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.
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.
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)