Tonight is Shabbat B'reishit; the week in which we read the story of Creation. And it strikes me that in this Sacred Story of ours, the element that is conspicuously missing is fire.
There is deep Water that already exists before God's first word. There is Air element in the form of God's breath fluttering on the water's surface. And when God draws the water aside Earth is at last revealed.
Earth, air and water. These elements are enough to bring forth and sustain all of Creation with no heat required. Even we humans, though made of clay, are unfired pottery.
This week, like that week of Creation, has been one in which every day has lasted an eon. But unlike that week of Creation, this one was all about fire. And still is – because the flames take no break for Shabbos.
It has been a week of waiting and not knowing. Of fleeing and returning and fleeing again. A week of loss. And more loss. And more loss.
It has been a week of confusion, of studying maps, of tracking people, of interpreting alerts, of watching the wind. A week of stopping rumors and of spreading them.
It has been a week of death, of the pain of knowing that someone who spent last Shabbos with us right here is now gone, a victim of the fire's first fury.
It has been a week of quick values clarification – determining in 15 minutes what is valuable and what, when push comes to shove, simply is not. A week of letting go of stuff, of comforts, of certainty. Of saying goodbye to beloved homes, trees, familiar wildlife and uncatchable cats. A week of letting go and driving away.
It has been a week of trying to breathe, aware that some of what we are breathing are the homes and possessions of others.
And it has been a week of remarkable kindness. Of an economy based on generosity and not acquisition. A week of more kind offers than anyone can respond to. A week of strangers speaking in deeply caring ways just because.
It has been a week of community. Even just in these four walls, people coming together for refuge. And some showing up to help, giving their time, bringing food and blankets. Offering space.
It has been a week of gratitude. For clean clothes. Soup. Life.
It has been a week of exile, as our little synagogue disperses to San Francisco and Monterey and Palo Alto and Boston and the inviting-sounding Oregon town of Paradise.
It has been a week of heroism, as thousands of professionals swoop in to fight fires, assisted by countless volunteers.
It has been a week of being human. Of loving our children and holding them a little tighter than they'd like. Of paving over deep grief with skilled crisis management. Of complete exhaustion. Of delighting in the fact that in evacuating, my brother-in-law took the sourdough starter. Or being amused at the guys hanging out on the sidewalk outside Spanky's bar in Cotati in the thick gray air, smoking cigarettes and coughing. We continue to be complete humans in all of this.
Torah never does tell us the origin of fire. Fire only appears as the currency of the Divine. It is how God manifests (Exodus 13:21), how God expresses anger (Numbers 11:1, Leviticus 10:2), how God accepts offerings (Leviticus 9:24). When God first speaks to Moshe, it is from within a flame that burns but does not consume (Exodus 3:2).
This is no punishment and it is no intentional offering. But we will be changed forever by this fire. Parts of us hardened, parts melted. This fire will refine our qualities of kindness and resilience. While this county may burn, we will not be consumed. We will hold each other and care for each other, house and feed each other. We will find volunteer stints, not just now but over the long haul – because this will be a long haul. We will come back here, to our home base at Ner Shalom, again and again, to check in and chant. And, in time, with patience, with love, we will heal.