Many of us are old enough to remember witnessing the explosion and fall to earth of the space shuttle Challenger as it unfolded 30 years ago. Others of us may have seen the unforgettable video of that event; either way, the image of the spacecraft’s smoky fireball falling from the sky is seared into our brains.
At first, it was thought that the crew had immediately perished, but then scientists revealed that the seven astronauts had actually remained alive for the 65,000-foot fall into the ocean. Think about that – they knew they had only five minutes left to live. What must have gone through their minds? Did they go through a life review? How did they take stock of the meaning of their lives?
A few years after, a Jewish Rabbi, Kenneth Berger, delivered a sermon on Yom Kippur on September 16, 1986, focused on the horrific accident and titled his homage, “Five Minutes to Live.” In his remarks, he likened the astronauts to Jews called to High Holy Days to engage in a soul searching process called “heshbon ha-nefesh” (Hebrew for taking stock of one’s soul).
With tragic irony, not quite three years later, he himself was on a flight to Chicago from a family vacation in Denver, when the plane’s tail engine exploded and crippled the controls, and for 40 minutes, the passengers prepared for a crash landing. The Rabbi’s wife, Aviva, fainted from the shock; the Rabbi reached across the seats to hold the hands of two of his three children, Avigail (then 16) and son Jonathan (9 years old) and tried to reassure them. The plane burst into flames after it hit the ground in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, including the Rabbi and his wife, both in their early 40’s.
Ken’s brother Samuel, and his wife Trisanne, stepped in to care for the orphaned children after their parent’s death. The middle child, Ilana, then 13, had been at camp at the time of the crash. Avigail was in a month-long coma from her injuries while Jonathan suffered lesser injuries. Samuel found the text for “Five Minutes to Live” while cleaning out his brother’s office, and eventually Avigail laminated it and placed it in a jewelry box for safekeeping.
The eloquent and prophetic sermon has taken on a public life of its own as many other Rabbis have quoted from it in tribute to its powerful sentiments; parts of the sermon have been included in a book on grief and healing, while twice in the past two years, a Rabbi in Florida has referred to it in a collection of online essays. One was on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, while another was the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysia Airline flight in 2014 over the Indian Ocean. The sermon has achieved an eerie kind of immortality.
What are we to learn from this most poignant and memorable sermon? That ordinary people too often forget to express love for their family members, blindly assuming that there will always be another day. The thematic sense of “if only I”… returns again and again when we understand that life can be over before we realize it. It can happen at age 5, 15, or 55. No one is promised tomorrow, and that is why today is considered a gift. Are you living life in such a way that you are going to leave a legacy of love, kindness and compassion?
We don’t know how long our time on this earth will be; some say that our life is God’s gift to us, while what we make of our life is our gift to God. Surely, being cognizant of how impermanent life is can lead us to live our lives fully. Acknowledging and accepting death can help us celebrate the mystery, beauty and wonder of life.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: I want to share with you the exciting news that I am hosting a concert called “Music for the Soul: Celebrating Life, Facing Death” featuring Bill Cohen, a popular singer and musician from the Columbus, Ohio area on Sunday, April 30, 2017 from 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, IN. All of the songs chosen will make you smile, laugh and shed a tear; none are morbid or melancholy and the concert will not include theological proselytizing. It will help remind us not to take life for granted – and not to forget that our time is limited.
The sooner we accept our own mortality and the inevitability of death, the sooner we can embrace living fully and completely. I hope you and your loved ones will join me for this special event that promises to be uplifting from beginning to end. $10 at the door, and “two for one” available for caregivers accompanying a disabled attendee.