After a tragedy like the huge fire that claimed 42 lives and destroyed much of the beautiful Carmel forest, Israel resembles a shiva house. At the latter, there are always those who insist on knowing every detail of the deceased's final days. And it doesn't matter if he or she was 100 years old. One senses in their questions a certain desperation -- the desire to find some detail to distinguish themselves from the deceased and thus maintain hope that they will not die.
And so after every national tragedy, we cast about for a scapegoat, as if removing the guilty party will somehow prevent all further such tragedies. Often much can and should be learned from disasters. The State Comptroller and government are quite right to ask about the state of preparedness for a major fire and to determine what is needed in the event of another such fire, which given the frequently parched state of our forests and the propensity of Arab citizens for setting them on fire, will inevitably happen.
Israel suffers from a chronic inability to focus attention on looming disasters – e.g., the chronic water shortage, the academic brain drain, our ongoing educational failures. Too much public attention is absorbed by the security situation, the illusory peace process, not to mention the perpetual coalition jockeying. And our self-absorbed leaders spend too much time protecting their backs or plotting their advancement to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
That said, natural disasters, like death, are inevitable, at least until we merit that Hashem will fill the world with the knowledge of Him. Yes, if Israel had possessed more fire trucks, a few super-tanker aircraft designed for fighting major blazes, and better organized fire services, the damage from the Carmel Forest blaze would have been substantially less. Nothing, however, would probably have saved the vast majority of those who perished when the foolhardy decision was made to send a bus of prison services officer training cadets in a bus to evacuate a prison in the path of the blaze.
But the money to bring the fire services up to snuff would have had to come from somewhere, just like the money needed to protect many substandard buildings against earthquakes, in a country that lies on a fault line, or the money needed to build more desalinization plants as a hedge against years of drought. And if we spend the money to protect against every possible, or even every probable natural disaster, that money will have to come at the expense of critical ongoing needs – from new equipment for the IDF to supplemental school hours to balance the inequities between different population groups.
And even if the money were printed to protect against potential natural disasters and to meet all critical ongoing needs, there would still be a price to pay in terms of Israel's economic viability, as Western Europe is presently discovering. So yes, the fire fighting services were poorly organized and woefully underfunded, certainly in hindsight, but at the end of the day choices have to be made and life cannot be made risk free.
THE CHOSEN MEDIA SCAPEGOAT for the Carmel Forest blaze was Interior Minister Eli Yishai. The State Comptroller's Report determined that he bore the primary ministerial responsibility for the lack of preparedness of the fire service. Those cabinet members for whom Shas's leading role in the government is a bitter pill that must be swallowed, not a desideratum, could not have been more pleased. Even more delighted was the mainstream media, which had been provided with another arrow to be shot at the chareidi public.
The media's anti-chareidi agenda was barely concealed. One editorial writer after another wondered if Yishai might not have had more time for attending to the parlous state of the fire services if he had not been devoting himself to guaranteeing the income subsidies of kollel students and ridding the country of foreign workers. Interestingly, none of those same editorialists wondered what distracted Shinui's Avraham Poraz or any of the other recent ministers of the interior from attending to the problem during their stints in office. Clearly it was not protecting yeshiva stipends.
United Torah Judaism's Moshe Gafni pointed out the hypocrisy of those editorialists who wrote that the disaster had been one that every one with eyes in his head had seen coming. If so, he wanted to know, why hasn't the Israeli press been filled with demands for updating the fire services or editorials questioning why Israel has one firefighter per 7,000 residents versus the average of one to 1,200 for OCED nations, instead of devoting its attention to the small monthly stipend for a relatively small percentage of kollel students.
I have little doubt that there are, in retrospect, many things that Interior Minister Yishai wishes he had done differently, even within the budgetary constraints he faced. But it is demonstrably not true that he ignored or was indifferent to the situation of the fire services. As he pointed out, he succeeded in wresting one hundred million shekels more from the budget for the firefighting services than any previous minister of the interior. At a press conference after the release of the State Comptroller's report, Fire and Rescue Service Commissioner Shimon Romach defended Yishai. Romach insisted that during his tenure in office "never has there been such intensive involvement of the interior minister in the services," and he pointed out that Yisha had "managed to obtain a budget ten times any other annual budget for new equipment."
