Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer
My wife and I were recently invited to Los Angeles. We were very excited because this would be my first opportunity to present my new book on the West Coast. On February 14th, Valentines Day morning, we boarded a Jet Blue red-eye flight destined for Burbank, California.
Our flight, apparently, wasn’t meant to be. We ended up trapped on the tarmac at JFK airport for a total of fourteen hours. As the hours wore on, fear and anxiety grew, as problem after problem arose. Several hours into our ordeal, the air conditioning system failed. It was so suffocating that the pilot had to open the emergency doors in order to give us much needed oxygen. Throughout our torment, a wonderful distraction for many of the passengers was television. At one point, a power outage caused the television service to be temporarily suspended. Passengers sat, as virtual hostages, with absolutely nothing to do. Luckily, the television service was soon restored. As we approached the eighth hour, the pilot announced that we can no longer avail ourselves of the restrooms as the waste capacity was filled. A bit later we were told that the ubiquitous Jet Blue potato chips were finished and the famished passengers faced the new reality that they may starve. As hour ten drew near we were casually informed that there were no more beverages available. Visions of 150 passengers dying of dehydration permeated the airplane.
As the product of good Jewish mothers, my wife and I packed a lot of food. This came in handy as we were able to share some of our provisions with other, less fortunate passengers. But even our food supply soon diminished and things appeared rather bleak.
A neighboring plane experienced a diabetic medical emergency and was sent rescue vehicles. We were fortunate that our plane was allotted one of those rescue busses and after almost eleven grueling hours we were rescued (ironically we were almost immediately placed on a second flight, on which we sat an additional almost four hours, after which the flight was finally cancelled).
Something about this harrowing experience struck me and two weeks later still resonates with me. Despite the horrible ordeal, the passengers on board remained calm, disciplined, and respectful. Not one person, at least those within my earshot, uttered a single vulgarity. Remarkable! Why wasn’t there total pandemonium on the plane? Why didn’t people go berserk? Why wasn’t there a coup d’état? Even for the most noble and extraordinary of individuals this was exceptional behavior.
The answer is rather simple. Every passenger on board, including myself, had the expectation that we were going to get to Burbank. Our anticipation was that things would, ultimately, work out and we would, eventually, arrive at our destination. Our long-term dream of arriving in Burbank totally ameliorated our short-term discomfort.
Let us picture a different scenario: The pilot announces in the very beginning of the flight, “Ladies and gentlemen welcome abroad! I would like to inform you of the fact that you will be trapped on this wonderful plane for the next ten and a half hours and will suffer severe distress. You will then disembark from the plane and return to lovely New York. We hope you enjoy your Jet Blue experience.” How would the passengers have reacted? I guarantee that there would have been complete mayhem on the plane. Why? The scenario seems so similar. What changed?
People can tolerate and cope with imposition, challenge, and even suffering if they feel there is an ultimate, if they feel there is a destination. Despair and recklessness sets in when there is no expectation; when a situation is viewed as the be all and end all.
Life is a test. We are being tested to see how we respond to challenge, temptation, confrontation, etc. If we were just inert, lifeless beings like sticks and stones we would have no struggles or tests. Sticks and stones that will eventually decay and rot would not react well to suffering. If human beings are only a composite of flesh and bones, if our only future is to putrefy and decompose, then we wouldn’t be exposed to suffering.
We experience challenge because we are really souls that are here for a limited time on Earth to make strides for ourselves and humanity. Just like an astronaut is placed in a special space suit and sent to space for a limited time to collect data and make a contribution to space studies, so are we placed in a physical body and sent to Earth, for a limited life span, to accomplish great things. We are here in this world, not only to engage in perfecting the world, but also to become perfected. How do you perfect and refine things? Knives are forged through steel, ovens are reinforced by fire. We humans are fortified, strengthened, and perfected through challenge.
Sometimes we lose sight of who we really are. We think of ourselves in a lowly state and equate ourselves as just bodies. We become obsessed with the material things in life and forget about the things that really last. We get transfixed on the physical and forget the spiritual. Physical suffering is an unfortunate necessity to remind us who we really are.
This concept reminds me of the parable offered by the Chafetz Chaim of a sailor (not a pilot!) who became shipwrecked on an island. He was left naked and bare. The people of the island quickly robed him in splendid garments and took him to a palace. He was treated royally. Whatever he desired, he received. He amassed a fortune of jewels and money.
Finally, some three months later, he began to wonder why he was receiving such royal treatment. He decided to entrust his query to a royal advisor.
The advisor answered, “Really, you are the first person to be shipwrecked on our island who has asked this question. Everyone else figured, ‘Why make trouble and start asking questions? Enjoy and be merry!’ Officially, I am forbidden to divulge the answer to you. But we will keep it a secret. Every year we find somebody who was washed ashore from a shipwreck. He arrives, like you did, naked and empty-handed. We treat him royally for one year. As soon as twelve months are up, we take him back to the seashore, disrobe him, and send him back the way he arrived. All the wealth and jewels that he amassed stay behind. If I were you, I would take all the wealth that is being showered upon you and secretly send it away on different boats for storage when your year is up. This way, when you leave the island, you will leave laden with fortune.”
The lesson from this story is clear. When a person is born into this world, he arrives stark naked. Oddly, he is taken to a home and cuddled and loved, robed and fed. He is treated first-class. He is given every opportunity to amass fortunes. Does he ever stop to ask, “Why? Why am I getting such special treatment? What is the ultimate point to this all?” One day, maybe even abruptly, he is taken from this world and must leave everything behind. If you spend your life accumulating money and possessions, or indulging your body, then when the end comes there is nothing to show. If, on the other hand, we spend our lives caring and sharing, and searching for meaning, then we depart this world with great fortune.
Throughout life we are confronted by so many different tests. How do we react to these tests? Well, it all boils down to whether we are stick and stones or human passengers on the plane called life. When a stick or stone is tossed around it develops indelible marks and scrapes. The stick or stone can never learn or grow from its experience. Things will never change. When a human being confronts challenge or suffering he/she has the opportunity to learn and grow, becoming a more resilient and far greater passenger on this trip called life.
Rabbi Fingerer is a rav at Aish HaTorah on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and is president of The Think and Care Tank, a non-partisan public policy think tank dedicated to addressing the crisis of assimilation (www.thinkandcaretank.org).