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AFTER THE FLAMES, on (not) PLAYING THE BLAME GAME

Posted on: March 23rd, 2015 by bubbyjoysandoys 14 Comments

Enjoyed this? Share it, and attribute it. Copyright 2014, Bubby Joys and Oys, M. Hendeles

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This past week, a house in Brooklyn, due to a malfunction of a hot-plate,  became shockingly engulfed in flames on Friday night and seven children tragically perished. According to the fire department, this was the most devastating fire in NYC in the past seven years. I live in California, and even from far away, looking at the images, knowing that neighborhood, I can’t stop thinking of the sadness and trauma that the family will go through.

Apparently, the hot plate that malfunctioned, was used weekly by this (and other families) on the Sabbath to keep food warm, since Orthodox Jews don’t turn ovens or stoves on throughout Shabbat. Various methods of keeping food warm on the Sabbath are used. Some use warmers, others use a crockpot and/or put their food atop  a “blech” which is a metal covering over the range which has a flame underneath.

But somehow, people who read the news about this horrible fire, in which lives were lost, others were injured and badly burned and families are left bereft and traumatized, seem to overlook the word “malfunctioning” and focus on the  hotplate that was used. I read several articles about the event and happened to spot a few comments by random people. All of these people wrote comments to the tune of:

“If this is what being Orthodox is, then why bother?”

It becomes all about the hotplate. People, perhaps the hotplate was broken?  Perhaps the wire may have been frayed? It’s not the hotplate per se. It’s how it was used!

And then the fact that the family’s home did not have any smoke detectors on the main floors, was also another point of contention.

“How irresponsible! No smoke detectors? How utterly awful! How could anyone with all those children in a home be so careless?”

I understand the importance of learning from tragic situations. No one wants to make the same mistake as another person. I even get the value of discussing the “takeaway” from such an awful occurrence. I am aware that the fire department sat at tables stationed around the city and handed out free smoke detectors for anyone who came by.

It says in Ethics of our Fathers, “He who is wise, who learns from everyone.” We learn from others’ mistakes. Very wise.

But do we rub it in their faces? Do we plaster our thoughts of superiority all over the internet? Do we attribute the fact that there was a fire to religion only? Do we criticize the family – who not only can’t defend themselves or explain what actually went wrong, but is dealing with such immense pain and suffering?

Do we insinuate that we NEVER make any mistakes? Not small ones, and not even tragic ones? Never? Ever?

I know that I’ve used a hotplate many times to heat up food, or when our oven wasn’t working.  I also know that sometimes things don’t work correctly. In my case, thank G-d, the hotplate has worked well for me. I intend to be extra careful in the future, even surpassing my previous care that I took. I will check that the hotplate is made by a reputable company, and so forth.

True, the hotplate caused the fire in this case. So learn from it. Be careful with future use of any electrical item. Read directions. If you are already 100% careful with these types of things, then great. Keep doing it.

And regarding the fire detectors, yes, go out and purchase new ones of the ones you have are older than 10 years old (as mine are. We went to Home Depot yesterday and got new ones). Make sure they are in all bedrooms and hallways, and check that the batteries are fresh. Test out the smoke detectors.

But don’t blame and criticize the family for their tragic mistake in using the hotplate that just happened to malfunction this one time. Don’t blame the Shabbat, or laws of Judaism.

Don’t miss the point.

Don’t assault them for neglecting to put smoke detectors. The poor family can’t defend themselves, and the “know-it-all” comments only deepen the pain that the survivors must already be feeling.

Yes, the lack of smoke detectors was what may have prevented the family from getting out sooner. It could be that had they had smoke detectors that worked, the family would have survived. And certainly one must learn from that mistake.

But the attitude of “enflamed blame” doesn’t bring back the children.

And the attitude of “enflamed blame” doesn’t prevent the tragedy from happening to you – or me, or us.

When I was in fifth grade, my classmate died in a fire. In the middle of the night, the entire 3-story solid home a few blocks from our house in Brooklyn, blew up in smoke and flames. Everyone got out, and then tragically, my classmate went back inside to get someone she thought was still in there. She didn’t survive. It was one of the most tragic events I recall from my childhood.

The community was devastated. I recall being so upset for my friend, her family and everyone involved. I was frightened that the same thing might happen to our house.

The school brought in psychologists, and our parents spoke to us about the importance in case of fire of gathering in a special place in the front of the house. I don’t recall what caused the fire; it could be it was an electrical failure. Could be it was the Shabbat candles, or the Chanukah candles. Or maybe someone was smoking or a child found a match and played with the fire.

But I was afraid, terrified that the same thing would happen to our house, G-d forbid. And so, for a few weeks, every night I got up in the middle of the night and smelled smoke. I walked around the house checking for fire, checking for any visible signs of smoke.

