Smokey Bear came to Albert Einstein Academy this week. He was a bit shy meeting all our Gan and 1st Grade students. Once they welcomed him warmly, he shook each of their hands as they promised not to play with matches. (Full disclosure: I was in the bear suit.)
The next day, health classes for every class focused on fire safety. Students made posters to remind each other how to be safe. Our 5th grade is writing essays on fire safety.
Ordinarily, the learning would be a matter of course for elementary school education. Fire safety is something we teach. We take for granted that our students learn something they may never use.
During the High Holy Days, however, fire is a more serious matter. It occupies the #2 position of ways that someone judged by God on these days will die (should that be the decree). The Unetaneh Tokef prayer famously states:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severity of the decree!”
Given the opening few lines and their focus on life and death, we often miss the last few lines preceding the call to act now to change the decree. Those lines reflect that life, while it does include death, is spent mostly in fluctuations of harmony or harriedness, of tranquility or suffering, in economic swings, and with rising personal and professional successes and failures. Most of life for most people is mostly in-between.
This year, I found those last lines to be of tremendous significance. My family survived a house fire that dislocated us for nine months to a year. We spend the last weeks of the last school year in hotels and searching for a rental home. We have had to sort through countless items damaged, recovered, lost, or repurchased. We only recently have been able to cook for ourselves. With extraordinary gratitude, we lived, and we will rebuild.
In-between, where we live now, I am struck by the importance of “repentance, prayer, and charity.” We prayed and needed prayers to make it through the details (many of which still plague us). We relied upon the amazing charity of the community to feed us and to help us purchase transitional and restoration items. I apologize for using this impersonal context, but THANK YOU for sustaining us.
And then there is repentance. The Hebrew word is teshuva, literally “return.” We survived the fire by returning to the lessons our children brought home from AEA. We made a plan. In the middle of the night, when I woke to the fire, we knew what to do and did it. Smokey Bear gave us more than coloring books, and the Talleyville Fire Company gave us more than safety tips and a contest: they gave us the impetus to make a plan and, because of it, to live.
May we all return to our learning (especially if we took it for granted), return our better selves, and return to be sealed for a good year ahead.
G’mar chatimah tovah!