Why Alexander Puts Out Fires

My grandson Alexander puts out fires. Like a lot of kids with active imaginations, he sees himself as a fireman. We’ve put out countless fires in houses, cars, and even this synagogue.

He knocked on my door one day, dressed as a fireman, and asked me if I had any problems. I didn’t understand at first, but then I saw that he was holding yellow caution tape in one hand and red danger tape in the other and he was ready to place tape wherever it might be needed in my life. He was there to protect me and fix anything that I needed.

In his world, fires occur, but he can deal with them.

I watch my grandchildren play and I wonder: How do kids know how to pretend? It feels like something innate, something basic to human nature. It feels like we’re hard-wired to imagine a world where everything can be fixed.

We make sense of the world by telling stories that have an end in which everybody lives happily ever after.

The experts say that letting one’s imagination do its thing is work, not play but work. The world is chaotic and scary; to imagine, for kids and adults, is counter-phobic. Think about how often you find yourself having morbid fantasies about the worst possible things happening to you and your loved ones. We imagine, we generate scary possibilities and then we solve the crises in our minds. And since we realize that they’re not true, we feel better, like when we wake up from a bad dream. We feel as if we’re in control of the things that can happen.

Fiction does this. It creates a narrative with a beginning and an end. The detective uses ingenuity to catch the criminal.

History does this; it sees cause and effect in the messy world of events.

We get through life seeing the world as we choose to see it; we live as if we’re in control of what’s happening. But we know that we’re not in control, and at least deep down, we’re scared. We’re scared of all the things that are symbolized by fire in my Alexander’s imagination.

Fear is a huge problem in our lives.

Fear is the mind-killer. That’s one of the things I gleaned from the science-fiction classic Dune by Frank Herbert,

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is all consuming.

My little grandson is so afraid of fire and all the other scary things that he goes around putting out imaginary fires as a way of coping.

Making fires and putting them out is counter-phobic.

You imagine the worst, you engender the worst possibilities, so that you can work against them, prepare yourself, defend yourself.

But the irony is that we are so busy imagining the worst, most dramatic possibilities, that we fail to prepare ourselves to put out the smaller fires, the ones closer to home.

Last December, the fires on Mt. Carmel near Haifa in northern Israel constituted Israel’s worst-ever forest fire. It started in a neglected trash heap and spread quickly across tinder-dry forestland on Mt. Carmel. Nearly five million trees on 10,000 acres were burned. Fanned by strong winds, the initial blaze became dozens of fires that destroyed 250 homes. There were 42 deaths, mostly Israel Prison Service officer cadets who were on their way to rescue Arab prisoners in Damon Prison when their bus was engulfed by flames.

I am more afraid for Israel than I have been since 1973, since the Yom Kippur War. If you are not afraid for the survival of Israel, you are not up-to-date. The so-called Arab Spring and the cynical fanning of anti-Israel flames by Arab politicians who are trying to hold on to power, as in the case of Syria, or to gain power, as in the case of Egypt, and the cynical support not only from Iran but from around the world for the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas have put Israel in a precarious position. Israel is so intensely concerned, correctly, about external threats, about missiles and bombs and terrorism, that it didn’t worry about normal forest fires.

This is understandable. It’s what we all do in our lives, isn’t it?

You’re out there fighting the world, trying to make a living. Tarzan comes home and says to Jane, “It’s a jungle out there.” You’re so busy swinging from the vines and dodging alligators in the swamps that you miss the problems in your own home and your own family and you neglect basic things in your own physical life.

You’re so busy making a living that you forget that living depends on taking care of your body.

We’re so busy worrying about terrorists that we forget to buy fire extinguishers for our homes.

I am astonished at the way that so many of us live our lives. And I talk to people every day who simply are not taking care of themselves.

If you don’t take care of yourself, what exactly do you think is going to happen?

What’s the trajectory? It’s downhill and you know it but you don’t act.

Listen to reports about prevention of disease and you will hear about the benefits of the simple things, of exercise and the right diet, every time.

I visit people in the hospital and they’re scared and they say, “Ok Rabbi I get it now. You’re right; I should have listened. Now I’ll change my ways.”

And then once they’re out of the hospital and they feel that they’ve dodged the bullet, they go right back to their negligent ways.

The doctor says lose twenty pounds and we don’t listen, or we lose the pounds and then find them again very quickly.

There is so much to be afraid of, and we are plenty scared, but fear is the mind-killer and we don’t do the simple things.

There’s an incredible passage in the Bible, in II Kings, a wonderful haftorah, where a Syrian general comes to the Israelite prophet Elisha and asks to be cured of his leprosy.  And Elisha tells him to bathe in the Jordan River. The general scoffs and says: “I could have bathed in a river back in Syria.” And his men say, “If the prophet would have asked you to do difficult things, you would have done them. Why won’t you do this simple thing?”

That’s my question: Why don’t we do what we know we should do?

