Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

Who By Fire, Who By Water?

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial
Who in your merry merry month of May
Who by very slow decay
And who shall I say is calling[1]?

Who by fire? Just look at Paradise, California, burnt to a crisp, 40 people dead from the Camp Fire. Who by water? Look at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian to the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama, with at least 50 people killed.

Look at the rising temperatures on land and by the sea, and we see the evidence of Al Gore’s inconvenient truth. Look at the Amazon Rainforest on fire, Hurricane Lorenzo setting a record for being the furthest east a hurricane made Category 5. I am not going to preach about climate change and what to do about it. It would be hypocritical, as I personally could be more environmentally friendly: we use paper towels, plastic bags, and I do not drive an electric car. However, one person who is qualified to preach about it is Greta Thunberg, who said to world leaders at the UN “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…we are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth-how dare you!”[2]

I’ve spent a lot of time speaking about mindfulness, the importance of focusing on the here-and-now. However, at times one must take steps for future generations. There’s a famous story about Honi HaMaagel (the circle drawer) who saw an old man planting carobs. “Fool!” he said to him. “Who are you planting those carobs for?” The man replied “Just as my grandparents planted carob trees for me, so too will I plant them for my grandchildren.”[3]

We need to think about what we are doing to plant the seeds for generations yet to come. It was quipped to me that my generation won’t have to worry about retirement because of global warming. I prefer to think much more optimistically-that we WILL take the steps collectively to make a difference and where we cannot we will adapt as best we can.

There are two brief stories I want to share about people who respond to natural disasters when they occur. The first is the Saks family. Belinda Saks, a former United Synagogue Board Member, fled her home with the oncoming Woolsey Fire, not knowing if when they returned it would be still standing. She was driving with her husband Jeremy when she saw a yeshiva where the students were stranded. They arranged to get all the students out and rescue the Torah scrolls in the yeshiva. A great mitzvah and a heroic act indeed.

The other story concerns Hurricane Dorian. When many of us saw the devastation and destruction that befell the Bahamas, we sprang into action. In the span of a few days, our Tikkun Olam Committee collected over two minivans full of diapers, canned foods, bottled water and many other goods which they brought to the United Way to send to the Bahamas. Our Greater Miami Jewish Federation sent out an email the next day requesting funds for The Bahamas to rebuild, and raised $270,000. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation with its CEO, Jacob Solomon, a member of our very own congregation, is always at the forefront of being there for those in need. They should be lauded for springing into action so quickly, and they should be supported by our entire congregation.

I do not have answers as to how to stop Who By Fire and Who By Water. There are certainly more qualified environmental protectors than me who also put their money where their mouth is. However, I believe 100% that when natural disasters strike, as unfortunately they will continue to do, we will band together to support each other and truly be a community of caring and a congregational family.


[1] Leonard Cohen Who By Fire

[2] Greta Thunberg Speech, September 23, 2019.

[3] Adapted from Babylonian Talmud Taanit 23a

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.