I had never seen so many fire trucks in one place. It was Erev Shabbos, but this Friday was unlike like any other.
Instead of running around town in preparation for Shabbos, I stopped my normal routine and found myself standing solemnly with the crowd of onlookers lining the sidewalks of Charleston, South Carolina. We watched silently as several hundred fire trucks from cities and counties across the country passed before us. This somber procession would escort the nine heroic fallen Charleston firefighters who earlier that week had died in the line of duty.
The funeral service was attended by tens of thousands of people from around the world. The city shut down, overwhelmed by a mix of deep grief and all-out support for the victims and their families.
The tragic fire that claimed the lives of the firefighters occurred on Monday evening, June 18. The next day, as the magnitude of the loss began to sink in, I decided to call for an immediate communitywide vigil and memorial service for the nine fallen heroes. It would be the first such service held in the city.
On less than a day’s notice, we filled the shul with hundreds of people, Jews and non-Jews, young and old, reporters, government officials, and a group of local firefighters. The service was moving and poignant as we prayed for and remembered these great men. It all culminated in a powerful gesture in which the firemen in attendance came up to the front of the shul, removed their hats, and with tears flowing lit nine yahrzeit candles in memory of their fallen friends and brothers.
I encountered three questions while planning the gathering. “Rabbi Sytner, why are you doing this?” “Did you know these men?” “Were any of them Jewish?”
Not one of them was Jewish. I did not know them – to the best of my knowledge I’d never even met any of them. I was doing this because I felt compelled to give back to them and their families.
These heroes, after all, would not have hesitated to save my life, even if it meant putting their own lives at risk. Whenever the alarm went off at that firehouse, they would be on their way without a second thought. They never stopped to ask if they knew the family whose house was on fire, or whether the people they’d be saving were white or black, Jew or gentile.
The least I could do, now that they were so tragically gone, was to help save their memories and legacies from being lost or forgotten.
What is the common legacy these nine men leave behind? It is the very thing that made them heroes: their ability to indiscriminately and wholeheartedly care for others, to routinely risk their lives for total strangers. This is the ultimate display of chesed, of absolute loving-kindness. This pure form of chesed is performed daily by firefighters – and it is done with an awe-inspiring commitment that I can only hope to one day attain.
Most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to find meaning or perspective in the face of an event as horrific as the deaths of the nine firefighters. All we have are the haunting questions – Could it have been prevented? Why did it happen? – that will forever plague us because we will never, this side of eternity, know the answers.
I would therefore suggest that we consider the Jewish way of coping with tragedy. Rather than asking “why,” we should ask ourselves “what.”
Now that it has happened, what am I going to do about it? What will be different in the way I live my life because of this tragedy?
A tragedy of such proportions can never be diminished. A meaningful response to it can, nevertheless, sanctify the deaths of these men. Fire has the ability to destroy but it also has the ability to create, to warm, to illuminate. So it is with each of us: We all have the spark within that we can choose to ignite for good or, God forbid, to destroy.
If we can employ the legacy of these nine men to serve as an inspiration to us, then we can ignite the constructive fire that lies within us. We can all take a page from the lives of these men and look at chesed not as a matter of convenience or ease but rather as a duty, an obligation. Most important, we should consider it an honor to be able to discharge that duty.