If a doctor said, “Go to China and drink a cup of tea made from jujube beans” or “go to a spa in Czechoslovakia and you’ll be healthy,” we’d be on the first plane. But if she says, “you need to lose twenty pounds,” we have lots of excuses.

We’re scared, but sometimes we forget to be scared about the simple things, the basic parts of our lives.

The fancy word is infrastructure.

We neglect to purchase basic forms of insurance.

We pretend that our leaky roofs are going to fix themselves.

And we figure that we can kick the can down the road and fix something later on. Our country has serious immediate economic problems that are the missiles and bombs everyone is worried about. I understand that perfectly. But there also are long-term financial crises that are looming, and responsible people have designed concrete but painful solutions concerning the future of Medicare and Social Security. These programs are essential to all of our lives. They are part of the infrastructure of this country. And yet very few of our lawmakers want to put our country’s good over their personal ambitions. No one wants to put the future over the present. No one wants to ask for sacrifices.

My little fireman walking around with caution tape is smarter than the rest of us: We’re so worried about the missiles and the bombs that we don’t worry about fire prevention.

The yellow caution tape is there, the red danger tape is there, and our lawmakers break through the tape like runners at the finish line.

We need to take care of the infrastructure of our lives but we can’t do it by ourselves.

Under intense criticism for not having an aerial firefighting force capable of extinguishing the Mt. Carmel fires, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in admitting that Israel was not properly prepared for forest fires, was not just making excuses when he said that no matter what, when there’s a fire like this, any country needs cooperation from other countries. In a massive wildfire in California a few years ago, the U.S. received assistance from eight different countries. Netanyahu said: “We also did not hesitate, nor were we ashamed, in requesting such assistance.”

My analogy is that infrastructure is not enough. If I can make up a word, we need extra-structure too.

We need other people.

No matter how we prepare, most crises are unexpected; we never seem to know when the fires are going to blaze. We must not hesitate, nor should we be ashamed, to ask for help when a real crisis hits,

Netanyahu’s right; we can’t put out the fires on our own. America can’t, Israel can’t; we can’t.

We cannot do it alone.

Yet I know a lot of people here who try to do it on their own, and it’s not working out very well, is it?

We are alone in our fears, and we are alone in attempting to counter and calm our fears, and we are alone in trying to solve our problems.

That’s why we pray together, and not just by ourselves.

Prayer is counter-phobic.

Prayer is a way of fighting fear by picturing a world where there are fires, but where we can put them out instantly, before they destroy our lives.

When we pray for a better world, we put ourselves in an ideal world where everything is at it should be.

It helps to balance the terrible life that is.

It pictures a world where there is order.

Our religion gives us a narrative of a better world.

A world where the good people are rewarded and the evil people are punished.

There is a psalm I say every day, Psalm 91:

I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my G-d, in whom I trust” …

You will not fear the terror of the night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you

… no evil shall be allowed to befall you,

no plague come near your tent.

For He will command His angels to guard you in all your ways.

On their hands they will bear you up,

lest you strike your foot against a stone.

Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows My name.

When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.

With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.

I love this psalm.

Angels will lift you up so that your feet don’t even touch a stone

Evil shall not come near you

This is the world I pray for

This is the world I want to live in

Now let’s be real: Do you think I don’t understand the world as it is?

Do you think I don’t know that the innocent suffer and the wicked often prosper?

I know; believe me I know.

I’ve seen some of the best people I know die way before their times.

I’ve known total creeps who have lived long and healthy lives.

I see this world clearly.

I look at this world and I fear.

I fear the growth of Islamic radicalism more than I feared Soviet Communism when I was a kid.

If I do not protect myself, I am a fool.

But if I fear all the time, I’m finished.

Fear is the mind-killer.

And so I’ll keep saying this prayer every day

Not as magic

But to push me to act.

This prayer makes me ask myself: Whom can I protect?

Who can I lift up so that they won’t hurt themselves on the stones?

I’m no angel, but I can do my part.

But I need others.

We pray together because we need each other, we come together in prayer to approach G-d together, to ask His help in dealing with our real and imagined fears and to help us to live up to our responsibilities.

Alexander puts out fires because he is so afraid.  We’re all scared. But we’re so afraid of the big external threats that we neglect the smaller internal problems that can destroy us from the inside. The fire in Israel is an example of the devastating neglect of our basic infrastructure. It also reminds us that we cannot do it alone, that we need the help of others.

Prayer is counter-phobic; we need the power of prayer to create a narrative of the ideal vs. the reality of our existence. Just as we pray with others, we need others to help us in our crises.

In the year to come, we need to do better, to work on the infrastructure of our lives like our bodies and the extra-structure of helping and being helped by the people around us.

Picture me in a red fire hat, standing here with yellow caution tape and red danger tape, asking if you have any problems. Of course you have problems; we all do.. And you’re scared, but you must not allow the fear to kill your mind. You must pray and counter your fears so that you can act.

It’s a new year. When you pray on this new year, think about what you need to do, and, for once, without excuses, go do it.