Surviving the Shipwreck

by rabbilimmer

Kol Nidrei 5775

Chicago Sinai Congregation

            Call me Ishmael.[1]  Subject, object, predicate noun.  Call me Ishmael: an invitation to enter, a call to friendship, perhaps everlasting, certainly of 594 pages.  Call me Ishmael, the famed beginning of Melville’s magnum opus, the opening lines of some strange shipwrecked sailor clinging to meager driftwood as he tells his tale of woe.  Ishmael’s existence is peripheral to the Pequod, the star-crossed sailing ship of which he is the sole survivor.  Like any good fisherman, Ishmael lures the reader in to the story at the core of Moby Dick: captain Ahab’s ill-fated infatuation with the great white whale.  And we who love this masterpiece of prose chartered our course through chapters called “Chowder” and “The Chapel”, waded through monographs on whale fat and fast fish, all to arrive at the great chase scene at the end that erupts in the disastrous and devastating destruction of a ship.  Magnificent literature lies along the long course Melville maps; singular sermons, enticing essays, detailed descriptions of nautical life.  Yet two people I hold dear read Moby Dick only in part: one skipped chapters unnecessary to the narrative, the other stopped reading—spoiler alert!—once Ahab sank in the sea.[2]  As magnificent as is Melville’s testimony to the power of the written word, the continued popularity of his greatest novel proves one point: we all love a good shipwreck.

We do love a good shipwreck.  No, not necessarily the death and destruction, but the human drama that accompanies it.  How else could we explain the our fanaticism with the farcical fate of the S.S. Minnow,[3] and the concomitant (and seemingly eternal) popularity of Gilligan’s Island?  What other explanation could we offer for our continuing infatuation with the fate of the Titanic? One century after its sinking, no lesser artist than Bob Dylan dedicated fourteen minutes of vinyl to document its drama; in 1997, the 194-minute film sold $1.84 billion in tickets and earned an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards.[4]  There is something about a sinking ship that attracts the attention of all around.

Adam Gopnick has a theory as to why we are obsessed with shipwrecks.  He claims that our “imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary.”[5]  To illustrate his idea, he shares this story from a hundred years ago:

…a great four-funneled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too.  Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it come to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland—and speeds right on through them to its anchorage, here in New York.  Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but its nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way…  The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more.

I doubt they will make the movie where a wind-blown Leo DiCaprio carries Kate Winslet down the gangplank to Ellis Island, where he cries—full of promise and hope—“I’m king of the world,” as the camera pans up to the Statue of Liberty before fading to final credits.  The story of the Titanic is epic because of it’s epic fall; Moby Dick is remembered because the great white whale got away while the Pequod perished.  There truly is a human appetite for destruction.  Starting a few years back, with the worries of the end-of-days prescribed by the Mayan calendar, there was a noticeable uptick in TV shows and cinema tapping into our fears of the big fall.[6] Witness here not just the Zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead or the bleak dystopia of The Hunger Games; reality shows like Doomsday Preppers and Doomsday Bunkers display our desire to ensure we are prepared for the extraordinary.  Survivalists shopping—from a $379 ready-to-roll emergency kit to a $7,000 package of containing over 4,000 freeze-dried meals—is but one click away on the web.  It is not just our obsession with shipwrecks that proves our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary.

Our ceremony tonight caters to this human instinct: on Kol Nidrei, we gather together to focus on the shipwrecks of our lives, to wade through the wreckage we have wrought over the past year.  On our holiest of days, we do not trumpet our greatest achievements; instead we stand as one, aloud confessing a litany of sins seemingly without end.[7]  Literally or metaphorically, we beat our breasts as we try to come to grips with the many ways we have fallen short of our own expectations, our own potential, in the year that has passed.  As we read our ritual, listen to our liturgy, we are far more focused on our titanic failures than any olympian success.  We speak and sing of abusing power, exploiting others, betraying the morality of our faith.[8]  But is it appropriate to obsess over our shipwrecks?  Should we spend our time scrutinizing our shortcomings or analyzing our accomplishments?  Is Yom Kippur just about being a spiritual survivalist, steeling ourselves for the worst of times, preparing our proverbial bunkers with the psychological packages that will help us endure the worst life throws our way? In place of pessimism, should we instead engage in Kol Nidre to compose ourselves for the optimistic promise of the coming year?

