In the middle of the night on June 18th, 1947, on Pan Am flight 121 from Calcutta, India to New York City, an engine stopped working.
Which caused the other engines to overheat, which in turn caused a fire.
Which caused a panic.
While the pilot attempted to land the plane, the 25-year-old co-pilot unbuckled himself.
He left the cockpit, going back into the main cabin to help with the passengers.
He saw a young woman who was alone, crying in fear.
He sat next to her, and told her it was going to be okay.
He told her this as out the window, he watched the engine continue to burn.
He told her this as he watched the engine fall from the wing.
He told her this as fuel lines became exposed, as fire overtook the aircraft, and as the plane pitched downward.
“It’s going to be okay.”
He told her this knowing that every single person on that plane was about to die.
The plane hit hard, crashing into the Syrian desert.
Fourteen people died instantly.
Two crew members survived, including the co-pilot.
And with a pair of broken ribs, he went back into the burning plane, over and over again, pulling survivors from the wreckage.
Eventually, the wind turned, and fire overtook the aircraft. Against the backdrop of the cold Syrian desert, it exploded.
And so they waited.
Morning arrived, but a rescue did not. The co-pilot took charge and formed a search party. They wandered off into the desert and swam across the Euphrates River in search of help.
They eventually found a village.
A village which had a radio.
A call was made.
The Syrian military relayed a radio message to Pan Am.
A plane was sent, and the twenty-two survivors were rescued.
As for the co-pilot, the crash changed him.
After that, he didn’t want to be a pilot anymore; he wanted to do something different with his life.
He resigned from Pan Am to pursue a career in writing and, ultimately, television.
His name was Gene Roddenberry, and he created Star Trek.
There are a few things you need to know about me telling this story.
The first is that I am a huge fan of Star Trek, and have been ever since I was seven or eight years old. Thanks to Chris Pine, being a Star Trek fan is much cooler today than it was in 1989, so just know how much courage it takes for me to reveal this to you.
Because I’m such a fan, I may be predisposed to like any story having to do with its creator, but it’s an objectively good story. In fact, it’s almost too good. So I did some research to make sure it was true. It is. All of it.
I’m blown away by this story. There is so much Jewish wisdom percolating beneath its surface. I read this story, and see five inspiring lessons within it, so perfectly in sync with this Jewish season. And I want to share them with you.
Gene Roddenberry, the co-pilot of a crashing and burning airplane, decides that the place he needs to be is amongst all of the frightened passengers. In a moment when his mind was surely racing through his own fears, he stands up, opens the cockpit door, and sits down in a passenger seat.
How could he have done this? The answer, I think, is lesson one: Know where you need to stand.
There is a famous rabbinic phrase that often adorns synagogues above the holy ark: Know Before Whom You Stand. In Hebrew, דע לפני מי אתה עומד (da lifnei mi atah omed). In its original context, (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 28b) it refers to God. The idea is one of the most basic forms of Jewish meditation before prayer: we should cultivate a mindfulness of God’s presence in the world.
But we can also read it differently. It’s not just a call to awareness that we’re standing in God’s presence. It might also be a call towardaction– a demand that we become aware of where we need to be standing. It’s a powerful prompt: Are you in the right place? What is God asking of you, right now? You might assume – as I did – that Gene Roddenberry should have stayed put in the cockpit, with his hands on the controls, attending to the airplane. But he didn’t. He had a sense that the people before whom he needed to stand were the terrified passengers behind him.
The rabbinic wisdom of Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed is deceptively simple: You’re always accountable to something much bigger than yourself. I don’t know if Gene Roddenberry was thinking about God in that moment, but I know that he had a sense of his obligation. He knew that he needed to stand up for the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the passengers. And so rather than stay seated in the familiar cockpit, he unbuckled himself and got up. This is lesson one: Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed. Know where you need to stand.
Roddenberry spied a young woman sitting alone, crying in fear. He sat down next to her, and despite all indications otherwise, told her that it was going to be okay. And this is lesson two: Redemption is possible. Act as if, with your hard work and a little luck, it’s going to be ok.
We all have to believe in something. We all need a forward-looking vision, an idea of how we want the world to be. Something to which – even when we feel like we’re crashing and burning – we relentlessly commit ourselves.
This is one of the sublime messages of Rosh Hashanah: Our world can get better. With our righteous actions the world can become more perfect.
This is the idea behind one of the most powerful prayers we say this evening and throughout the high holidays: u’v’chen. It says that redemption is always possible, but it won’t come if we go about life callous, unsympathetic, and insensitive to the needs of others. We say: u’v’chen tein pach’decha Adonai Eloheinu, al kol ma’a’secha.To bring about redemption, we need wonder and awe and reverence at the magnificence of God’s creation. We need a sense of the ultimate oneness and importance of humanity. And we need hope in our future.
I don’t mean to say we should be naïve about the world around us. But we can have hope. It’s a radical, even counter-cultural idea that Judaism brings to the world: Even when things right now aren’t okay and seem like they won’t ever be, when everything else tells us otherwise – we can believe that life will get better. We can believe that we can make life better. One of the most significant Jewish teachings is that there is a more perfect version of the world that we can help bring about.
Each one of us at some moment in our life may feel as though we are a passenger, “helplessly pitching downward into the night.” And since we will all feel like this at some point in our lives, we know others are, as well. It raises the question: What are you going to do to help others? How are you going to bring about a world that will one day be okay? What’s your responsibility to bring about redemption? It’s an overwhelming challenge. But the answer may be as simple as sitting down next to someone, holding their hand, and telling them that it’s going to be okay.
