Monday, September 21, 2020 -
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More like a flashing sign

The older I get, the more I understand about how painful a place the biblical ir miklat, the city of refuge, or sanctuary city, was.

According to the Book of Numbers, there were six of them throughout the land, a place for people who accidentally killed someone, to seek safe haven from the possibility of avenging relatives of the person whose blood was spilt.

The law for developing these societies acknowledges the very real and human emotion of anger as a response to a murder, even if unintended.

A few years ago, a pest exterminator in Jerusalem made the error of leaving behind a pail of pesticides in an apartment he had worked in. The results of his error were fatal. I already felt terrible when reading the article, but I gasped when I saw his photo.

I too had used his services in my Jerusalem apartment; he was the nicest, warmest guy.

That’s when ir miklat hit him.

Then again, this past week.

As the devastating story of the 10 beautiful teens who were swept to their deaths by a flash flood in southern Israel unfolded, it tore at your heart.

But for a moment I wept for the head of school in whose care these kids were entrusted, who will obviously carry this tragedy in his heart and on his shoulders until his dying day.

This was the congregation of an ir miklat. Otherwise good, upstanding, even possibly exceptional citizens or leaders, whose fate fell to rob someone of his or her life, or, as in this case, lives.

What an open wound. What a place it must have been. The grief. The experiential knowledge of the cost of a mistake. A fatal mistake.

In a country that unfortunately needs to cope with terrorism and sustains losses due to it, as well as with wars, a country whose collective subconscious on some level carries the fear of war constantly, the thought of 10 beautiful teens being taken so casually by mother nature seems even more tragic.

It highlights that we can be as prepared as we think for terrorists in a café or at your door, but then mother nature comes and wipes a minyan of teens away, a punch to the gut reminder that it is mother nature who is still most powerful.

What I, along with many others, are most perplexed and horrified by is the fact that the kids were allowed to enter the wadi in torrential rains, with warnings of flooding.

Why? How?

This is simple, obvious, safety knowledge that any rookie hiker, or even kid, in Israel, knows. When the narrow dry desert ravine fills with rain water, you stay out.

This was beyond a case of the handwriting on the wall. More like a flashing sign.

Of course there are always tragic stories of freak accidents of nature that were unpreventable. Had the kids been standing on a cliff, overlooking the wonder of an arid ravine suddenly transformed into a rushing waterfall, due to the force of flooding, and a wave suddenly rose so high as to sweep them away, a case could be made for a freak accident of nature.

In this case, with the knowledge so far at hand, the choice to bring kids into a dry wadi-ravine with flood warnings in place seems nothing short of reckless. The consequence was obviously, excruciatingly, unintended one. Yet, the feeling that the kids were trapped is inescapable.

It makes me sad that Israel and Israelis need to be so tough just to survive there. While this necessary mentality is part of their survival mechanism, unfortunately its flip side can border on arrogance; this time, fatal arrogance.

People speak of the Israeli culture of semoch, literally, “you can rely on me” or “trust me,” essentially “I’ve got this,” a response often evoked as a response to someone expressing anxiety that is often taken to mean weakness.

I don’t know what the collective legacy of these kids will be. Their stories will still be told.

But tragically, written by their blood, is a charge for some humility, responsibility and caution within the Israeli culture.

This week was the holiday of Lag b’Omer. Traditionally, a night celebrated with Israel lit up by bonfires across the country.

In Israel, the weather was dry and windy. Fire and police issued a statement calling for Lag b’Omer fires to be suspended this year.

Considering the proximity to last week’s tragedy, this act of public policy, which models responsibility and awareness of the constellation of factors in making safe choices, should be commended. In light of the tragedy, the symbolism of these two powerful elements of nature — fire and water — dictated the right thing to do.

Above all, my heart is with the grieving families.

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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