Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Smoke Signals

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Operation Inspiration


As I write this, I am breathing a sigh of relief – that I can breathe deeply. Since people forget things quickly, I will recount this for posterity. In the first week of June, 2023, wildfires in Quebec raged out of control, with millions of acres of trees across Canada burning and smoke billowing high into the skies.

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The smoke blew down the east coast, obscuring the sun and turning skies orange, (many areas resembled pictures of Mars, all dusty and orange.) It caused the Air Quality Index, (AQI) to soar into numbers which were dangerous for people to breathe. With particulates small enough to be breathed in and enter the bloodstream, many people were put at risk, and even healthy people experienced burning eyes, throats, and lungs.

The sunlight was muted, and the sun itself resembled a small orange ball, casting weird reflections on smooth, shiny surfaces. It was almost apocalyptic, resembling Sdom and Amora (Sodom/Gemorrah for those with the translations from the 1940s) and, to me at least, it was frightening.

Instantly, people around the world reacted strongly. Jokes were flying left and right (mostly left) and people were sharing pictures of the weird world they were experiencing. I laughed at first, as the jokes were clever, but the more jokes I received, the more irritated I became, and it wasn’t because of the haze in the air.

What got to me was the fact that so few people felt there was any sort of Divine message going on. People came up with all sorts of conspiracy theories, but few reflected on the fact that this was one of the most startling revelations of an “act of G-d” I’d seen since Covid. I even heard that some of the worst fires starting with a bolt of lightning. Imagine that. Lightning set a tree ablaze hundreds of miles from the metropolises of New York and Washington D.C., and the winds fanned the flames and sent the smoke to such great distances that people were affected in these great cities or power and finance (remember 9/11?) and as far south as the Carolinas, and literally tens of millions of people experienced this other-worldly event.

One conspiracy theorist made a video that went viral. “May 23, 2023, 60,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate disappeared enroute from Wyoming to California. Two weeks later, we have orange skies. What do YOU think?” Well, I for one think the two have nothing to do with each other. First of all, ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer which is not flammable (though as an oxidizer it is used in explosives) and second of all, how and why would it get to Quebec, to create forest fires, in the hopes that the smoke would blow down to New York? Oh yes, did we mention that the Canadian wildfires started in April?

To me, Hashem wants to reach us, and remind us He’s here and in control of everything. With all our technology and Artificial Intelligence making us forget Him, Hashem turned to the primitive but effective method of communication most commonly associated with Native Americans – smoke signals. He used fire and cloud in the wilderness to indicate He was leading us, and I think that once again He tried to get our attention this way.

[I actually noted that the Air Quality Index we all became more aware of due to its necessity rather than the AQI awareness week a month earlier, is abbreviated AQI, quite similar to the Spanish word, “aqui,” meaning, “here.”]

I was reminded of R’ Avigdor Miller z”l, putting his head in the sink in order to appreciate air. I certainly appreciated it when the particulate numbers dropped a few days later. During the crisis I’d imagined it being like this all the time, and thought of how grateful I am for fresh air and the fact that smoke and pollutants, “go away.”

I also noted that in a few days, so many chemicals were injected into the atmosphere that it undoubtedly undid the work of the people who go to great lengths to save the environment by trying to get rid of various fuels. Even if they’re correct, it just shows that ultimately Hashem can do in an instant whatever He wants. Isn’t that something we ought to think about?

Maybe he was trying to show us that these days our vision is so polluted that we don’t see things as they really are. It’s hard to know, as there are so many messages in every event.

Fire and brimstone have fallen out of favor in terms of religious discussion, but when the world is turned on its head, and we sense the fire and brimstone in nature, we ought to pause and think about what is happening. Instead of trying to come up with the funniest jokes, we ought to ask ourselves what Hashem is trying to tell us. Hopefully it won’t take us that long to see things clearly, and the effects will be much longer-lasting than those of the wildfire smoke that crossed our path in those early days of June.


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