Title: Flames of Chessed
Byline: As told to Debbie Shapiro
In addition to her full time job as mother of a large family, Rivki holds down a demanding position outside the house. Despite the logistics of packing and leaving the house with seven small children, whenever Rivki's family goes away for Shabbos, she finds the time to organize her home for guests, replete with clean linen and refreshments!
Whenever we go away for Shabbos, I make sure to let my neighbors know so that they can use our apartment to accommodate their guests. This winter, when we went to my in-laws for Shabbos, I gave the keys to a neighbor who was making an aufruf. Before we left, I made all the beds with fresh linen, set out towels and other amenities, and placed a tray of soft drinks, cake and nosh in the living room. Next to the tray, we left a warm letter inviting our guests to make themselves at home and to feel free to take anything they might need.
Although I set up candles for everyone in the living room, the three couples using our apartment decided to light Shabbos candles in their bedrooms. One of the couples took a small glass plate, filled it with olive oil, placed it on top of the bookshelves in the children's room right next to their open suitcase, and lit it instead of the candles. A short while later, they left the apartment – with the candles burning – to join the other guests.
No one knows exactly how it happened, but somehow the entire room burst into flames. Baruch Hashem, the door was closed, so the actual fire was contained, but the heavy, thick smoke spread throughout the entire apartment.
Later on, many people told us that as they sat down to their Shabbos meals that evening, they smelled something burning, but they weren't concerned. Our apartment is located opposite an Arab village, and the Arabs often burn trash in the nearby fields, so everyone just assumed that it was nothing more sinister than trash burning.
Meanwhile, one of our neighbors went outside to check in on an elderly aunt and saw flames climbing the outside wall of our apartment building, almost going into the apartment above us. He immediately alerted the fire department, and within minutes, Hatzolah, Magen Dovid Adom and the fire department were there, evacuating the building.
It took quite a while to get everyone out and make sure that the eight families with all the children and guests were accounted for. Meanwhile, the flames continued spreading. It was only after the fire department had ascertained that there was no one left in the building that they began battling the flames. It was a fierce battle – one fireman had to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation – but eventually they succeeded in extinguishing the fire.
Meanwhile, we were blissfully unaware of the drama taking place back home. It was a special Shabbos – we were celebrating my son's siyum on chamishah chumshei Torah -- and spirits were high.
At the end of seudah shelishis, one of my children was staring at a bottle of Coke and, completely out of the blue, said, "Everything is black." I laughed and lightly retorted, "Coke's always black." He responded with a passuk in Tehillim, "Hapach nishbar, v'anachnu nimlatnu" "The trap broke, and we escaped." It was only later that we understood the full import of his words.
The phone call came the moment Shabbos was over, but we were still in the midst of seudah shelishis. Someone who had already bentched answered the phone and relayed my mother's message to call her back immediately, adding that it was extremely urgent.
My husband and I imagined the worst, so when my mother told us that it was "just" a fire, and that everyone was healthy, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The children were shocked when we told them what had happened, especially when they heard that their room was completely destroyed. One of the kids asked how something like this could happen as a result of our doing a chessed. After all, we had lent our home to a Jew in need. "Is that how Hashem repays us for our kindness?" he asked. We explained that the fire was meant to be, and that it was the in the zechus of our helping another Jew that we were not there in the fire! I was just so grateful that nothing had happened to my precious family.
Before we returned home, my mother-in-law phoned one of her neighbors who has a clothing shop in her basement, and asked her if she could open it for us. She purchased a new outfit – from underwear to socks to dresses and shirts - for each of my seven children, so that they would have clothes to wear the following day. It was such a practical way to help us, truly chessed at its best.
At home, my entire extended family was waiting for us outside. Someone rigged a temporary light in the living room so that we would be able to go inside. Thank G-d the light was weak so we could not see the extent of the damage! Afterwards we went to speak with the neighbors who had borrowed our apartment. The young couple who had inadvertently caused the fire was completely inconsolable. Whereas we were extremely grateful that our family was healthy, they were overwhelmed with guilt at what they had done. We spent quite a while speaking with them, explaining that we really weren't upset at them, and that it was obviously meant to be. We also assured them that if we did find anything of theirs that had survived the fire, we would return it to them.
That night my husband and I made a firm decision. Despite the couple’s liability, according to halachah,did they know they were liable or did they just assume? to cover our losses from the fire that was caused by their negligence, we would not sue them. Both my husband and I have good jobs and although it would take some time, we knew that eventually we would be able to build ourselves back up. On the other hand, the young couple who had lit the candles in an unsafe place were struggling to make ends meet each month.
