When I was 9 years old, a local high school, the Oregon Episcopal School, held a mandatory school trip to the peak of Mount Hood.
It was supposed to last an afternoon.
There were 15 students, one parent, two teachers and two consultants from Outward Bound. The group brought no flags or poles, no radio locators, a single shovel and a single sleeping bag. Before they left the lodge, experienced climbers told them not to go. They told them the mountain wasn’t safe for climbing. But they went anyway.
The trip didn’t last an afternoon. It lasted two days. By the end, the City of Portland had turned out en masse to try to find the missing. 10 feet of snow had fallen. It was only by pushing rebar into the snow – every few feet – that the bulk of the party were eventually found.
By that point, 7 children and 2 adults were dead.
I remember that event not because it was a tragedy, but because of my parents’ reaction. My parents were angry, incredibly angry, at the decision-making that led to these deaths. Oregon Episcopal School called it a tragedy. They called it an accident of nature. But my family knew better. My own brother had died at the hands of nature. What had happened on that mountain was gross negligence. It was borderline murder.
The leader of that expedition was killed on the mountain. As my family saw it, he probably deserved it.
Yesterday, all of these feelings came back. Yesterday, 10 children died in the south of Israel. Yesterday 10 families were locked into a lifetime of mourning. Why? It appears to be the result of an incredible act of hubris by the adults who should have been caring for them (we don’t yet know). The students themselves knew the risk – one girl wrote the day before the trip: “we’re all going to die.”
We modern humans like to imagine ‘nature’ is a romantic ideal. We like to think it is a friend. We like to think it is a playmate. But it is none of these things. My family lived in the Idaho wilderness for 8 years. They ate bears they killed. They created their own hydroelectric system. And they experienced nature. They saw the dead bodies of tourists who didn’t understand the power of flooding. And they suffered the loss of my oldest brother, Jeremiah Toyam Cox.
They learned that nature is not your friend.
But this lesson is a simple one. Everybody will be an expert in coming days and weeks. Everybody will insist on more regulation and more control. But I don’t know if regulation will be necessary – in the wake of this accident, everybody will be more careful.
But the lesson to be careful is a lesson for those outside the Land of Israel. In the Land of Israel, we must remember nature is not simply a capricious force. In next week’s Torah reading, Bechukotai, G-d promises us again and again that if we behave casually with Him, He will strike us 7 times over. And His tool will be nature.
I am not suggesting the deaths of these children was a message from G-d. These children didn’t die because of a curse. It appears that they died because of the hubris of the adults who should have been caring for them. It appears they were casual with nature – and nature struck their charges down.
But these deaths can still serve as a warning. We tend to forget that we don’t control the world around us. We tend to imagine ourselves the only true actors in the world. That is hubris. Hubris bordering on gross negligence.
In Bechukotai – next week’s reading – we see among the earliest of curses: “I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.” We already have the Iron Dome – is our anti-tunnel system copper-based? These harbingers could easily multiply. We could be swept from the land incredibly quickly. Our best science cannot compete with rapidly appearing epidemics, crop diseases, never-ceasing rain or earthquakes. To believe otherwise is hubris; in the face of nature and of G-d.
As we look at the world around us we must realize that we live on the precipice of both blessing and curse. We must not be blinded by our own hubris.
As we mourn and assign blame and punish the responsible, we must remember that – in the Land of Israel – being careful with nature is not enough. It is only by being careful with Hashem that can we be secure in our Land. And it is only by being careful with Hashem, by taking our relationship with Him seriously, that can we be truly blessed.
Only then will we truly be able to call nature – the nature of the Land of Israel –our friend.
Image: By M. O. Stevens – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8306892