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The Jewish Report Editorial

Fiery message in the embers

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It’s one week before Lag B’Omer, and it seems to me that all we are hearing about right now is fire.

Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Parktown was severely damaged by a fire last Friday, and Cape Town was burning from Sunday until late Tuesday this week.

It has been said that Johannesburg firefighters didn’t have the infrastructure to contain the hospital fire with speed, hence the extensive damage. There were also disparaging words about the hospital not having an emergency plan, and its fire hydrants not being in working order.

However, in spite of everything, not one person was injured in the fire, and the hospital team managed to get each of about 800 patients out safely and to other hospitals. Some might say it was miraculous.

In Cape Town, the fire raged for days and seemed to be stretching further and further into suburbia and the City Bowl. It gutted beloved iconic Mother City landmarks like the Windmill on the side of the M3, and University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Jagger Library, which forms part of the UCT Libraries Special Collections.

A ministerial home was gutted, as well as so many other houses. About 4 000 students in residences were evacuated, and many others who live and work on and around the mountain.

Firefighters didn’t sleep as they focused on their mission to put out the fire. Helicopters flew backwards and forwards with sea water, dropping it onto the fire to try and douse it. Firefighters’ nerves were frazzled, but they kept going until they finally succeeded in putting out the fire late on Tuesday. The problem was, the firefighters explained, every time they thought they were gaining control over the fire, it kept reigniting.

Amidst the mayhem, all sorts of people did incredibly brave deeds to save human and animal lives, precious items, and memorabilia. Read our story on page 1.

The young Rabbi Nissen Goldman rushed into the Kaplan Centre of Jewish Studies on UCT campus, close to the Jagger Library that burned down. He risked his life to save the Torah housed in Kaplan Centre.

Across town the following day, Herzlia’s director of education, Geoff Cohen, evacuated four Torah scrolls from Herzlia Highlands Primary. The whole school was closed on Monday and Tuesday as the fire was way too close for comfort, and smoke hung over the school like a pall, dropping ash everywhere.

You can, of course, think what you want, but I believe there is something very symbolic in these fires. Fire in Judaism is an extremely powerful symbol. Remember, G-d convinced Moses of his existence when he spoke to him from a burning bush.

We light fire to welcome the Sabbath, and we light up to end the Sabbath and begin a new week. We light candles to remember those who have left us, and we speak of our eternal flame being the light within us, our souls. This flame is also believed by many tzaddikim to be Torah, which is believed to keep Judaism alive.

Now, in Judaism there are two types of fire, the fire that burns, which is the unruly fire as experienced in Cape Town and at the Johannesburg hospital, and then the fire that gives light (as in domestic fire). Wildfires, while they may be caused by humans, are uncontrolled and forces of nature. They take with them everything in their path, burning the good, the bad, and the ugly. By destroying iconic landmarks and a massive library filled with historic books, there is a message for us about protecting the old, but also letting go what we can’t save because we don’t have total control. Could it be that it’s a message to let go of the old and make way for the new?

Or to preserve what you can, but remembering that lives are so much more important than belongings or things. Even iconic buildings aren’t as important as lives.

It’s astonishing that with all that could have gone wrong with both fires, there were no deaths. And in the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, not one of the many sick people – some of whom were in intensive care and on ventilators, hooked up to drips, and unable to walk – were injured or harmed because of the fire.

It’s mind-blowing that in spite of what sounded like fiery mayhem, they were all safely transported and accommodated in another ward in another hospital. Read our story on page 4.

In both fires, there were people who risked their lives to save others. I’m always amazed at how in times of crises, heroes emerge. Sometimes it’s those you least expect who step up to the plate to help. And of course the firefighters and medical staff who put their own lives in jeopardy for other people were simply incredible. Kol hakavod!

Crime and weddings

Fires and crime seem to be on the increase all over Johannesburg and Cape Town. We have to take every precaution to prevent it happening to us. I know that’s easy to say, but we have to ensure we have adequate security and use it at all times. (See page 3.) And we have to make sure our protection against fire is up to date and ready just in case we need it. There are people who can advise us on this. Take their advice, and safeguard yourself and your families.

In this edition, we also look at how many weddings have taken place this year where COVID-19 protocols have been mostly ignored. Now, I would never want to dampen the happiness of newlyweds, but we would all hate it if one of these weddings became a super-spreader event. We have put the COVID-19 wedding protocols on our website. Take a look at it, and let’s be responsible. Again, take precautions to avoid distress and trauma.

Shabbat Shalom!

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