On Yom Kippur, we ask, “Who by fire?” Sadly, this year at Tisha B’Av, we know who: the 19 firefighters who died in Arizona.
“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Gov. Jan Brewer said. Her words connected me to the mood of the Ninth of Av, the Jewish day of mourning that begins this year on the evening of July 15.
Seemingly each year, we come in from the summer sun unprepared for this darkest day on the Jewish calendar. With vacation itineraries on our minds, we reluctantly stop over on this day without even a road map of the tragedies of our people.
Perhaps that’s why, with the tragedy of Arizona still so raw, I found myself reflecting on those who gave their lives so that others would not die.
Tisha B’Av marks a day on which we are supposed to connect with pain and loss.
The flames from the destruction of the First and Second Temples — and other tragedies in Jewish history we remember on Tisha B’Av — seem so distant until a story of flames and heroism burns a connecting path.
All but one of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots, elite firefighters trained in wildfire suppression, died in an effort to protect a subdivision near the small town of Yarnell. None of the victims were Jewish, yet their loss and the mourning of their loved ones cannot help but remind us at this time of year of those Jews who died in flames.
In Los Angeles and points West, during the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, it is almost always high fire season. In 2007, during the Griffith Park fire here, I could see the flames coming down from the Hollywood Hills. As I looked at the faces of my neighbors standing in the street, I could see that the fear of fire, of the horrendous loss it can bring, was not religion-specific.
The Arizona Forestry Division reported that the Yarnell Hill fire started from a lightning strike, in contrast to the Jewish martyrdom that stemmed from the torch of a conquering army or homicidal mob. Yet the result is the same: Wives are without husbands, children without fathers, parents without sons.
Some 30 miles away from Yarnell, where many of the memorials to the firefighters have been held, is Prescott, Ariz., where Rabbi Jessica Rosenthal, of Temple B’rith Shalom, was planning a memorial service to recall and honor those who had been killed or injured in the blaze. Unfortunately, memorial services and mourning are aspects of life with which we Jews have too much experience.
On Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, we have customs that connect us to tragedy. You do not eat, drink, bathe or have sex. As a sign of mourning, you don’t wear leather, which is considered a sign of luxury. In some communities, worshippers sit on the floor or on low stools.
On Tisha B’Av, we also chant Eicha, the biblical Lamentations, a dirge that poetically and painfully captures the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th Century B.C.E. Filled with phrases such as, “their faces are blacker than soot,” you can’t help but imagine the flames. The cover of the ArtScroll edition of Eicha shows a scroll that’s been singed.
Eicha is dense with anguish and is sometimes difficult to follow. But after following the stories of the firefighters’ wives, those who lost husbands and the fathers of their children, phrases in Eicha that made little sense began to pop from the page, helping me to connect to their loss:
“Panic and pitfall are our lot
Death and destruction.
My eyes shed streams of water
Over the ruin of my poor people.”
In Eicha — “how” in Hebrew — a text illuminated with “blazing wrath,” who could help but think of how these men died protecting their community? “None survived or escaped,” the text says. In Eicha, we also find the words, “Why have you forgotten us utterly?” and “pour out your hearts like water.”
Transporting the agony of Eicha to Arizona were the words of Patricia Huston, who is married to a member of a different Interagency Hotshot crew. She wrote a few days after the tragedy on the Wildland Firefighter’s Wives blog, “The poor wives who were greeted by a uniformed official knocking on their door last night. I can't even imagine.”
Huston wrote a Hotshot Firefighters Prayer. It ends this way:
“For if this day on the line,
I should lose my life,
Lord, bless my Hotshot Crew,
my children and my WIFE.”
Eicha responds: “Our dancing has turned into mourning.” But closing on words of hope, it ends, “Renew our days as of old.”
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist.