Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Pillar of Fire

Two headlines shared last Sunday's New York Times' front page. On the left, the feature: "Brooklyn Fire Kills 7 Children, Worst Toll in City Since 2007." The subheading: "Orthodox Family's Sabbath Hot Plate Cited." On the right, with a giant snapshot of a beaming "slightly built teenager with an easy smile" it documented "From Minneapolis to ISIS" as it told of a son of Somalians who chose "a Young American's Path to Jihad, and to Syria." I considered both, signs of what faith does to people.

The story of the Sassoon family, the father a Sephardic immigrant from Israel who emigrated to join his wife's New Jersey family, is sad. The mother and one daughter escaped, but their children and siblings perished. The father, at a religious conference, did not therefore hear of their fate until after Shabbos ended. Many neighbors or friends also had no knowledge until after their observance ended.

A blech, or tin plate, is often placed on top of a range to keep food warm. In the 90-year-old house, this caught fire in the kitchen, and then spread via the stairwell up to trap the family above. A "pillar of flame," firefighters concluded, shot up to be a manifestation of death, for a young, devout family.

Abid Nur's story, as he changed from shooting hoops to posing in the desert with a Kalishnakov, demonstrates another form of devotion to a desert religion's ancient code. He started to post threats of doom on social media, and then suddenly sneaked off, after perusing the 50-page online guide to jihad the Islamic States disseminates as to how to throw off Turkish border guards and prepare citified jihadists. Nur got some supplies, such as Nikes, at the local mall before going off to join the enemies of the West. His partner was caught, and the FBI plans to use him to dissuade other youths.

I thought of the "pillar of flame" and remembered another way fire works. On the stove, at the tip of a rifle, the power of the orange burst can kill as well as comfort, blast as much as it warms or heats a meal to keep the family content and happy, not wanting to eat a day-old plate of tepid fare. In Exodus, the divine presence marks the way for the Hebrews with a cloud by day and fire by night. The Wiki entry labels this as theophany--how God shows to us. The Sassoons and Nur (the surname is associated with a wealthy Iraqi business family, surely one that has very few remaining in that Islamic nation as ISIS continues ethnic cleansing; the latter name means "light" in Arabic) both seek that force. They craved its revelation, one by leaving America to go back to a holy land, the other by leaving the hallowed and contested desert to come to a big city. Which found what they sought?

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