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Wildfire Smoke From Another Country Makes Me Feel Puny

On Tuesday afternoon, I thought my neighbor was making a bbq and that it was about to rain. Neither of those things turned out to be true. Instead, the “bbq” and gloomy sky were a result of wildfires in Canada. This phenomenon is affecting 90 million Americans at the moment.

I have a weird confession to make: a few years ago, I decided that maybe the scientists had lied about how dinosaurs became extinct. I grew up hearing (as everyone did) that a giant meteor had caused a fire, which had disrupted the atmosphere, which had caused vegetation to die, which in turn had killed the dinosaurs.

I bought this theory for most of my life, but a few years ago, this explanation started to seem like a scam. “How could fire from one meteor disrupt the whole planet?” I wondered. Well, when I discovered that Canada’s fires had traveled hundreds of miles to overwhelm our atmosphere, our noses, our lungs and our skies, the meteor theory seemed less crazy.

What did feel crazy was how small I felt. Over the last couple of days I’ve been humbled into that feeling of absolute puniness compared to the vastness of nature and the will of the Almighty. We don’t actually know when the fires will stop or when the smoke will stop overwhelming our air. And in the meantime, our choices are to wear masks and avoid being outside as much as possible. One doctor told me that the carcinogens in the air are 9/11 levels of danger!

We are at the mercy of nature. The truth is that we always are, but we often don’t consider it. This idea is actually brought down in the Talmud. We are told that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa saw that his daughter was sad just before candle-lighting one Friday afternoon. He asked why she was sad. She replied, “My oil and vinegar bottles were switched, and I accidentally filled my Shabbat lamps with vinegar instead of oil and it’s time to light!” Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa asked, “Why are you worried? He (Hashem) Who said to the oil that it should burn can say to the vinegar that it should burn.” A Tana taught what came about next: “That lamp burned throughout the entire night and day until they used it for havdalah.”

What is the meaning of this teaching? That it is no more miraculous for vinegar to burn that it is for oil to burn. It is no more overwhelming and grand for wildfire smoke from a foreign country to take over our sky and breathable air than it is for the sun to set and fill up the horizon with wondrous colors or for the rain to fall and cause flowers to grow. All of Hashem’s Universe is miraculous. We are simply accustomed to the typical parts of nature. But sometimes, something out of the ordinary happens and it makes us pause and remember our smallness. While this is a bit of a scary and inconvenient phenomenon we are living though right now, it is also an opportuniy for reflection.

May we have the mindfulness to see the miracles in everyday life and in the meantime, mask up and stay safe!

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