Live Like You Were Flying

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
April 28, 2018 — 13 Iyar 5778

How many of you have flown on an airplane in the last six months?

For the most part, flying is predictable.

It is predictable that there will be lines. Predictable that there will be delays.  Predictable that on travel days we don’t eat great.  That we will graze on protein bars and almonds.

Even the disagreements within a family about flying are predictable.  I love to get to the airport early.  If I get to the gate 2 hours before boarding, that is success.  I get a cup of coffee. Catch up on emails and phone calls. Read a book. All good.  By contrast, Shira’s definition of success is to get to the gate as they are doing the final boarding call—will passengers Goodman and Gardenswartz please get here already, the door is closing.  We have been having this same disagreement for 35 years.

What is also predictable, usually, is that once the flight takes off, it is unremarkable, and safe. We expect to get to where we are going uneventfully.

Unless you happen to have been on board Southwest Flight 1380 from New York to Dallas.  As you know, the plane’s left engine exploded, sending shrapnel flying and causing fear, chaos and the untimely passing of one passenger.  We have much to learn from the passengers and crew.  In extremis they did four things that were helpful on a plunging plane—and are also helpful, indeed uplifting, when we are safely on the ground.

If you read first person accounts of people who were on that plane, what they have in common is that they thought they were going to die.  They thought they had very few minutes left.  What did they do with their remaining time?  A common response was to reach out to loved ones and tell them that they love them.  A man named Matt Tranchin, age 34, texts his pregnant wife that I love you, and if I die on this plane, I want you to find love again.   So many passengers did their own version of this:  Just know that I love you.

Why does it take a plane going down to tell people we love them?  The story is told of a husband who lays his wife to her eternal rest.  After the service is over, and the friends and family have gone back to their cars, this husband is kneeling at his wife’s graveside, crying.  After waiting several long moments, the rabbi taps him on his shoulder, and encourages him to go back to his car.  The husband looks at the rabbi and says:  Rabbi, I loved my wife.  I really loved my wife.  And once, once, I almost told her so.

Why don’t we tell people?  What blocks us?  Once I was speaking with a woman whose father had passed away years ago.  She shared that when her father was alive, he would call her every day.  She was raising young children at the time.  She would be trying to cook dinner, help with homework, keep the peace in this bustling family with young kids, and the phone would ring, and it would always be her father.  She confessed that at that time she experienced these daily calls as another burden to manage.  Then one day her father died suddenly, and the phone stopped ringing.  She turned to me and said:  What I wouldn’t give now to have that phone ring again.

So the first lesson from Southwest Flight 1380 is be grateful for the phones that ring, for the people who love us, and tell them so.   Tell them now, while we still can.

Here is a second thing that happened on that flight.  Perfect strangers clasped hands and began praying together.  Pastor Timothy Bourman and his wife Amanda were heading to a retreat for ministers.  “I thought we were goners,” he said.  He thought that they were going to leave behind three daughters, ages 6, 4 and 2. “I grabbed my wife’s hand and I started praying: Dear God, send some angels.  Save us from this.”

Those prayers gave them more courage, more serenity, more groundedness than they had before they prayed.

In his classic work When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that when we pray for courage and strength to handle what is, that is a prayer to which God always says yes.  We don’t need to wait for an emergency. We don’t need to wait for a crisis. We can pray that prayer now—help me handle what is—on ordinary days.  The holiest place in the entire world is the Gann Chapel on an ordinary day. An ordinary morning minyan.  An ordinary evening minyan.  No plane plunging. Just the sun rising and the sun setting as we center ourselves by asking God for the courage to handle what is.

Now this pastor prayed that God would send angels. God answered that prayer.  Here is a third thing that happened.   A passenger named Jennifer Riordan, age 43, married and with two small children, was seated near a window that was shattered by flying shrapnel.  That created a fierce and terrifying suction which literally sucked her into the window.  She was half in, half out.  At which point perfect strangers endangered their own lives—getting up on a plane where stuff was flying in the air, where there was this fierce suctioning force, and they braved that and fought for her with all their might.  While she eventually would tragically succumb to her injuries, total strangers kept her on that plane.

Thank goodness we do not encounter this problem literally in our daily lives, a woman sucked into the window of a plunging plane.    But we do experience this challenge metaphorically, people stuck in scary spaces.  They are stuck with bad health. Stuck in an unhappy marriage.  Stuck in their new role as widow or widower.  Perfect strangers ran to help Jennifer Riordan, stuck in that window.  What do we do when we know people who are stuck?

I’ll never forget the time when we were driving to our niece’s wedding in New York, and our tire blew on 91 South.  We were stuck in the breakdown lane, getting later and later to our niece’s wedding. I do not have the foggiest idea how to change a tire.  That’s why I have AAA.  There we are, in the emergency break down lane, with the cars whooshing by.  The best we can do is call AAA and wait.  Just then, a total stranger pulls up behind us, and asks, can I help you.  We told him that our tire blew, we have no idea how to change a tire, and then and there, with cars whirring by, he changes our tire in the breakdown lane of 91 South.  He was the angel that God sent.  Can we be the angel that God sends for somebody else?

And there is a fourth and final lesson which has to do with the Southwest pilot, Tammie Jo Shults.

When the engine blew, and the shrapnel was hurled, and the cabin lost pressure, and the plane started descending steeply, she reported calmly to the flight controller just what was happening.  She managed, calmly, to do an emergency landing in Philadelphia, a soft landing at that.  She managed, calmly, to call for an ambulance to meet the plane.  That is grace under pressure.  That is something we could all use because again, metaphorically, this happens to us.

We are flying happily along, when the engine blows.  The engine blows. Our health goes.  The engine blows. Our job goes.  The engine blows. Our loved ones die.  Can we be like Tammie Jo Shults?  Can we respond not with chaos and panic:  Oh my God, Oh my God.  Not with anger: Why me, why me.  Not with depression, struggling to get up in the morning or numbing our pain with alcohol.  Can we respond with grace under pressure? Calm. Centered. In control.

Now how did she do it?  What was her secret sauce?  She is always described as one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots.  That phrase, Navy’s first female fighter pilots, contains the secret.  Why was she a fighter pilot in the Navy?  You would think she would be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.  Well, she wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force. She applied to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force.    But at the time she applied, the Air Force did not want her.  The Air Force wanted her brother.  Undaunted by this rejection, she applied to be a fighter pilot for the Navy instead and became one of their first female pilots.

Tammie Jo Shults embodies a core truth that goes to every one of our lives.  We all have pain in life.  And when we do, it is important not to let your pain go to waste.  Do not let your pain go to waste.   We make sure that our pain does not go to waste by learning from it, by getting better and stronger and wiser and tougher because of it.  Tammie Jo Shults did not let  the pain of her being discriminated against go to waste.  It made her more determined.  When she was on that plane, and it started going down, she had nerves of steel because her adversity had made her stronger.  Can our adversity make us stronger?

We were not on flight 1380.  But all of us now have spiritual homework that flows from that flight, homework suggested by a great country song by Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying.   The point of his song is that the keen awareness of our own mortality should make us savor every single day.  So too lessons from this flight.  Tell people we love them today.  Get strength from God today. Help people who are stuck today. When the engine blows, act with grace under pressure today.  Live like you were flying.  Shabbat shalom.