The juxtaposition of The Titanic with The Olympic cautions us not to dissect instances of disaster and thereby miss illustrations of hope. At first blush—and potentially even after deeper examination—that seems to be precisely the tack taken by our Yom Kippur ritual.  We publicly recite lengthly lists of sins; we do not ceremonially share our successes. We spend much more time talking about human frailty and failure then we focus on our capacity for decency and kindness.  There is certainly a risk, especially on this most sacred of Sabbaths, to forget that our focus should be on righting our ships for the coming year, charting our course to the better people we know we can be.  Why then the focus on the Titanic, and not the Olympic?  Why spend this most holy of days surrounding ourselves with so much failure and loss?

Our worship would have us linger on past mistakes that we might first analyze them, and then learn from them; ultimately this process of self-reflection reorients us so we can reach the shores of our chosen goals.  The Jewish way forward is from failure to success.  Moses Maimonides, in his 12th century compendium Mishnah Torah, traces the trajectory of our Teshuvah, our repentance, our turning the ships of our lives in the directions we should be heading.[9]  The one who actually atones, who indeed is able to set a life on a proper course, Maimonides teaches, is the one who contemplates deeply individual defects.  Once we understand our shortcomings can we create a proper plan to avoid such mistakes in the future.  To return to our metaphor: only if we are frank about where our icebergs lie can we chart a course to avoid them.  We study the shipwrecks of our past not because we enjoy examining the wreckage; we know the way to find calm waters in the future is to be brutally honest about our tempestuous past.

Here is the crucial factor that differentiates our Yom Kippur ritual from a “fatal attraction to fatality”, so much survivalism.[10]  We are focused on failure because we want to discover success.  We are not supposed to store our bunkers with supplies for apocalyptic scenarios; we are meant to learn lessons for living our daily life.  Keeping with our theme of preparedness, we are not priming ourselves for the extraordinary, but spiritually packing for every day.  The best assurance of safe arrival on the shores of personal success is the inner readiness to survive storms that will certainly come our way.  Evaluating the wreck of the Titanic is the way to guarantee the Olympic will come to safe harbor.  The work of repentance, teshuvah, and atonement prepares us to find spiritual success amidst the storms of everyday life.

This daily preparedness, however, need not be all the macabre makings of shipwrecks and disasters.  Despite the litany of sin and regret we will rehearse this Day of Dread and Awe, most of our misgivings are minor on the cosmic scale.  Hopefully few of us in this sanctuary have committed larceny or homicide; it is more likely we let petty problems steal attention from those we love or allowed a dream to be dashed.  It is not that we are recidivist criminals; our repeat offenses are failures to be kind to cashiers, being brusque with coworkers, perennially passing by people in need.  While it is helpful for us, on Yom Kippur, to focus on our shortcomings, to admit that we have quite a way to travel toward perfection, the real value of this sacred day is the time spent in self-reflection.  We can confess to being, “arrogant, brutal, careless, destructive, egocentric,” but the exercise is meant to focus us less on our damaging brutality than our absent-minded self-centeredness.  This day, these hours, are our opportunity to meditate on how we make deeper meaning of, find greater purpose in, our lives.[11]

In a fashion, Yom Kippur comes to remind us all precisely the guidance I received from an 8th grade student here at Chicago Sinai Congregation.   This counsel came to me indirectly; when a member of our synagogue was preparing to address the rabbinic class graduating from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he thought to ask our Sunday School students what advice they would share with a new rabbi.[12] When we think of our task this sacred season not as disaster preparedness, but instead packing for every day, then the counsel our Sinai students shared last spring is truly important wisdom for us all.

From 3rd Grade: Never come late.  Be true to your word.

From 4th Grade: Always stay reasonable.  Try to remember everyone’s name.

From 5th Grade: Make everybody feel that they are the only one in the room but also in a group at the same time.  Don’t be grumpy.  Nobody likes a grumpy rabbi.

From 8th Grade: Relish the simple pleasures in everyday living.  Make sure you stay positive.

From our High School Students: Always make sure to be nice.  Sometimes, the smallest of gestures can speak volumes in hard times.

Last, but not least, the advice of a certain ten year-old: Always be nice, welcoming, and kind.  I bet you already know these things, but just remember it.

