30 Kislev 5779 — December 8, 2018
There is a town in northern California called Paradise which was destroyed last month by fire. Ninety percent of Paradise residents lost their homes. What this meant for the people who lived in Paradise was brought home to me by an article I read about the Paradise High School football team.
The Paradise High School Bobcats had had an excellent season before the fire. They had earned a playoff slot. Then the fire happened. The players literally lost their homes. Paradise High School burned down. There has been no class since November 8. After a month off, class will resume again this coming Monday morning in a makeshift school in a shopping mall 15 miles away. The football players missed their playoff game. Their football season just ended.
Meanwhile, in San Diego, California, 500 miles away from Paradise, a man named Bob Wilson read what happened to the Paradise High School Bobcats. How the fire cost them their playoff game. How their season ended unceremoniously. The story got to him because, in 1947, he played football for his high school football team. He loved high school. He loved high school football. And he had empathy for what it must have felt like to have your season taken away from you.
But Bob Wilson had his own problems too. He had his own perils in paradise. He is married to Marion Wilson, his lifetime partner. They had been looking forward to the harvest years together. They were going to enjoy a chapter of getting nachus from their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren. They were going to travel. They had what they needed for a glorious retirement. Plenty of money. Plenty of love. Plenty of family. Plenty of interest in life. Retirement beckoned as a sort of paradise.
And then, there was a peril in paradise. His wife was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of Alzheimer’s, and she stopped recognizing him.
What do we do when there is a peril in paradise?
The Talmud tells us that once four rabbis entered paradise, arbaah nichnas b’pardes. It was a place of peril. For three out of the four sages, it ended badly.
Elisha Ben Abuya saw the fire in paradise, and he lost his faith. There cannot be a God, there is no point to a religious community, if there is a fire in paradise. He ended up alone and unsupported.
Ben Azzai saw the fire in paradise and said, I cannot control the fire. I did not start the fire. I cannot end the fire. I am not going to worry about the fire. Instead, I will focus on the one thing I can control. Me. So he contracted inward all day. He ended up losing his relevance to the world.
Ben Zoma saw the fire and went into spin mode. Ben Zoma was the original spinmeister. We know him from the Passover Seder, that when the Torah says remember the Exodus all the days of your life, day mean night, too. Day means night when you want it to mean night. Without a core set of values and beliefs, Ben Zoma lost his mind.
Only one sage emerges from a perilous paradise whole, and that is Rabbi Akiva. His secret sauce was love. When the Torah says love your neighbor as yourself, Rabbi Akiva says this is the most important teaching in all of the Torah. The most important teaching is about love. When you see people suffering in the fire in paradise, love them through it.
Which leads us back to Bob Wilson. When he read about what happened to the Paradise High School football team, who lost their season, who lost their homes, Bob Wilson’s heart broke. He decided to do something about it. He knows nobody in Paradise. He knows nobody on the Paradise High football team. But he took out his check book and wrote out a $1,000 check to every person at Paradise High School. Every student. Every teacher. Every administrator. Every custodian. Every bus driver. He wrote out one check for each of the school’s 980 students and each of its 105 teachers, administrators, custodians and bus drivers.
He spent hours in his office personally stuffing envelopes with the checks and with a message. He placed $1.1 million dollars into two bulging suitcases. He traveled 500 miles to the nearest city near Paradise that was not consumed by the fire. He personally handed out all the checks. He left it to each student to decide how to spend their $1,000, whether to buy new clothes, shoes and laptops to replace that which was consumed in the fire; or to help their parents by giving that money to the household for groceries.
He extended love to over 1,000 people he did not know. But there is a coda to the story.
Half the money for the checks came from him. The other half came from his 90-year old wife,
Marion Wilson. She may be suffering from Alzheimer’s. She may not recognize him anymore. But she is still alive. She is still in this world. To be alive is to matter. To matter is to love. Bob Wilson made sure that half of the Paradise High Community was lifted up by his wife’s resources.
When the students and adults opened their envelope, they found not only the $1,000 check, they also found the following note:
Please know that you are not alone, as someone as far away as San Diego is rooting for you and has the firm belief that tomorrow will be better than today.
Bob Wilson had his own fires in paradise. His own season, a harvest season, that was lost. But he did not complain. He did not live in anger. He did not focus on himself. He did not spin stories. Instead, he helped somebody else. He loved 1,000 people he did not even know. That is what Bob Wilson did in response to his fire in paradise. What about us? Shabbat shalom.