“The great shofar is sounded; a still small voice is heard.”
We awoke to the faint smell of smoke, like the smoldering remains of a campfire not fully extinguished. And rain -- a total downpour if the pelting of our bedroom window was any indication. Half asleep, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. I definitely checked the grill before going to bed to make sure the coals had died out.
At Mollie’s urging, I got out of bed and opened our back door. Our yard – the grill included – was just as I left it only drenched with rainfall. I walked to the front of our apartment and pulled back the curtains. A thick haze filled the air against a backdrop of warm red light. I opened our door and saw more smoke, but no rain. A couple firefighters in full protective gear walked along our street. The rain, I realized, was not rain, but water from fire hoses.
“I think there’s a fire somewhere near us,” I told Mollie, who was now out of bed too. I watched as she opened our door and stepped outside. She took a few steps toward the smoke and as she turned her head to the right, she cupped her hands to her face and gasped.
“Oh my God!” she said, panic-stricken. “The bowling alley is on fire.”
“And the angels will be alarmed, and seized by trembling they will say, ‘Behold the Day of Judgment!”
Our building is a walk-up down the street from a bar and bowling alley called Lincoln Square Lanes, and by down the street I mean there’s only one other walk-up and a dumpster alley separating us from the building Mollie just described as being on fire. About 50 feet.
I ran out to see for myself. Heat hit me square in the face as I watched the pillar of flames shooting out from the top story of the building. “We need to get out of here,” I said. Even if we were safe, staying as a fire raged next door was not an option.
We hurried inside and changed out of our pajamas as we discussed where we could go for the night. We called our friends who lived a 10-minute walk away. It was 1 a.m. Thankfully they answered. “Good thing we just changed the sheets in our guest bedroom,” they said, half asleep.
“And You will cause to pass, and You will count, and You will record and You will review the souls of all living.”
When you have any valid concern that your home will burn down, you learn a lot about yourself, namely what you care about and how much of you is tethered to stuff.
With each other accounted for and more than enough time, we grabbed whatever else we deemed irreplaceable. For me, that was my laptop, some cash I’d yet to deposit and my guitar (replaceable, but extremely important). Mollie grabbed some jewelry. We could replace everything else, we realized, almost refreshingly. We packed some overnight necessities and left, the fire still blazing at our backs as we headed down the street.
“Who by water and who by fire...”
While exploring the liturgy of the High Holidays as an adult in my 20s, I found myself a little bothered by Un’taneh Tokef. I understood the value of this notion of a Book of Life, but this particular piece seemed to take it too far. It’s one thing to suggest God preordains who will live and die each year; another to take the extra time to describe all the visceral ways in which they will die, unless they repent (tshuvah), pray (tfilah) and give charitably (tzedakah). It is an unsettling piece of our service. The way the poem speaks of divine judgment evokes a heaven-and-hell imagery that feels almost antithetical to Judaism, at least my understanding of it.
My confrontation with this fire was seemingly un-divine. I returned the next day to find barely a hint of smoke in our apartment. The siding on the top floor of our building was warped and gnarled from heat, but the man next door said that our upstairs neighbors made it out safely with their newborn. So I went in to work. I was a couple hours late and exhausted, but fine. That night, a couple friends came over for our fantasy football draft. Life went on as scheduled, and in time, for the owners of that building and its businesses, it will too.
This was not a death by fire, but how close had I come? It was certainly a wakeup call, as with any close brush with tragedy. For much of that week I remained a bit shaken. Not traumatized, but ruffled from complacency.
“But repentance, prayer and charity avert judgment’s harsh decree.”
Each day since the fire has been a little bit different on my street. It’s been fascinating to see the fire fighters, police officers, sanitation workers and more come in and do their part to restore the status quo. I expect it will be this way for weeks if not months. It will be a long and gradual process, but it will heal. The process of tshuvah is much the same. With a lot of hard work, we can repair with ourselves, with others and with God and return to who we are.
And as for Un’taneh Tokef, I realize now that it’s meant to be uncharacteristically unsettling. These vivid deaths may not actually be prescribed to us, but they can certainly happen. Sadly, they do happen. These words we hear, much as this fire was for me, are a reminder of life’s fragility. Tshuvah, tfilah and tzedakah don’t reverse our fate; they are principles we should always live by because truth is we don’t know what fate has in store for us. It’s like tricking a child to eat vegetables – sometimes you have to exaggerate a little to ensure ideal behaviors.
The threat of the fire as I grabbed my belongings that night reminded me of what was important. It began my process of tshuvah. This Rosh Hashanah, may your mind return to what is important, and may doing so bring you much health, happiness and sweetness in the year to come.