This past Wednesday, Northern California experienced something resembling the ninth plague with which God struck the Egyptians when Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites. Choshek—darkness—enveloped us. It also issued major warnings.

Exodus 10:22-23 relates, “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another . . .” The Israelites were spared. Two days ago, no one was.

Daytime darkness resulted from thick fog covered by heavy smoke from fires raging throughout California and the West. An orange sky—welcome to Mars—cast little physical light. But choshek might illuminate our thinking.

Two issues come to mind.

First, Western fires have grown harder to fight because the region has grown much dryer and hotter. Blindness to climate change won’t cut it. We need more awareness and action from Washington, which has the big bucks. We also need better forest management by federal and state officials. Prescribed burns and, in some cases, letting forests burn after lightning strikes or human malevolence/stupidity can eliminate fuel that would ignite bigger conflagrations in the future.

Further, the cost to taxpayers and stress on firefighters working under brutal conditions continually increase as Cal Fire seeks to protect communities in remote high-risk areas. I don’t blame the victims for loving beautiful, serene forests. But public support may no longer be sustainable for people who live isolated in those forests and won’t or can’t (re)build homes according to fire-resistant standards. Their insurance premiums are likely to skyrocket—if policies are available.

Building smart isn’t cheap. Not everyone has the assets. But it’s doable. Case in point:

My friend Dan recently built a luxury house in Lake County. An outstanding builder-developer, he situated the house away from others. He specified concrete/stucco walls, a metal roof and fire-resistant windows. The floors are concrete-slab with a stone-tile finish—not wood. The house includes other safety details plus a major water supply and fire hydrant on site. This reflects Dan’s sense of personal responsibility.

Second, the nation is experiencing a darkness of the soul, which many Americans refuse to acknowledge. Wednesday morning, a peek into Bob Woodward’s new book Rage (out September 15) documented Donald Trump’s refusal to tell the American people that in early February, he knew the coronavirus was far deadlier than the flu and presented a major public health problem. Trump didn’t want to cause “panic.” Interviewed after the book’s revelations,  he defended his position.

Really? Would you fail to tell Americans a hurricane was coming?

Had Trump been forthright, Americans could have begun isolating and wearing masks far earlier than mid-March. Many who believed Trump’s public assertions about COVID-19 being a hoax and a Democratic plot might have complied. Tens of thousands of lives—a hundred thousand? More?—might have been saved.

The Jewish New Year (5781)—Rosh Hashanah—begins in one week. Hopefully, the choshek we’ve just experienced will prompt Jews everywhere to further search our souls regarding personal and communal responsibilities and opportunities—and all Americans to consider fact and truth to be our friends, not enemies.

May we find a way to see or—light—by foregoing falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and listening to and respecting each other.

May the memories of the innocent killed on September 11, 2001, including all the first responders and courageous civilians who struggled to save them and others—and those who succumbed later be for a blessing. May the survivors heal. And may we learn.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.


  1. David Newman on September 11, 2020 at 6:11 pm

    So much wisdom in so little space. A few additional thoughts:

    A couple of winters ago, Ellen and I celebrated our anniversary at an inn near the southern entrance to Yosemite. When we drove into the park, we passed mile after mile of dead or dying pine forest — standing kindling — the result of global warming, drought and pests attacking the weakened trees. In many parts of the state, that’s what is burning so fiercely.

    Catastrophic wildfires were not merely a predictable consequence of climate change, they were actually predicted. Climate denial has prevented us from acting on those predictions. Shame on the Trumps and Inhofes and others who asserted in the face of reality that there was nothing to see here. The deaths and destruction are on your heads.

    And speaking of death on your head, Trump’s view of “leadership” in the face of a crisis consists of either panic or pablum — despair or denial. He compares himself to Churchill and FDR, but fails to see that neither of them sugar-coated reality. They acknowledged their crises forthrightly and summoned their people’s courage and resolve to respond. “Keep calm and carry on” wasn’t a call to ignore reality; it was an appeal to transcend it. That was leadership; Trump’s response was something else — folly, cowardice, avarice, self-interest — pick your own word. David Brooks, in today’s NY Times, calls it “moral and emotional stupidity.” Close enough.

    Get. Out. The. Vote.

    • David on September 11, 2020 at 7:06 pm

      I confess to being short of wisdom, David. Some of mine may have been given to you. Well. Said.

  2. Jim Shay on September 11, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    Very good of you to point out fire safety concerns in home construction. Don’t forget fire sprinklers, fire-rated sheetrock under the exterior stucco, and fire-rated vents and doors that won’t burn quickly. These measures are all to help you get out in time – I wouldn’t count on fire-resistant standard saving a house in any major fire. The Cal state fire marshall has extensive requirements for building in a dangerous fire zone, which your friend may have followed. They can add at least 50k and often more to construction costs to a new home, if you want to live and survive in an exposed area. And you can retrofit an existing home. Of course, if you build without using them and without adequate coordination with the local agencies you’re on your own.

    • David on September 11, 2020 at 7:04 pm

      As a terrific architect, you should know, Jim. The questions we face: What levels of support can we offer people who choose to live in high-risk areas and don’t take the precautions you mentioned? If homes are sufficiently fire-resistant to allow residents time to flee, should firefighters protect these homes if chances are high of one or more new fires in the area within a few years? Can resources be used more effectively and efficiently away from such residential areas? Can danger levels be lowered for firefighters? Will insurers stop offering policies? The frequency and severity of Western fires has grown enormously, and so the financial and human costs. I won’t posit the answers, but the questions need to be addressed.

  3. David Newman on September 11, 2020 at 7:31 pm

    One more thought: Trump keeps likening himself to a cheerleader, which is totally apt. A cheerleader is completely irrelevant to what’s happening on the field. He/she just stands there and makes noise. A real president isn’t a cheerleader; a real president is the head coach.

    • David on September 11, 2020 at 7:33 pm

      David, you’ve said it again.

  4. Tracy on September 11, 2020 at 10:42 pm

    Drumphy was indeed lethally disingenuous in February. However, let’s not excuse Mr. Woodward from his terrible lack of moral responsibility to get that tape published in the Spring. His lame “needed to get the whole picture” excuse won’t cut it. He had literal evidence that the Administration was negligent — and he held that information so that he could time its release closer to the election and thus pump his book sales.

    Truly an awful lack of judgment from an otherwise good man.

    • David on September 11, 2020 at 11:19 pm

      Do you think, Tracy, that lack of judgement is catching?

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