Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Thou Shall Not Ignite Wildfires on Lag Baomer

(Jonathan Sindel/Flash90)
(Jonathan Sindel/Flash90)

Bonfires become wildfires and scorch forests and towns. It’s almost certain that the religious zeal for lighting bonfires on the holiday of Lag Baomer ignited many of the over 1,000 fires that have spread in Israel immediately after the holiday. The combination of people lighting thousands of fires, an extreme heat wave, and significant winds transpired to burn hundreds of thousands of trees and left hundreds of people homeless. In the area of the worst fires, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, temperatures likely reached 110ºF (43ºC). The Dead Sea and Jordan Valley experienced 118ºF (48ºC).

As fires burned in Israel this past Saturday, Jews read the weekly Torah portion, including Leviticus chapter 26 about what may occur in the land if we don’t live in resonance with the Divine will. Verses 17 and 36 state, “You will flee with no one pursuing… The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight.” The verses emphasize that no enemy army pursues, but the reading of these verses as thousands of Jews flee wildfires perhaps reveals a different meaning.

Why is it legal to light bonfires in Israel during extreme windy heat?  In many countries, such practices are banned and enforced with large fines or even arrest. How many people, if any, were fined or arrested in the past several days for violating the published bonfire guidelines in Israel? As Laury Hyman wrote in her blog post, “Could Lag BaOmer be the cause of nationwide wildfires?” “I watched for weeks as kids dragged pallets, furniture and wood to build towering infernos across the street from me.  After living in Israel for 14 years I still cannot fathom the lack of safety measures and the complete abandonment of any sense of boundaries. It has gotten out of hand and now we have a town burnt to the ground and huge swathes of wild life and our main Forest lung, a charred black waste land of ashes.”

Sometimes I wonder which side religion is on in addressing the climate crisis. Organized religion upholds customs and traditions that go back hundreds and thousands of years. The custom of lighting bonfires on this holiday goes back around 500 years. But it’s clear to me that this custom is totally inappropriate for the situation that we find ourselves in today. I wrote this before the holiday in a blog post, “Would Rabbi Shimon Light a Lag Baomer Bonfire?” Several days later, dozens of people have been taken to hospital for fire injuries and hundreds of people are now homeless.

(Israel Fire Service)

Are religious leaders and clergy willing to take a stand on behalf of people today and in the future? Is the religious educational system willing to change? Below are some photos of fire artwork that my kids made and brought home this week in advance of the festival. Can we teach them to celebrate this festival without lighting fires?

Lag Baomer also represents the day that the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying in a plague that killed 24,000 students. The Talmud tells us that they died because they didn’t show respect to one another. This was particularly sinful for the students of Rabbi Akiva as it was he who famously said, “Love your neighbour as yourself – that is the major rule of the Torah”. What would Rabbi Akiva have thought about us celebrating his values by lighting fires and endangering the lives and property of our neighbors?

The bonfires served as the trigger for the wild/forest fires, but the underlying climate crisis serves as the background for what occurred. The fires in Israel are part of a broader trend—human-caused climate change, which is a crisis and emergency. Earth’s boreal forests are now burning at the fastest rate in at least 10,000 years.  Megafires in Canada burned more than seven million acres of forest. This past summer, the combination of exceptional heat and a lot of precipitation in Europe caused record wildfires in Sweden and killed dozens of people in Greece. In November, the town of Paradise, California suffered the Camp Fire, which killed  eighty-six people, displaced tens of thousands, and destroyed 18,804 buildings.

One thing that we need to get our heads around is that the situation has changed. What happened last week in Israel is part of a larger trend. The climate crisis is our current reality and this heat wave and the fires are part and parcel of it. The punishing heat arises from 250 years of industrial society burning fossil fuels, with our generation burning more than any previous generation. We can’t act like we used to, lighting thousands of outdoor fires during an extreme heat wave, and think that people won’t get injured and houses won’t burn down. As Rabbi Riskin taught, “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts.”

We’re also at a turning point for humanity in regards to our collective future. If we continue to believe that we can go on with business as usual, and then we’re going to create an uninhabitable earth. That’s why the British Parliament and the Guardian newspaper have declared a ‘climate emergency.’

As I wrote in a recent blog post, in Israel, about 97% of the electricity and 99% of the vehicles are still powered by fossil fuels. Why is this? In the past decade, the coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has made a consistent effort to expand extraction of fossil fuels from the gas deposits in the Mediterranean, while also burning coal imported from Indonesia. Due to a lack of will, Israel keeps missing – by a wide margin – the unambitious renewable energy targets it set for itself: 5% by 2014 and 10% by 2020 (renewables currently stand at 2.6% of electricity generation).

At this point, three things need to happen.

First, there needs to be a widespread call by rabbis forbidding Lag Baomer bonfires. The situation has gotten out of control and must be reigned in before more people become homeless, more forests burn, or worse. We should not play with fire in the name of God.

Second, political authorities at the national and municipal levels need to ban outdoor fires in the land of Israel, and enforce that ban with major fines. In many countries, public fires are illegal, and those who break the law are punished. The same needs to happen here.

Third, the government of Israel needs to take a leadership role and fulfill its national commitments to curb climate change. This includes halting all gas drilling and switching immediately to a 100% renewable energy economy, as Denmark is on the way to achieving. In the past month of negotiations to form a coalition government among right-wing parties, there has been no discussion about ecological sustainability or climate change. At the same time, the most destructive thing that has happened in Israel has been caused by fires lit by people and exacerbated by climate change.

My hope and prayer is that we will wake up while we still have time to change.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He is the lead author and general editor of two publications on Jewish environmental ethics, speaks on faith and ecology, and was a Dorot and PresenTense Fellow. He lives with his wife, Shana, and two children in Jerusalem.
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