The New York Times reports:
JERUSALEM — A fire raging in a northern Israel forest on Thursday has left at least 40 people dead, caused the evacuation of thousands of people, burned some kibbutz houses to the ground and prompted the Israeli government to call for urgent international aid in fighting the inferno.
A spokesman for the fire service in the area, Hezi Levy, said the fire was the biggest and deadliest in Israel’s history. Israel called on Cyprus, Italy, Russia and Greece to send firefighting planes, according to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At least some of the fatalities came when a bus carrying prison guards to a penitentiary to help in its evacuation got caught in the flames, according to a police spokesman…
Today (Thursday) is the first day of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. Chanukah commemorates the miracle that occurred more than 2,100 years ago upon rekindling the sacred, seven-branched golden menorah in the Second Temple of Jerusalem after the Jews in the Land of Israel defeated and threw off the yoke of the occupying armies of the Syrian-Greek empire. The number 40 has great biblical-historical and mystical significance in Judaism.
The Syrian Greeks and their Hellenist allies among the Jewish upper classes tried to forcibly assimilate Judaism into Greek culture by outlawing, often on penalty of death, Torah-mandated Jewish observance of Sabbath, Rosh Chodesh (the monthly New Moon festival, which largely establishes the Jewish calendar and holiday cycle) and circumcision.
Interestingly, all three of the divine precepts that the assimilationist enemies of Torah Judaism sought to uproot are embodied in the observance of Chanukah itself: Chanukah is an eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. Because it is eight days long, Chanukah always contains within it at least one Jewish Sabbath and sometimes two; because it is eight days long and begins on the 25th of the month, Chanukah always continues into the next Hebrew month and thus contains within it the observance of Rosh Chodesh (of Tevet); because it is eight days long, the holiday itself symbolizes and represents the mitzvah of circumcision, which according to the Torah is ideally to be performed on the eighth day of the life of a newborn Jewish boy.
Now the State of Israel is in the theologically awkward position of asking Greece, Italy, Russia and Cyprus to extinguish a fire in the Holy Land on the first day of Chanukah.
No matter what turns out to be the proximate cause of this blaze — even if it is found to be arson — the faction-ridden Jewish people in Israel and around the world should contemplate the deeper spiritual significance of this event.
UPDATE from Israel: Aish.com Torah columnist Rabbi Ari Kahn, who lives in Givat Ze’ev in Israel, emails:
A neighbor and very good friend believes her brother who is an officer in the prison system was on the bus — she has not heard from him. Another brother went to the morgue to attempt to identify the body. I got a call late last night [asking] if the brother should put on tefillin in the morning, and when does [the period of quasi-] mourning start. Of course the answer is only after identification — he could still turn up in a hospital or somewhere else. So for us here this is very personal, but I find it amazing and uplifting that the pain is felt 10,000 miles away. [Then this:] Since we last communicated, the family was told that he was on the bus, but no identification has been made. Only 8 of the 40 have been identified. Those funerals are taking place before Shabbat. Now that they know he was on the bus, they have the status of “onen” [quasi-mourner before a burial; a man who is an onen does not put on tefillin].
Rabbi Kahn pointed out that the Torah reading on the first day of Chanukah (from Numbers 7) was about the first of the 12 days of dedication (chanukat) of the portable temple, or Tabernacle, in the wilderness. It was on that day (in Nisan in the springtime) that Nadav and Abihu, two sons of Aaron the High Priest, “went up in flames,” the rabbi said. They died after offering what the Torah calls “strange fire before the Lord.” That tragic, fatal episode itself is not described or mentioned in the Torah reading of Chanukah, however, but in Leviticus 10:
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace. And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: ‘Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.’ So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons: ‘Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled.
FINAL UPDATE from Israel: Rabbi Kahn reports that the funeral of his neighbor’s brother who was feared dead, Rafi Alkaly, was to be held at 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, in Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. Baruch Dayan HaEmes — Blessed be The True Judge. May God console the Alkaly family among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. The death toll from the fire now stands at 41.