It started: that meeting between me and the wind when we both emerge from behind a building into the open street, she twirls away carelessly while I close my suddenly teary burning eyes over a leaky face. The temperatures creep steadily towards freezing; forecast predicts first snow next week!
When I moved to Oakland and almost immediately fell in love with the city and its area, some of my friends noted that it’s because Oakland resembles Haifa, where I grew up. There is something to it, with the bay, the green mountains, hiking trails within minutes of urban centers, stairs and walkways shaded by big trees, short-cutting through lovely neighborhoods, the region’s main harbor, and both proud and strongly committed to multiculturalism. But the last couple of weeks connected these two beautiful beloved places in a painful and most unlikely way, as both saw their worst fires ever within just one week, each horrific in its own way. I know people in my hometown are still displaced and many have lost all they had, but, I also know how fortunate everybody felt that in spite of acres and buildings burning in the middle of a densely populated metropolitan, there were no casualties. Oakland’s fire focused on only one building, The Ghost Ship warehouse, but claimed 36 young lives, among them Jonathan Bernbaum z”l, son of past Midrasha Berkeley director and Bay Area well-known educator, Diane Bernbaum, who also happened to be part of my son’s greater circle of Bay Area acquaintances. To those with quick judgments, blames and accusations on either situation, I’d like to say, please, for G-d sake, just stop. These are moments that we are so small. We barely know how little we know. Hug your beloveds; call someone to tell them how much you love them. The rest is “commentary”, not needed or comforting.
Every year I am reminded: As Jacob journeys away from his home, he lays down to sleep and has a dream. In his dream, G-d’s angels are going up and down. Theoretically, angels should come from on high, but here, they ascend first. The midrah (Beresheet Rabba 68:12) explains that the angels have a portrait of each human being and they so they check on us, to see how we’re doing and how we compare to what our real “portrait” is like. Rashi says that they go up first because they have to switch “guard duty”: the angels of Israel don’t travel to chutz la’aretz (outside the land). I think it’s simpler: the fact that the angels go up first means that they were with him all along; that they are here; that as we walk around the world, we too encounter “angels”. I don’t mean beings with puffy rosy cheeks and wings, but rather, as Rav Hirsch explains the word mal’ach (angel), “an agent, executor of an idea, a purpose and intention of another”; beings that are there for us on our path when we do a melacha, a purposeful, intelligent creative act. They might be everywhere, and noticing them as such can highlight for us not only them but the ladder, that connection, that exists between heaven and earth.