The truth is, I didn't realize the true extent of the damage at that point. I assumed that we'd slowly fix up the bedroom, and that a few coats of paint would take care of the rest of the house. But even after we realized the devastation caused by the fire, we remained firm in our commitment not to let the other party pay for our loss.
We spent the night at my sister's house, around the corner. The next morning, an acquaintance met my husband in shul and told him that he would soon be coming over to our apartment to see what he could do to help us. After getting the children off to school and eating breakfast, my husband and I walked over to see what had happened to our home. It was a shock when we realized that everything was ruined. In one moment, fifteen years of hard work had disappeared into soot. But then, we entered our children's room and saw the charred remains of our baby's crib and could only thank the Almighty that it was nothing more than material objects, and that we were alive and healthy. "The trap broke, and we escaped."
As we were standing there, trying to take in the extent of our loss, the acquaintance whom my husband had met in shul arrived and explained that it would be impossible for us to clean up the mess on our own. He had connections with the municipality, and arranged that they send a team of workers to do the heavy work for us.
The team of workers spent almost a week emptying everything out of our house. Although most people just dump all their sooty, stinking belongings, we were shouldering the entire loss and really wanted to salvage whatever we could. The women on my street took hundreds of bags of smelly clothes, linens, toys and shoes and washed them for us. It wasn't easy. They had to wash everything four or five times, and even then, a large percentage of the stuff had to be thrown out. In an incredible act of chessed, some of the bags of clothes were returned folded and ironed!
So many different people came to help us. It took three electricians working eight hours to fix the electricity. The entire apartment had to be completely rewired. They worked until late at night and stopped in several times over the course of the next few weeks to check that everything was working properly. A gentleman in his eighties, a total stranger, replaced our destroyed window, including all the aluminum work and shutters. Another person insisted on giving us a new bed, while someone else brought over a beautiful crib. My sister, who had spent several years putting money aside to purchase a bedroom set for the children's room, gave us all the money and told us to use it to buy new furniture. Although I refused to accept it, I was overwhelmed by her generosity. A carpenter showed up one morning to build a new closet for the bedroom. A neighborhood children's store supplied us with new school books and toys for the children. A distant cousin, who was thrown out of Gush Katif, handed us an envelope with a large sum of money that he had collected, explaining, "I understand what it's like to lose your home."
Every day, for an entire week, at any given time of the day there would be ten people working together with my husband and me, busily scrubbing every single item in our house. From early morning until late at night, my neighbors, colleagues at work, relatives and total strangers lent a hand to help us rebuild our lives. Young people, old people, religious people, non-religious people, they all came to help us. Just thinking of this amazing outpouring of chessed brings tears to my eyes.
We used magic erasers to scrub everything in the house. Each sefer in our huge library had to be carefully cleaned. The bookshelves themselves were damaged and needed to be repaired. The clothes in the storage area, my children's jewelry, the school books, whatever was not completely ruined had to be thoroughly scrubbed.
It was like making Pesach, only a hundred times harder!
As we were cleaning, neighbors appeared at our doorstep with hot, nutritious meals, nosh and delicious homemade cakes to keep us going. Someone brought over a tape recorder and tapes, so we even had music to accompany our work.
Even after we finished cleaning, we had to move all the furniture outdoors and bring in a cleaning company that specializes in cleaning up after fires, to completely rid the house of the soot and the all-pervading smell. They used special machines to scrub the walls and lots of bleach to complete the cleaning process. Once the house was spotless we brought in a worker who spent an entire week painting and repainting the walls. He worked each night until after midnight so that we'd be able to return to our own home as soon as possible!
I cannot thank Hashem enough for all of His chassadim. I believe what my father constantly reminds me, that one never loses from helping another Jew. I was zocheh to see Yidden at their best. This tremendous outpouring of chessed was certainly to Am Yisrael's zechus.
During those very difficult weeks that we were without our home, I wrote a list of all the people who came to help us. Once we were back in our own apartment, we wanted to express our appreciation to all the people who went out of their way to assist us in our time of need. So my children and I started baking cakes and making homemade chocolates. Every Friday my children help me decorate the cakes and wrap the chocolates and then my husband and I personally deliver them, l'kavod Shabbos kodesh, to the families who had helped us. We include a personal thank you note saying, "This is all thanks to YOU," with "before" and "after" pictures of our apartment, so they can see the results of their hard work.
Tears spring to my eyes whenever I think of those days without a home, only now I cry because I am overwhelmed at how wonderful people are, and how much we have to be thankful for.
Baruch Hashem, we're in our own home and yes, when we go away for Shabbos, we let our neighbors use our apartment. Now, however, we ask everyone to please light Shabbos candles in a safe place, and certainly not in the bedroom.