Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

The Fire Drum

 “The Fire Drum”

“The Fire Drum”

Once upon a time not all that long ago, an honorable naïf from a small rural town was given a serious responsibility by the town elders: to go to the big city and purchase several items of importance which could only be found in a – relatively speaking – sprawling urban metropolis.  And so, armed with both a list of things to purchase and a wallet filled to overflowing, the man headed for the city, where he promptly found rooms in a four-story hotel, unpacked his scant belongings, and began exploring the shopping areas near his temporary quarters. 

 After a long and exhaustive day’s searching for - and ultimately purchasing - a majority of the things on his lists, the honest but not overly bright naïf returned to the hotel, ate a scrumptious meal and turned in for the night.  Soon, he was fast asleep. At around 4:00 the next morning, he was suddenly and violently roused from his sleep by the sound of beating drums. Jumping from his bed, he made his way to the window, which had a grand view of the downtown area.  In the near distance, he saw flames coming from the roofs of several buildings in the next block. Pulling on a pair of trousers, socks and shoes, he sleepily made his way down the sitars and hastened to the front desk. 

“What in the world’s going on?” the naïf asked the man on duty. The naïf was obviously only half awake, for as he was questioning the clerk, he was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes without a great deal of success.

“Oh, there’s a fire down on 4th street,” the clerk answered somewhat passively.

“Is there anything I can do to assist?” asked the visiting naïf, being painfully aware of how much damage a fire could do. After all, he did come from a village in which just about everything was built of wood.

“That’s truly kind,” the overnight clerk responded, “but the fire drums have gone off, so there’s really nothing to worry about. Everything will turn out well.  My suggestion is that you return to your rooms upstairs and go back to sleep.”

“Yes indeed,” the visitor replied, stretching and yawning. “That’s precisely what I’m going to do.  Have a good night . . .” the rural rube told the clerk. And without further ado, he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, entered his quarters, and within a minute or two, was once again fast asleep.

The next morning at about 7:00, the visitor awoke and noticed that he was still wearing his trousers and boots.  Finding this a bit strange, he searched his slowly awakening mind until the situation with the fire came back to mind. Thinking at first this might have been a dream, he went to the window, pulled back the curtain, and saw in the next block, a bit of smoke emerging from a couple of tall buildings.  “My goodness,” he said to himself, “It wasn’t a dream . . . the fire drums really worked!  They put out the fire!!  I’ve got to get one for our town . . . I’ll be a hero!”

 Once fully dressed, the man ran downstairs and found that the same overnight clerk was still on duty.

 “Good morning friend; I’m so happy to see that last night’s fire didn’t destroy your lovely downtown,” he said to the clerk.  “Oh yes,” the clerk replied, “we here are well prepared for such eventualities.”

“Would you know where can I purchase one of those magical fire drums?” the visiting naïf asked.

“A ‘fire drum?’”  the clerk asked. “What in the world are you talking about?

“You know,” the visitor said, “one of those drums which were beating earlier this morning. The ones that put out the fire.”

“Oh yes,” the clerk said slowly and deliberately, with a bit of amusement in his voice.  “Your best bet is to go down to Solomon’s, which is about three blocks south of here on Fountain Street.  I am sure they will be happy to assist you.”

And with that, the visiting naïf made his way to Solomon’s Music Shoppe on Fountain, where he promptly told a sales clerk he wanted to purchase a “fire drum.”

“A fire drum?” the salesman asked.  “Whatever are you talking about my good man? We have snare drums, bass drums. bongos, tom-toms and timpani. What, pray tell, is this ‘fire drum’ you’re so all fired interested in purchasing?”

“You know: a fire drum . . . the drum that was making such a pounding racket during the night,” the visiting naïf told him.

“Oh yes!” the clerk blurted out. “A fire drum!  Many of us here in the big city also refer to it as a “timpano . . . and sometimes as a ‘kettle drum.’  Would you like to purchase one?”

“Actually,” the man said, “I would very much like to purchase two of them, if you’ve got them in stock.” 

“Yes, certainly,” the salesman eagerly replied.  “We actually have four of them in stock.  Would you perhaps be interested in purchasing all four?”  Then he told him the price per drum

“No, no,” the customer said.  “I only have enough money for two, and besides, I come from a small village.” The clerk went into the storeroom and within a few minutes returned with two large parcels, each containing a ‘fire drum.”  The visitor paid in cash, loaded up his wagon and was soon on his way back to his rural village.

His return caused quite a stir – due mostly to his filled-up wagon and the enthusiastic grin on his face as he neared the village square. He simply couldn’t wait to meet up with the members of the village council and show them his marvelous purchase.  And this he did within the first few minutes of his arrival.

“But what in the world is a ‘fire drum,’” the senior-most town councilor asked.  “What is its purpose?”

“My dear friend” the returning naïf answered, “it has one purpose and one purpose only.  As its name implies, it is a magic drum that puts out fires!”

“But that’s preposterous,” another council elder broke in.  “Who ever heard of a drum that puts out a fire?  How do you know it works?

“Simply stated,” the naïf said, “whenever a fire breaks out in town, it puts out the fire.  I know. I experienced its miraculous quality when I was in the city.  Why, two nights ago, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of pounding drums. Moving to the window in my room, I saw with my own eyes a conflagration in the next block from the hotel where I was staying.  Running downstairs to see if I could be of assistance, the night clerk told me that I needn’t bother; that the fire drum was sounding and that everything would be just fine.  And so, I returned to my room and quickly fell asleep.  You can believe me when I tell you that when I awoke at about 7:00 the next morning, I remembered the fire of the night before, ran back downstairs only to be told that indeed, the fire had been put out and all was well.  Then I was directed to a store where they sold fire drums and purchased two for our village. We no longer have to worry about any of our wooden homes, shops or barns being ravaged by fire anymore, for we now possess not one, but two fire drums!”

