When the Romans burned Rabbi Hanina Ben-Tradion at the stake for teaching the Bible in public, they assigned him an executioner named Klastoniri. They wrapped him in a Torah scroll, with wet sponges around his chest to delay death and maximize pain. As the fire began, the Talmud reports that his students asked, “Rabbi, what are you seeing at this moment?” He answered: “I see the parchment of the Bible consumed, but the letters are flying through the air.”
Then Klastoniri asked, “Rabbi, if I remove the sponges from your heart, will I go to Heaven?” Hanina said yes. With that, the executioner pulled off the sponges, then quickly killed himself before his bosses could torture him. It was reported that a faraway voice could be heard echoing: “Rabbi Hanina and Klastoniri have been admitted immediately into Heaven.” When Judah the Prince heard this, he cried: “Some people have to work a lifetime to get into Heaven, while others can get there with one great moment.” (Talmud A.Z. 18a)
The pearly gates must have been wide open all day yesterday. Nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina, decided to storm those gates en masse, all perishing while fighting a blaze in a warehouse. The roof collapsed unexpectedly, taking the highest one-day toll of firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001. Some of them were new to the job and rose to the great moment. Others had been in the department for a lifetime, 32 years in the case of James “Earl” Drayton, who was 56. They put their lives on the line for others and sometimes that line leads to a different entrance.
“Just doin’ my job,” these heroes like to mumble whenever the accolades come too close for comfort. Well, yes, it is their job, but the same city employs garbage men, too, and street cleaners, and park attendants, and guys who cite you if you don’t mow your lawn neatly enough. Often, the pay is identical in all civil service jobs, so there is no danger bonus to sweeten the deal. Additionally, a number of those who died yesterday moonlighted as volunteer firefighters in the smaller suburbs where they made their homes.
Really, no excuses or proofs of good will are required. Firefighters are people of talent, strength, energy and persistence. With those traits, they could be successful in any number of fields. When a person chooses a vocation to benefit his fellow man, his virtue is not mitigated by picking up a check at the end of the week to feed his family. Making that career disposition reflects upon a predisposition, selecting that occupation is the product of a preoccupation. These are people who care about others, their lives, their safety, their health, their wellbeing, their property.
Firefighting is not the career choice of a narcissist. No one is there because red is their favorite color. Folks don’t sign up just so they can shinny down the shiny pole. It isn’t all about riding through traffic with the sirens wailing so everyone has to scatter. Or wrestling that interminable hose contraption into spraying position. Granted Fireman Friendly was very charming when he visited the 5th Grade. Not friendly enough to make a guy court an early coffin. That takes heart.
They say you have to fight fire with fire, and they are absolutely right. Those men and women bring a fire to their work, a passion for their fellow man, a passion for doing the right thing. I once promised to “be a fireman when I grow up”; having reneged, I am filled with admiration for those who kept faith. The closest I came to that sort of dedication was in my stint in the Army, but the only fire I encountered was going from my gun toward the target at the practice range.
Speaking of faith, I see plenty of that in the letters flying through the air. Letters from the Bible, letters from the Constitution, letters from all the compacts and concords and covenants that bind us as a nation, as human beings. The next time I run into nine complaisant fellows with South Carolina accents and an aw-shucks commitment to putting my life before their own, I will know for sure… that I am in Heaven.