When There Are No Words, There Can Be No Lessons

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Burning Building

Readers of OU Life and Shabbat Shalom are likely already familiar with the tragedy that took place this past week, during the joyous holiday of Chanukah. I refer, of course, to the tragic house fire that took the lives of four members of the Azan family.

At 2:00 AM on the sixth night of Chanukah (Sunday night/Monday morning), firefighters arrived at the blazing Brooklyn home where mother Aliza Azan, 40, was found dead with three of her children: Henrietta, 3; Yitzah, 7; and Moshe, 11. As of this writing, father Yosi Azan, 45, a 16-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son remain hospitalized with critical injuries. Another son and a cousin received only minor injuries and were released in stable condition.

The FDNY determined that the cause of the inferno was “an unattended lit menorah.”

For members of the Jewish community, the incident is eerily reminiscent of the 2015 fire in which Gabriel and Gayle Sassoon lost seven of their eight children in a Shabbos hot plate-related incident. As it turns out, the Azan children and the Sassoon children were classmates together at Yeshivat Ateret Torah. At the time of the Sassoon tragedy, Yosi Azan posted on Facebook, “I know the family. It’s something you can’t understand. Three of the kids are studying with my kids.”

Regular readers may have observed my modus operandi: I take items of interest from the news and I try to derive moral and ethical lessons from them. Baruch Hashem, this often comes easily. A person being interviewed by the BBC tries desperately to keep his kids off-camera? Here’s a lesson. Marathon runners are led the wrong way and lose the race? Here’s a lesson. Italian soccer fans use Anne Frank as a slur? Here’s a lesson. But here? I’ve got nothing.

Did you ever pay a shiva call and sit there tongue-tied, unable to speak? That’s what’s going on here. Any death is a tragedy. To lose a child in unthinkable. The magnitude of horror in a case such as this is literally stupefying. How can one begin to address such a situation, let alone presume to derive a lesson from it?

Of course, that won’t stop some people from trying. While I have not yet seen it regarding the Azans (and I hope not to see it), comments I saw online in the wake of the Sassoon fire ranged from unkind to reprehensible. Some non-Jews used the story as an excuse to criticize Jews; some non-observant Jews used it as an opportunity to bash Sabbath-observant Jews. When one has an agenda to promote, compassion be damned!

There are, of course, those who will try to blame the calamity on some communal shortcoming. Without a doubt, we are supposed to see the tragedies that befall us as Divine rebuke and to use them as an impetus to improve our deeds but it’s not appropriate to use other people’s catastrophes as a selling-point for some community-works project, no matter how well-intentioned. Yes, Chazal were able to attribute the destruction of the second Temple to baseless hatred, and the Tosfos Yom Tov attributed the pogroms of 1648-1649 to talking in shul, but (a) they had more corroboration for their conclusions than their own speculation and (b) the people who tend to make such pronouncements nowadays are not at the level of the Tosfos Yom Tov, let alone that of Chazal.

Seriously, what kind of lesson can we hope to derive from such a mind-boggling calamity? Not to light Chanukah candles? Clearly that can’t be it. To exercise proper fire-safety precautions? That’s not only overly simplistic, the magnitude of the tragedy is far more than necessary to drive that point home.

In my opinion, if this sad story tells us anything, it only reinforces how much we don’t know. There’s a popular saying that “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” People mistakenly think that this comes from the Bible but it appears neither in Tanach nor in Christian Scriptures; it actually comes from an 18th-century hymn but the idea is believed to be based on Isaiah 55:8-9, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says Hashem. Just as the Heavens are higher than the Earth, My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” In other words, we can’t understand everything God does.

Along similar lines, Exodus 33:19 tells us that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful.” The meaning of this verse is not that God acts capriciously (He doesn’t) but that we cannot hope to understand everything that He does. Things always have underlying reasons, we’re just not always privy to them.

Or, as Job said (1:21), “God gives and God takes away; may the Name of God be blessed.”

I don’t presume to know why this tragedy occurred. I can’t begin to say what we’re supposed to learn from it. All I can do is pray that the Azan family be comforted for their losses, that those injured be restored to health, and that our community know no further such catastrophes. Should such calamities occur in the future, God forbid, may our responses be motivated only by our compassion and not informed by other agendas that we wish to promote.

Review fire-safety protocols for Shabbos and Yom Tov on OU Holidays

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.