Not long ago, I was in the office of one of Nassau County’s fire marshals. I am not sure how many Fire Marshals there are; they are each assigned to different types of structures and establishments. There are marshals assigned to restaurants, apartments, office buildings, and other similar structures. And there are those appointed to schools and houses of worship.
Their job is to ensure that structures comply with the rules and regulations that were put in place to ensure the prevention of fires and the safety of the occupants. They are not firemen per se, they are law enforcement officers. They are certainly more powerful than firemen and their sartorial appearance is certainly a testimony to that. It is not the blue police-like uniform that expresses their authority as much as the firearm, that is holstered upon their hips.
Fire Marshals are probably the most powerful individuals regarding the ultimate construction and completion of any structural endeavor. They can make you redo a sprinkler system, reconfigure a hose connection to be 50 feet closer to the hydrant, and create a plethora of hoops that one must jump through to get approval and ultimately utilize any new construction or renovation that you may attempt.
The fire marshal is the one who holds the key that will either permit you or prevent you from moving into a new building.
I remember almost two decades ago when our yeshiva had moved into a new building. The fire marshal came for another inspection and was not happy with certain things. They forced the yeshiva to close the building and only allowed the boys to return to retrieve their tefillin. Period. Eventually after appointing a 24-hour fire watch crew, we were allowed to move back while the appropriate changes were being made to the satisfaction of the marshal.
Unlike other bureaucrats whose superiors can say to them, “Cut them some slack,” the fire marshals are impervious to pressure. The fire marshal who worked with us was steadfastly committed to the rule of law, yet helpful in getting us across the finish line. Of course, he did not waiver from the letter of the law, but we definitely noticed the sympathetic eye that he displayed toward the yeshiva and the importance of expediting his approval. After all, he was part of the tribe.
After our approval, we went to thank him personally, albeit we were not allowed to offer any gifts.
In the course of the conversation, he discussed some discrepancies between the local Nassau County regulations and ones that emanate from the State Education Department of New York. I asked him a simple question. How is it possible that the State Education Department would have different standards? More so, what does the education department have to do with the fire code and calculating how many and where exits are required?
Shouldn’t determining the number of entrances a school building requires be the job of fire departments? And how do fire departments know exactly what the regulations should be? After all, they could make up whatever they want. They could look at the worst-case scenario and force schools to have exits in places that we would not even think of. The fire marshal turned to me and he said, “Honestly, it’s sometimes called tombstone legislation.”
I looked at him quite quizzically. What do you mean? Tombstone legislation? And he said it’s very simple. Sometimes we don’t know what kind of legislation to put, or what kind of rules to put in place. He explained there was a fellow many years ago who was sent down to a basement at work to get something that was located near the boiler room.
Unfortunately, the worker never came up and then the boss went down after him. He too never came up. The other workers in the store were scared to go down, so they called the police who eventually called the fire department and realized that both men had died because of an odorless, colorless gas called carbon monoxide.
Well, after that they instituted a rule about carbon monoxide detectors.
Then a very famous actor died in his own home because of carbon monoxide poisoning and they instituted a rule about apartment buildings, houses, and so on. The rules weren’t made with foresight, they were made as an afterthought. They were made after someone’s tombstone had been put up, and thus the terminology Tombstone Legislation.
Unfortunately, we find that concept all too often. Legislation is put into place as a reaction to a tragedy. Very often a traffic light, a stop sign, a yield sign, or a different type of traffic signal is put in place after a tragedy. Perhaps if the light had been there before, tragedy would have been averted.
Most recently in our neighborhood, a young girl was tragically killed in a crash at a terribly dangerous intersection at which many people have gotten into terrible accidents. It took that accident, the culmination of many prior accidents, to finally get a traffic light there.
Truth be told, probably most American law is tombstone legislation. All of the anti-gun lobbying is a reaction to the violence perpetrated by deranged gun owners. But a single incident could be enough to influence the legislators because of all the hue and cry from their constituents.
Unfortunately, it’s the same way when it comes to foreign policy, domestic and economic policies, and other major decisions. People will react to a tragedy or perceived tragedy in ways that could affect the future direction of the country and its population, by only taking into consideration the immediate effects. The past and future ramifications are not even considered.
We are about to enter the parshiyos that begin the institution of the mitzvos given to Klal Yisroel as a nation. Unlike tombstone legislation, l’havdil, the eternity of the commandments predates any events that seem to spur their institution. The Bais Halevi explains that mitzvos are not instituted as a result of events. Conversely, events occur in response to the mitzvos, based on the Torah which was in place way before creation.
The Ribbono shel Olam identifies His essence this week as “This is My name forever, this is My remembrance (zeh Zichri), for generation after generation.” Only the Master of time and space whose essence transcends corporeal existence can create a set of rules that rises above any reactive circumstance.
Torah is not a set of tombstone rules, it is a Living Torah. We may be politically and legislatively reactive. But in essence, everything is in place and it is we, who revolve around the events. The eternity of the Ribbono shel Olam is alive, and has been alive forever.