And then when I didn’t find any,  after walking through the bedroom floor, the main floor and the basement, I climbed back upstairs to my bedroom on the top floor and went back to sleep. This carried on for a few days or more. My parents knew that I was doing this. My mother spoke to professionals about it and tried to reassure me. But her assurances that we have a fire alarm, smoke detectors and a house with strong walls made of sheet-rock that burns slowly…  didn’t allay my anxiety. I continued to wake up, “smell” smoke (could be the neighbor’s incinerator in the big apartment building?) and walk around to check.

One day my mother finally sat me down and said to me something that reached my heart and soul and calmed me down.

“You know, we have to put our faith in G-d. G-d protects us.”

Somehow, my mother’s reassuring voice, her wise words and her truth struck a chord with me. That was it. I never once smelled smoke after that.  I stopped my checking-the-house behaviors. And I completely stopped my anxiety.

I stopped my “enflamed blame” that was going on inside me that somehow I could prevent such a problem.

In Judaism, there is a phrase that one says when hearing about a person who has passed away. “Baruch Dayan HaEmes.” This translates as “Blessed is the One Who Judges the Truth.” We believe that G-d chooses who lives and who dies.  It behooves us to trust that. Whether or not one believes in a G-d or a Higher Power, one has to trust that everything is not in our hands.

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We go through the motions, follow safety rules of the experts such as the fire department, we teach these messages to our children, and then we lay our worries to rest (or we try to!).

We can run fire drills,  install smoke detectors, carbon monoxide sensors, and maintain fire alarms. We seek counsel from the experts and instruct ourselves and our children on fire safety. We can keep matches out of reach and turn pot handles towards the back of the stove. We can instruct our children what to do – and what not to do – in case of a fire.

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At the end of the day, we realize that the ultimate decision is in G-d’s Hands and accidents happen.

Better to move forward and take care of business.  Lose the superiority. Arrogance doesn’t save lives. Action and change do.

(CREDIT FOR FINAL QUOTE BY PAUL BRANDT’S LYRICS: VIRTUAL LIFE)


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14 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    Well said. Tragic. No words. Accidents happen regardless of every precaution one takes. That’s life. Those left behind have challenges ahead.

  2. Sharona says:

    I agree, while yes it’s good to have smoke detectors and be careful with hot plates, we shouldn’t pour salt on the wound. Anything can happen to any of us. Also, even with smoke detectors, some children don’t hear it if they are sleeping hard. We can try all we can to be safe, but G-d decides what happens. Of course, we should be careful and cautious, but also remember that G-d is in charge, and pray for protection.

    • Yes, Sharona. After I posted this article, I saw a video online yesterday about a family that slept through a series of “test drills” that the parents did while they were sleeping. The regular smoke detectors which make a loud squeaky sound just do NOT wake up some tightly sleeping children. The answer may be in voice activated alarms where the children hear an actual voice calling out their name (the device is programmed to say their name). This is a new thing being marketed soon.

  3. Mindy says:

    Thank you for saying this. I went and ordered two new smoke detectors after reading about this, but to criticize people for a really normal thing we all can forget to do? After such a tragedy? And blaming hot plates? Really? Maybe we should all unplug our refriderators and go back to ice boxes. Seriously.

  4. I love some of the quotes here and love the sentiment behind this. Yes. So much I agree with here and have written two similar posts about incidents in the autism world (where I live,) that we pick a part and are so critical when we don’t know the whole story. (I’m from Midlife Bloggers. Love your blog name.)

    • Leisa, that’s a really good point that people who struggle with challenges (such as parenting kids with autism) often have to put up with judging and preachiness. I guess the phrase “add insult to injury” fits here.

      Glad you like my blog title! Thanks for stopping by from midlife boulevard. Isn’t it a great group? Yay, Sharon and Ann who run it!

  5. sarah says:

    Wow nicely put.

  6. Nina says:

    Brava, Miriam! This was so excellent. I saw someone somewhere (a rabbi in a reputable source but can’t remember where) ask whether we should stop celebrating the 4th because people drown in pools and have accidents with fireworks. Your points were sensitive and well said. I’m doing the slow, strong clap over here.

    • Thanks, Nina. I was concerned that the piece came across a bit preachy, but at the same time I had a strong message that was milling around in my mind. So I’m glad you (and others) felt it was appropriate given the sensitive subject. So thank you for that!

      And yes, interestingly, a few hours after I published the article, I came across that piece online you refer to by a Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone. An op-Ed in The Forward….i was glad (and honored) to see a reputable rabbi had a similar thought!
      May we share good news. No more tragedies.

  7. […] Hendeles has some wise words, with a bit of tochachah, for the judgy judgers out there, as they reared their judgy heads following the extremely tragic […]

    • Oh, Rivky I know I saw this comment, but never responded on the blog to it. Thanks for the comment on this post that I think really resonated with a lot of people. May we only share happy occasions and may our friends and loved ones know no sorry.

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