Monday rain came to Mount Carmel. It didn’t come Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, four days during which a devastating fire claimed 41 lives and consumed 12,500 acres of forest, nature reserves, residential areas, and tourist sites.
The rain came only on Monday, after a collaborative effort of planes from many countries—including Turkey, from which Israel had been estranged for months—and fire engines from the Palestinian Authority backed up efforts by Israeli firefighters and succeeded in extinguishing the flames.
Israel has been suffering a protracted drought; Monday’s rain came after more than a month of unseasonably warm and dry weather that made the Carmel forest a tinderbox. Rabbis decreed days of fasting and prayer to open the heavens.
It was almost the Elijah story in reverse. The biblical prophet had prophesied a life-threatening drought that would last as long as King Ahab continued to allow the worship of Baal, that his queen, Jezebel, had introduced (I Kings 17:1–7). Then, after three-and-a-half years of drought-induced famine, Elijah had his fateful showdown with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel.
The priests of Baal offered their sacrifices. Nothing happened. But when Elijah set out his offering, fire immediately descended from heaven, consuming the sacrifice, and the people of Israel fell on their faces chanting, “Jehovah is God.”
And Elijah prostrated himself and prayed for rain, (I Kings 18:44) “and it came to pass … that the heaven was black with clouds, and wind, and there was a great rain.”
But this week, as if in mockery of the rabbis’ pious entreaties and blasts of the shofar at the Western Wall, the sun continued to shine day after day. It was as if some Moloch controlled the rain, waiting for a human burnt offering to unlock the floodgates. And indeed, only after the sacrifice of 41 men and women from all over the country, both Jews and non-Jews, who had come to help, did the skies turn cloudy and rain begin to fall.
Now the politicians will wrangle and continue to blame each other for Israel’s being so woefully unprepared to deal with this catastrophe. And predictably, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is responsible for the country’s firefighting services, has reportedly said he’s being lynched because he is “Mizrahi [non-Ashkenazi], ultra-Orthodox, and right-wing.”
Lost in all this noise is the sorrow of the families whose dear ones died so horribly and the pain of those whose homes were damaged or destroyed and will undoubtedly have to fight the usual bureaucracy to get even a morsel of the promised compensation.
Yet there is a bright side. While the fire was still raging, I received a message from my nephew in Los Angeles, a lapsed pilot, saying that he had been to a Shabbat dinner with some friends, two of whom are pilots, and that there had been talk of finding some wealthy Jews to bankroll bringing in a Super-Scooper, an amphibious firefighting airplane, to help douse the fire. He and his friends were very serious, and I was impressed at their initiative, even though it proved unnecessary.
Meanwhile, Jewish fundraising organizations, which had been in the doldrums because for so long time they’d had no crisis to rally around, started new campaigns to help the victims of the Mount Carmel fire. And very soon, I predict, my granddaughter in Boston will be bringing dimes to Hebrew school, as I did when I was a kid, to plant a tree in Israel.
So perhaps it wasn’t Moloch after all, but a deity whose ways are often inscrutable, who was creating a new bridge over Israeli blood, from Israel to the world and especially to the Jewish Diaspora.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.