Yishai was further helped by the State Comptroller's criticism of the finance ministry's failure to transfer allocated funds pending the fire service's adoption of organizational reform. Yishai also noted that as far back as 2002, only Shas had opposed a cabinet decision to remove IDF helicopters from firefighting duty.
ANTI-CHAREIDI BIAS explains much of the venom directed at Yishai, but there was something else pushing the media agenda as well: the desire to avoid thinking about a truly scary subject. For the first few days of the fire, the media consistently downplayed the possibility of arson. It now seems clear that the original blaze was not an act of arson, but many other subsequent fires, which removed needed firefighting manpower and equipment from combating the main blaze, were deliberately set. Such acts of ecological terrorism have, unfortunately, become common in recent years.
Beating up on the chareidim proved more attractive for much of the media than contemplating the fact that among the Israeli Arab population – nearly a fifth of the country – there are many who do not wish Israel well, and not a few prepared to act upon those ill wishes. Better to confront the chareidi bogey-man than to think about a frightening reality.
I must confess that I cringe whenever I hear mono-causal explanations offered for any tragedy. Part of my aversion to such explanations lies in the fact that I spend much of my day explaining and defending the chareidi world to those who have no familiarity with that world. Nothing enrages secular Jews more than when a religious Jew pronounces that the reason that something happened was because of this or that aveirah.
But my aversion to definitive answers owes more to the fact that they so frequently sound presumptuous, like we have clear access to the Divine calculus. "We are not G-d's scorekeepers," is the way that Rabbi Israel Meir Lau once put the point. For every explanation offered, more questions inevitably arise. No one, it seems to me, should offer an explanation for a particular event, unless he is prepared to offer similar explanations for everything – e.g., tragedies that befall great tzaddikim, horrible diseases that afflict innocent children.
If one announces that a certain wedding hall collapsed, killing over twenty people, because of mixed dancing -- as one previously unheard of rabbi did after the Versailles Wedding Hall disaster -- one is still left to explain why thousands of other such affairs did not result in similar tragedies. And what would one then offer, if a wedding hall built with the same the substandard building materials used in the Versailles collapsed during a wedding with strictly separate dancing? If chilul Shabbos explains all fires, for instance, how are we to understand the fact that fires that burned down entire shtetls were a commonplace aspect of Eastern European Jewish life long before the Enlightenment, or the recent fire in a Vizhnitz beis medrash that claimed more than a dozen sifrei Torah?
Following the Ramchal, the late Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner in Making Sense of Suffering: A Jewish Approach, argues that we can never know why with respect to any particular instance of suffering. At most, we can know the general principles of Hashem's Hashgacha (Providence) in the world. But not how those principles play out in a particular case. And the same is true of large-scale tragedies.
The opposite of admitting that we do not know the Divine calculus for a particular event is not to suggest, chas ve'shalom, that those events are random. As the Rambam states, one who relates to tragedy as a random act of chance is guilty of great cruelty because he thereby pushes off the necessary introspection and teshuva. In every ounce of suffering as individuals and as a community, we are required to examine ourselves and ask how we could possibly benefit and grow from that suffering.
One of the obvious places to turn in our efforts to make sense of suffering is the words of our Sages. Thus if the Gemara links destructive fires to chilul Shabbos, that is vital information. For Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose phenomenal command of the entire rabbinic literature is well-known, not to quote such a Gemara to his Motzaei Shabbos shiur, even knowing that the shiurim are publicly broadcast and that there are always those waiting to pounce on any quote taken out of context, would have been irresponsible. We need every hint possible in the conduct of our individual and collective chesbon hanefesh.
Steven Plaut, a professor in the business school at Haifa University, sent out an email the Motzaei Shabbos following the outbreak of the Carmel blaze in which he related how the flames had repeatedly approached Kibbutz Nir Etzion from different directions. Each time they did so, however, they stopped precisely at the Shabbos eruv around the kibbutz.
That too is a hint.