Suddenly, the man, for the first time in his life, was a local hero.

Predictably, a fire broke out in the village about two weeks later.  The good people of the council ran into the village square and began pounding on their newly purchased fire drums, secure in the knowledge that they would same the town from a fiery disaster.  But alas, despite all the banging and pounding, half the village burned to the ground. In a state of overwhelming depression, distress and disbelief, they turned on the man who had purchased the drums and began pummeling him. He began to scream:

“STOP! STOP! STOP BEATING ME!  I swear by all that is holy that these drums do put out fires!”

“Then why has our village all but burnt to the ground?”  they demanded while continuing to beat him.

“They must be defective!” he said through his agony.  “I will take them back to the city and not only get our money back, but will demand that they pay for all our damages!”

Concluding that this was indeed a proper course of action, they stopped beating their former hero and told him to gather up the fire drums and return to the big city, which he did the very next morning.  Upon arriving in the city, he immediately proceeded to the store where he had made the original purchase.  Upon seeing the clerk who had made the original sale, he approached him and began talking loud, fast and with tremendous anger, accusing the man of having sold him two defective drums.

“What do you mean ‘defective?’ the salesman demanded. 

“I mean that they didn’t do what they were supposed to do!” the rube explained.  They didn’t put out the fire!  Much of our village burnt to the ground! Not only do we demand our money back; we want you to repay us for our losses!”  The salesman couldn’t believe what he was hearing . . .

“You idiot!” the salesman yelled.  “By what bit of twisted logic did you conclude that anyone can put out a fire by simply beating on a timpano?”

  “But I was led to believe this was their purpose,” the simpleton blurted out, beside himself with shock and anger.

“My good man,” the salesman said slowly, attempting to rein in his disbelief.  “Did it never dawn on you that the purpose of these drums was not to put out a fire but simply to awaken and notify the fire department to get to work?” 

The visitor stopped dead in his tracks, for obviously, this fact – which should have been obvious - had never dawned on him. 

The rube’s trek back to his village was not an easy one, for he knew that informing the council elders of his error would make him the object of scorn and derision . . . and make him into a laughing stock. From hero to goat in a matter of two weeks . . .

The above short short story is adapted from a brief parable originally told by the Maggid (itinerant preacher) of Dubno (Rabbi Yaakov Kranz, 1741-1804) more than 200 years ago. In the maggid’s mind, the “fire drum” was meant to remind his readers and listeners of the shofar - the ram’s horn sounded during the Jewish High Holidays. Just as the parable’s naïf foolishly believed that the mere pounding on a drum could put out a fire, so too, the maggid reasoned, are there many, many people who just as foolishly believe that merely hearing the sound of the shofar extinguishes (atones for) the fire which are represented by our sins, frailties, nastiness and overindulgence, to cite but a few of the things which make even the best of us a little lower than the angels.

For my Jewish friends, the story’s meaning is as obvious as 1+1=2: don’t expect that by merely attending Yom Kippur services, fasting and hearing the 100 blasts of the shofar you have cleaned the slate and are ready for another year. Maybe you’re OK in G-d’s Book of Life (sefer ha-hyyim) ; but what about in the life of humanity? This would be tantamount to a drum that puts out a fire; rather than what the fasting, services and shofar blasts are truly meant to be : an alarm which awakens one’s personal “fire department.”

Making of oneself a better, more honest, more thoughtful and compassionate human being is not easy; it takes a lot of work, contemplation and the constant battle against temptation.When one stops and thinks about it, it is not just religious life which presents us with ‘fire drum’-like situations. In secular life, the most obvious examples deal with shortcuts. Here are but two examples:

  • Take this pill (or drink this concoction or pay gobs of money for pre-cooked meals delivered to your door) and you will lose tons of pounds and take off scads of inches. Nothing could be easier! Never mind that the pill or concoction by itself likely won’t do diddly. It had better be paired with more than a modicum of self-sacrifice, a smart, smartly-concocted diet, a regular and rigorous exercise schedule, and a host of other things which can only be found in the small print. Merely switching to sugar-free soda or taking a fat-burning pill along with one’s bacon/cheese burger and fries is never going to do the trick;

  • Vote against the other party and everything will be just fine. We really don’t need to tell you what we’re prepared to do in order to make things different; just know that we won’t be like the other guys. Sorry, but as important as your vote is - or can be - what is far, far more important in helping shape tomorrow is rolling up one’s sleeves and becoming involved in the civic activities of your town or county or state . . . not to mention our country. Civic betterment requires time and tenacity. Remember: we are all in this together.

While it is certainly true that life is a challenge - and at times a painstaking gamble - these challenges cannot be met, accomplished or overcome by the mere pounding of a drum, the popping of a pill or hearing the sound of a shofar.  To expect otherwise makes us little better than the small-town naïf of the maggid’s parable.   Prepare yourself for the future by arming yourself with the understanding that true personal (and political) progress is not the product of a sprint, but rather of a marathon.

Here’s wishing my Jewish friends and readers an easy fast and the prospect of being sealed in the Book of Life . . . and my non-Jewish friends and readers a productive Fall.

52 days until the Midterm Elections . . .

Copyright2018 Kurt F. Stone