‘The children and grandchildren of the Americans who went to war in 1941 have suffered their own day of infamy,” wrote The Economist’s shaken editors when the glow, heat and rage of the fireballs that leveled Manhattan’s Twin Towers were but one week old.
Inferno at a civilizational landmark brings apocalyptic thoughts, from both good people and bad.
“You are witnessing the beginning of a great new epoch in German history,” said Adolf Hitler to Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer, with the flames that devoured the Reichstag flickering about them.
Hitler, of course, was not an analyst of the epoch but its architect, just as he was the arsonist behind the fire that made him discuss the epoch; but that does not change the principle, which is that big fires catching major landmarks spark sweeping statements about changing times.
That is why so many were ready to make such statements Monday night, as flames engulfed Notre-Dame de Paris, and the spire between its turrets fell burning to the ground. Yet no forensic finding allowed such conclusions. Unlike September 11, no one was hurt, and unlike February 1933, no arson was traced.
Yes, Notre-Dame’s conflagration was photogenic, and the blending of church bells donging countrywide with flames shooting skyward while water canon fight them like tigers storming giraffes’ necks added up to great drama, but this was not the sacking of Baghdad, Rome or Troy; not only because the rest of Paris remained unscathed, but because none of France’s enemies – whether real or perceived – seemed involved in this disaster.
Better yet, French President Emmanuel Macron’s response was prompt, poised and wise, as he quickly arrived at the scene, voiced the people’s pain, let the firefighters finish their job, and then swiftly announced his resolve to restore what has been burned.
Is there, then, no meaning to this drama, other than its having made a nation weep, and millions elsewhere realize how much they love the city of lights?
Actually there is.
THE GRIEF that has so touchingly gripped France – “people flocked to the cathedral as if coming to visit a sick friend,” said one student – is not about the loss of a landmark; Notre-Dame is still there, its damage will be repaired, and what scars it will still bear will become part of its mystique.
The French sorrow, as opposed to everyone else’s, is not about one wounded structure, but about a nation’s lost soul; about the perceived passing of a France that once was, and will doubtfully ever return.
This Hebrew man is not about to make a statement about the future of France, unlike American journalist Dennis Prager, who asserted that “it is as if God Himself wanted to warn us in the most unmistakable way that Western Christianity is burning – and with it, Western civilization.”
Middle Israelis avoid speaking for God, but their impression has long been that France has become a culturally perplexed nation; a nation where more than one in two declare themselves faithless, and hardly one in 10 say they are still practicing Catholics, while the migrants they keep at arm’s length multiply and the mosques they build proliferate, at times inhabiting Catholicism’s abandoned shrines.
Seen this way, what wrenched the French this week was not their ashen temple’s place in their own lives, but its place in their forebears’ lives; and what they were lamenting was not their nation’s clouded future, but its steadily vanishing past.
Surveying the flames erupting from their capital’s navel, the French could not see through the inferno an inspiring future, the way the British could in 1834, when the Palace of Westminster caught the fire that consumed the House of Commons, the Speaker’s House, and the House of Lords.
With the Victorian age about to dawn, the industrial revolution under way, and memories of the Waterloo victory still fresh, the British had no reason to see in that fire a metaphor of national decline.
And yet, like the Americans in the face of the fallen Twin Towers; like the Germans in the face of the charred Reichstag; and like the French in the face of humbled Notre-Dame, the ascendant British, too, could see no hope in the flames they had come to face, nor would any other nation that ever faced a pillar of fire; not even the first nation that ever stared at a pillar of fire – Israel.
THE PILLAR of fire had replaced the pillar of cloud, as the Israelites reached the Red Sea’s shore, considering that the parting of the sea happened at night (Exodus 14:21), and that “the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night, did not depart from before the people” (ibid. 13:22).
Looking through the inferno towering ahead of them, listening to the waves gushing beyond it, and hearing Pharaoh’s cavalry approaching behind them, the newly freed slaves were at a loss to see through the fire the future’s promising dawn.
“Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” the “greatly frightened” multitude “cried out.”
Like Sefton Delmer in face of the Reichstag’s fire, all they could see was tyranny’s approach; like The Economist the morning after September 11, the dominant sound in their ears was infamy’s screech; and like millions of French in the face Notre-Dame’s fallen spire, the menacing present made them suddenly crave the past’s blurry picture, and bask in its crackling flames.
It isn’t easy to see through a pillar of fire, especially if one is no Moses. Yet that is what free people must do, if they are to impose the future on the past. That is what we are commanded to remember, every Seder night anew.The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly), Yediot Sfarim, 2019, is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.
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