A few weeks ago, I wrote about the devastating Chanukah fire in Brooklyn. In that piece, I discussed the impossibility of deriving a lesson from such a senseless tragedy. The piece was well-received and widely-distributed but I would like to revisit the topic based on some feedback that I received.
One Facebook commenter was upset with my premise because he felt that the obvious lesson is fire safety. I had discounted that conclusion in the article saying that it was overly simplistic and that the magnitude of this tragedy far exceeded what would be necessary to drive that point home. After all, one’s curtains catching fire and being doused with a glass of water would make that point, as would a house burning down with no casualties. But a mother and three children dying, among other serious injuries? To me, that seems to go far beyond what would be necessary to convey that particular lesson.
An additional factor is that we must always be careful never to blame a victim. If a woman is assaulted, it’s not her fault because of what she is wearing. If a person is robbed, it’s not because he chose a car that is too irresistible to others. Similarly, we must not suggest that such a tragedy is the fault of those whose lives have been ruined because of it. That’s just general sensitivity, such as one would show when paying a shiva call.
Nevertheless, the commenter was right that the rest of us should take this sad story as an object lesson, and there is Biblical precedent to do so. Parshas Acharei Mos begins, “God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before God and died. And God said to Moshe, ‘Speak to your brother Aaron, that he not come at all times to the holy place behind the veil, before the cover that is on the ark, so that he not die…” (Leviticus 16:1-2). Rashi asks what relevance the death of Aaron’s sons has to the command. He responds by citing a Midrash in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah: Imagine a sick person whose doctor tells him, “Don’t eat cold food and don’t lie in a damp place.” Now imagine a second patient, but this one’s doctor says, “Don’t eat cold food and don’t lie in a damp place so you don’t die like Mr. Jones died.” The second man’s doctor certainly provided a more powerful motivator than the first! Similarly, we must let such tragedies inform our future conduct while simultaneously being careful not to blame victims for their misfortune. This is not always easy to do but in this case it is important that we try.
For years – and this year was no different – the OU has posted fire-safety tips that apply to Shabbos, yom tov and especially Chanukah. These include such practical pieces of advice as:
- Never place candles near anything flammable;
- Keep Shabbos, yom tov, Chanukah, and yahrzeit candles out of the reach of small children;
- When lighting candles, women must be careful of their sleeves and hair;
- Families must be aware of the high heat generated by candles;
The Facebook commenter included a link to a New York City fire-safety pamphlet directed at Jewish families that includes additional useful advice, including:
- Never leave burning candles unattended;
- Develop a fire escape plan;
- Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms work;
- Use a pot lid and baking soda to smother a pan fire, not water;
Useful as these two resources are, even they do not represent the entirety of the subject. For example, it’s winter as I write this and temperatures are rapidly dropping, leading many people to employ space heaters. Proper safety protocols must also be followed when using these devices. This includes making sure they have sufficient clearance around them; keeping them away from lint, dust and water; plugging them directly into an outlet rather than using an extension cord; not leaving them running unattended; and more. (It is also highly advisable that one purchase a unit that will turn off automatically if tipped over.)
House fires are largely preventable and it behooves each of us to review basic fire-safety rules, especially as they pertain to Shabbos, havdalah, Chanukah, yahrtzeits and other occasions involving open flames. Additionally, we should be aware of safety issues involving cooking, especially for those of us who leave a blech on the stove for the entirety of Shabbos. (Please be aware that a regular hot plate is not designed to be left on for 25 hours! There are special Shabbos food warmers that can be purchased for this purpose.) Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are also a must. And, of course, general safety rules about frayed cords, overloaded outlets, gasoline and oily rags apply to all of us.
Please take the opportunity to review both the general safety rules in this area and the matters that are particular to Jewish observance. If we all work together, such tragedies can be minimized if not eradicated altogether.