Lesson two: It’s going to be okay. Redemption is possible.
After the plane crashes into the dessert, Roddenberry drags out survivors. The plane is on fire and his ribs are broken, but he goes back into the wreckage, over and over again. He doesn’t know how much time he has. The plane may explode, and his own strength may give out at any moment. But he keeps going back in.
This is our lesson three: You have to keep going. You can’t be complacent.
Life is short, and there is much to be done. The demands to build a better world can be overwhelming at times. But Judaism doesn’t teach passivity. You have to keep going and going – back into the proverbial fire.
To take Judaism seriously is to believe that the world as it is, is not yet the world as it must be, and to know that we are implicated in the sacred task of closing the gap between them, says Rabbi Shai Held.
How much is this a message desperately needed today, when some spend more time complaining about a world they don’t like, rather than doing the legwork to bring about positive change? When social change often amounts to little more than a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. For Gene Roddenberry, and for Jewish thought, slacktivism doesn’t count for much.
Belief on its own is not enough. It has to be matched with deed. Lesson number three: You can’t be complacent.
Gene Roddenberry was anything but complacent. After the plane explodes, he heads off into the desert, in search of redemption. And it’s from this act, that we come to lesson number four: we all have to make a trek through a desert at some point in our lives.
In a way, Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of teshuva are like peering into the vastness of the desert. We say to ourselves: I can embark on a journey of self-discovery; I can take myself someplace new. A place that I believe is better. But then we gaze into the daunting wilderness. Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay put? To seek shelter from the emotional rawness and difficulty of confronting our inadequacies head-on?
Easier? Most definitely. We relish the familiar. The desert – whether literal for Roddenberry or symbolic for us – is an unfamiliar, intimidating place. But there is a path forward. Often it traverses what feels like an insurmountable desert. But we all have to get up and go. The enduring story of our people in every generation is one of confronting the wilderness head-on.
One of the gifts of this season is that the desert – the figurative path towards teshuvah – is transformed from an obstacle to be avoided into a place of growth and return. There’s a poignant story the ancient rabbis tell of the Shekhinah– the Divine Presence – searching for its home after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. It faced a long and uncertain journey. After drifting from place to place to place across the earth, the Shekhinah wandered through the desert. And it was only after this that it was finally found its way home to the heavens. (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 31a)
This story imagines that even God’s presence had to make a trek across the desert to find its way home.
I suppose you could say that Gene Roddenberry was just a trained pilot who was especially brave, and didn’t think twice before marching off into the desert. But when I read the story of him marching headfirst into the desert, I can’t help but think that he must have shared a belief with the rabbis. The belief that we too have the ability to look at the deserts of our lives in two distinct ways: as insurmountable obstacles, or as journeys of self-discovery, growth, and teshuvah.
I believe this to be true, because I have watched a lot of Star Trek. Roddenberry would eventually imagine outer space the same way he saw the desert: not as an inhospitable expanse of nothingness, but as an exploration of self-discovery, boldly going where no one has gone before.
And that’s lesson four: we all have to make a trek through a desert at some point in our lives. But that’s how we get to our best selves.
After helping to save the lives of 22 people, Gene Roddenberry decides he doesn’t want to be a pilot anymore. He makes a significant course-correction in is life. Which brings us to the fifth and final lesson of this story:everyone can change.
It is both the simplest and most difficult of messages. It is the refrain of the season: we can better ourselves and the world. We are not condemned to fate or fortune. Sometimes change is the result of near-miraculous, life-changing experiences; sometimes arduous personal work. But it is available to us always.
There’s a beautiful vision of teshuvah, change, and forgiveness, that appears in our Psalms. We read of a compassionate God who forgives all transgressions and sins; who withdraws all anger and turns toward us in love. What this requires of us is described poetically: “kindness and truth meet; justice and peace kiss / חֶֽסֶד־וֶאֱמֶ֥ת נִפְגָּ֑שׁוּ צֶ֖דֶק וְשָׁל֣וֹם נָשָֽׁקו” (Psalms 85:11)
The ingredients for teshuvah: truth tempered by kindness; justice directed toward peace. It’s a remarkable recipe that balances the strength needed to cross the desert, with the compassion to support us on a challenging journey. A fitting vision of the final lesson of this story: everyone can change for the better.
These are the five lessons I learn from this remarkable story of Gene Roddenberry:
- Know Before Whom You Stand. You’re always accountable to something much bigger than yourself.
- Have a vision of redemption. It just might be okay.
- Redemption doesn’t just come on its own. You can’t be complacent.
- We all have to make a trek through a desert at some point in our lives. But that’s how we get to our best selves.
- Everyone can change for the better.
Gene Roddenberry understood that human life is sacred. He understood this when he walked out of the cockpit and told the passengers it would be okay; he understood this when he walked off into the desert; and he understood this when he wrote Star Trek – a vision of the future where humanity consistently works to better itself. He knew that sometimes, each of us feel like we’re crashing and burning into the night, in desperate need of help. His answer? Each one of us is endowed with the ability to bring a little bit of redemption.
May his lessons inspire us today and through these days of teshuvah to consider the growth and redemption we want to achieve in ourselves and in our world, so that we will be able to say: “It’s going to be okay.”