Smoke intoxicated the air and dark clouds cast an eerie glow over the Southern California sky as fire engulfed our Simi Valley neighborhood.
At last, when the freeways opened and we finally felt comfortable breathing outside air, we noticed the destruction left in the fire's wake. It was like the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: blackened mountains, trees and shrubs reduced to rubble, melted guardrails, blackened signs; complete decimation of the life and vegetation that was once blooming in the area.
Even with the destruction, I couldn't help but feel thankful to God that everyone's life in the Simi Valley area was spared. And since most of the homes in our area were not damaged, people could resume their lives as before the fires.
But it is difficult to go back to life just as before. It is difficult to ignore the anguish and disappointment of the thousands who have lost all of their worldly possessions in the merciless fires. It is difficult to ignore the pain of the many lives lost to the devouring flames of this fiery beast that stretched across Southern California.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, taught that one can learn from all of life's experiences in how to live a better life as a Jew. But what can we gain from the negative experiences in this horrific wildfire with all the damage that it caused? Surely, there must be a positive lesson here, something good to impact our lives.
Fire, in and of itself, can be a very useful tool. It may be used as a source of light, for warmth and for cooking. Yet, it can also be so destructive when it goes beyond its limit and is not rooted to anything concrete. On a mystical level, the soul is compared to fire -- a powerful spiritual force with a constant yearning to reach greater heights.
When people were told to evacuate their homes, they had to pack up their most important possessions immediately. It was during those crucial moments that one came to realize their true priorities in life. Suddenly, all those worldly goods that one spent many devoted hours in acquiring lost their significance as the true value of life came into clear focus.
The story is told of a shtetl in Eastern Europe that was being ravaged by fire. As one family's home burned to the ground, the mother cried uncontrollably. Upon investigation, it was discovered that this woman wasn't concerned at all with the worldly possessions being destroyed. Her anguish was caused by the knowledge that the documents of her family's esteemed lineage, which traced its roots to illustrious beginnings, was now gone forever. Hearing this, her young son comforted her by saying that he will devote his life to being the best he could be, thereby establishing the family roots once again with the illustrious and esteemed heritage it inherently had. Indeed, this young boy grew up to be one of the greatest rabbis of his time, documenting his family once again as being of honorable ancestry, just as he had promised.
After a fire's destruction, one realizes that we are not defined by what we have, but by what we are.
There is a Yiddish saying that is rooted in holy sources, that "after a fire one becomes rich." According to mystical teachings, God rules the world with different attributes: kindness (chesed), strict judgment (din), etc. The kabbalah explains that after giving the world its share of strict judgment -- such as a fire -- God treats the world to the attribute of mercy; compassion (rachamim), which is boundless by nature; a limitless flow of kindness; and positive energy (nachala bli maitzarim).
Certainly, God -- the source of all life -- constantly gives life to every part of creation. Yet, as explained before, "after a fire one becomes rich." God grants us to live our lives on a much better level, through the Divine flow of compassion-boundless positive energy.
Today, after the wildfires have subsided, we, too, must gaze toward the heavens to the Giver of all life, and gratefully acknowledge His infinite goodness to us. May we all merit to receive His infinite blessings in a way we can truly appreciate, and may these blessings lead us to be better people and better Jews, who will do what it takes to make this world a much better place -- the way it was always meant to be.
Bassie Gurary is associate director of Chabad of Simi Valley.