FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16th
As my flight descended into the smoke-filled air of the Sacramento Valley yesterday, I reflected on the fact that this has been a week of deadly fire. In the past week, we have seen the news of innocent people killed by gunfire in Southern California. We have breathed in the smoke of the deadliest fire in California history, which has killed dozens and displaced thousands of our fellow Californians, while another fire rages in the southern part of the state. We have wept with grief and outrage at the news that Jemel Roberson, a black security guard who heroically stopped a shooting at the bar where he worked, was shot and killed by police when they arrived at the scene. We have prayed for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in the south of Israel, as deadly rocket fire rained down from Gaza, targeting civilians. This would be a lot to absorb at any time, but coming on the heels of the antisemitic terror attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when many of us are already feeling frightened and emotionally raw, it can be especially overwhelming.
With all the smoke in the air in California, experts are recommending that people limit outdoor activity and stay inside as much as possible. UC Davis and Sac State have both closed their campuses and canceled classes because of the smoke in the air. The current forecast suggests air quality will improve somewhat before Shabbat, so that we won’t have to cancel shul. However, I encourage anyone with health concerns to stay home and not walk to shul as long as the air remains smoky.
Just as the physical smoke from the fires in California is unhealthy to breathe in large quantities, the psychic pollution of constantly reading article after article of grim news can also be damaging to our spiritual health. Therefore, the same way that experts advise to limit our outdoor activity due to smoky air, I am advising that those of us who are feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of terrible news, to limit the time we spend on news sites and social media. This is not about ignoring the outside world, or hiding from reality, but about limiting exposure to what is unhealthy for us.
Instead of leaving the cable news on all day, or refreshing our news feed constantly, I encourage everyone to set a limit of how much news you’re going to consume during this bad news week—a set amount of time (say 30 minutes a day) or a set number of articles (3 articles a day), and when you’ve reached that limit, instead of reading more articles, take time for self-care, and for doing something concrete to help.
We fight fire with water. With so much fire in the world, we can respond by bringing more water into the world. For those of us who aren’t firefighters, our job is not to bring physical water to the fires, but to bring metaphorical water. Our tradition compares water to a number of things, but three come to mind as being particularly relevant today.
Chesed (loving-kindness) is associated with water in Kabbalah. One way to fight the fires in the world is by performing acts of loving kindness. We can do this directly, by helping out our neighbors, or by supporting communal efforts to respond to these crises. The Jewish Federation of Sacramento is collecting funds and goods for families impacted by the Camp Fire. Please help contribute to this Chesed by giving online or dropping off groceries, clothing and gift cards at the Federation offices in Midtown. They are specifically looking for store gift cards as well as new towels, new clothing in all sizes (including shoes, undergarments, sweatshirts, and bras), paper cups, paper plates, paper towels, animal food, new jackets, new coats, and bottled water.
The prophet Amos said, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Justice works to fight the fires of this world in a different way than Chesed, not necessarily by alleviating immediate suffering, but by addressing the root causes of suffering in our world. While acts of kindness and caring towards people who are suffering are essential, an equally important way to bring water to the fires of our world is to engage in work that seeks to make our world a more just, equitable and peaceful place in the long run
Lastly, Torah is compared to water. In addition to performing acts of chesed to help those who are impacted by the literal fires in California, we can help quench the spiritual fires of the world by engaging in Torah learning. During these difficult times, I encourage everyone to take on additional learning. If you are looking for ways to take on a realistic amount of learning, I suggest reading one chapter of Tanakh each day or studying two or three mishnayot each day to get started.
I hope you will join me in seeking to bring more water to the fires that plague our world in all of these ways. Please also join me in praying for the well-being of our firefighters, of all our fellow Californians, and of our sisters and brothers near the Gaza border.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein