beloved child of our community, the dear son of two of our colleagues. It is a ritual of stubborn hope because we are choosing to take our grief and turn it into research towards better treatments for children like Sammy. If you don’t know the backstory already, you can read about it here.

In the local news, more awful stuff has happened. Drive-by shootings, corrupt public officials, horrible news stories about what some people are willing to do to other people: it’s endless, mindless, ghastly.

But for Shabbat, Jews will stop. Just for a little while. We will stop and do our best to appreciate the wonders of creation.

We will stop to notice love. We will stop to rest our bodies. We will turn off that blasted cable news machine and concentrate on goodness. For those in the depths of grief, obviously, that doesn’t stop. But the community pauses, and we hold the mourners in our midst, and we stop to do what we can to rest, to recover, to simply be.

I wish you “Shabbat shalom,” a Sabbath of peace.