The remains of Jeremy Olsan and Ann DuBay's home in rural Sonoma County (Photo/Jeremy Olsan)
The remains of Jeremy Olsan and Ann DuBay's home in rural Sonoma County (Photo/Jeremy Olsan)

Healing from the fires begins with one step

It has been a trying stretch for all of us in Sonoma County. Of course, not only Sonoma County has been affected by the horrific fires; so have Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties, among others. But no community has suffered the number of deaths and the physical destruction of homes and commercial buildings as much as Santa Rosa.

At a healing service we held Oct. 14, our focus was the Santa Rosa Jewish community, although the entire Sonoma County Jewish community has been affected. The calamity has not been limited to one synagogue. Seven families from our own Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa lost their homes, at least 25 families from Shomrei Torah, also in Santa Rosa, lost their homes, and at Ner Shalom in Cotati, the mother of one of their members perished in her home.

Never in my life have I been so close to a catastrophe where I personally know so many of the families who lost their homes and where I know virtually everyone who needed to evacuate. In the past week, I communicated with so many congregants, either by phone, through text messages or e-mail. Unbeknownst to the people I was contacting is that I often had tears in my eyes.

I live in Petaluma, and so far we have been spared of any fires, although I am now prepared to evacuate should the situation change. I am neither thankful nor grateful that my home has been spared. I am fortunate, but I can’t feel thankful or grateful when so many others that I know personally have experienced misery. I am thankful that more lives have not been lost and for the courageous firefighters, first responders, EMTs and volunteers staffing the evacuation centers.

A fire plane flying over Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami last week. (Photo/Norm Levin)
A fire plane flying over Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami last week. (Photo/Norm Levin)

Last week I contemplated whether it was too soon to have a healing service while the fires were only minimally contained. I knew that many families were scattered around the Bay Area, staying with friends and family, and would be unable to attend. I decided that if only one person showed up, then holding the service would be worth the effort. The healing process needs to start with someone.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah I shared with my congregation the midrash that tells us that when the Jewish people came to the shore of the Red Sea, they panicked. Moses began to pray, and as God instructed him, he held up his rod over the sea.

But the midrash tells us that the sea did not yet part. In the face of the charging Egyptian army, Nachshon ben Aminadav, one of the tribal leaders, proceeded into the sea. At that moment, the waters parted and the Children of Israel were able to cross on to dry land. God’s intervention only came when God saw that at least one person was willing to act.

No one walked away from last Friday’s service completely “healed.” Healing is a journey that starts with a first step. We live in a world where we are frequently told to hide away our suffering — both physical and mental, but especially mental suffering. When we create space in our holiest times and places for our own grief and the suffering of our loved ones, we make individual healing possible.

I was reading a dvar Torah written by Rabbi Elliot Kukla of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in which he points out that the Torah itself refuses to shy away from stories of loss and human fragility. In the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), the first chapter begins with the verse “v’eileh ha’devarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael: These are the words that Moses spoke to the entire people of Israel.”

Moses begins telling the Children of Israel the narrative of their wanderings, the stories of heartbreak in leaving Egypt, the deaths of his siblings, the illnesses that struck his people and his own moments of vulnerability.

Rabbi Kukla points out that the Hebrew word devarim means both words and things. Our words, our stories, are tangible in Judaism. Moses offers his words as a legacy — a concrete way to accompany the people into the Promised Land that he will never enter; to comfort the people in his absence and to comfort each of us as we continue on our own journeys. Our journeys never follow a straight path, but come with twists and turns and sometimes head backwards.

As we start a new week, may we turn our eyes toward our loved ones, members of our community and the parts of ourselves that are struggling with the brokenness of grief and loss. And may we offer each other devarim, words that tell the stories of our pain and sanctify our losses, so that our love might bring one another refuah shleimah — a complete healing and the true wholeness of broken hearts.

This essay is a version of a talk the author delivered at an Oct. 14 healing service at Beth Ami.

Henry Cohn
Henry Cohn

Henry Cohn is the president of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.