I am aware that this array of advice from Sinai’s young people is a bit like Everything I Needed to know for Yom Kippur I Learned in Kindergarten.  However, I often feel that on this great and awesome Day of Dread—when we read of Divine decrees of life and death—calm, mundane matters serve as proper antidote to the shipwreck imagery of our liturgy.  I bet you already know these things, but just remember it.  Is that not the essence of our entire experience of Yom Kippur?  When we are late for a lunch with a dear friend, we are truly sorry; when we fail to deliver on a promise, we are filled with regret.  We bring into this sanctuary a year’s worth of disappointments: we lost our temper, we made people feel unimportant, we let too many days pass without enjoying them fully, we became pessimistic, we were mean, we were grumpy.  It is sometimes harder to forget what we did wrong in our past than it is for us to remember how we want to behave in the future.  We already know all these things; the challenge is just to remember.  Yet it will only be when we remember, this day and every day, that we truly become the people we want to be.

A parable comes to us from the midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah:

There were two boats set to sail on the Great Sea: one of them was setting out from port, and the other was coming in to harbor.  Many people rejoiced around the one setting out to sea, and none even came to greet the one docking on the pier.  One Sage stood nearby, and said, “Things are opposite from how they should be! None should rejoice over this one setting out to sail: for we do not know what trials await it, how many days it will be delayed, what seas and storms it may encounter. But all should rejoice over this one returning to harbor, for it has made its way home in peace.”  So, too, is it with death: all should rejoice and praise when one dies in peace, with the crown of a good name.[13]

Tonight and tomorrow we gather together to sit and think about our lives.  We focus on our failures so we might turn them, and ourselves, into success.  Our traditions and rituals challenge us to remember what we already know: we will be judged not only on how we respond during the raging storm, but also by how we navigate even the calmest of waters.  Our Sage who saw the two ships crossing in port understood this: it is only at the end of an expedition when one ship proves an Olympic, another a Titanic.  In either case, the journey has come to a close.  But it is the journey that defines, the journey that gives meaning to the names of ships and sailing vessels.  So, too, it is with humanity: we are ultimately defined by all our actions.  That our deeds determine the meaning of our lives was understood by the real-life Sage behind the Sage of our story.  It was Rabbi Pinchas who told the tale of the two ships; he reported his parable to illustrate the text of Ecclesiastes: A good name is better than the finest oil.[14] It is true that the value of a solid reputation exceeds any price we might be willing to pay.  And it is also true that the only way to merit a good name is to live a good life, each and every day.  We can only be known as “Old Reliable” if we carry our passengers safely to port each and every time.  In our tradition, it is the highest reward, when departing this world in peace, to have earned a sterling reputation, to leave as legacy the impenetrable crown of a good name.

“Call me Ishmael,” should mean something.  Yet “Ishmael” means nothing at the outset of the book, and everything at its end.  Those who never read Moby Dick define Ishmael by the sole shipwreck he survives.  But we who knew him, who shared his journey from the Spouter Inn in New Bedford across the open seas, who watched him build his friendship with Queequeg, who tried to understand the trauma he overcame to tell his tale, we understand that the wreck of the Pequod was but one page in the many chapters of Ishmael’s life.  Our Yom Kippur commands us to see our own lives—and the lives of so many others—from that same perspective.  Today, we do beat our breasts and lay bare our faults; we do so not to wallow in misery but to build a better tomorrow.  We want not to be like Captain Ahab, consumed by the failures of the past, obsessively chasing the white whales of our previous discontentment to ruinous end.  We want to be like Ishmael: we want to survive, to move forward, to build our lives of meaning and purpose.  We want our stories to extend past our shipwrecks, to have our tales end reaching safe harbor.

The course to fashion such lives is well-known: keep kind; be true; stay positive; remain reasonable.  We know these things, we just need to remember.  On this holy Yom Kippur, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts help us to prepare for the everyday life we will lead in the coming year.  May we reflect on how to correct our behaviors so that, when people call us “Ishmael” or “Old Reliable” or anything, our names stand for exactly the kind of behavior, personality and humanity we would want our name to mean.  In this coming year, may we each resolve and remember to wake every morning with the goal of earning the imperishable crown of our own good name.

May it be our will.

[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, [New York: Penguin Classics] 1972 (originally 1851), p. 93. It is from this edition that I arrive at the page count of the subsequent sentence.

[2] This being Yom Kippur, I will not name names.  But you two know who you are.

[3] A minnow is a small bait fish, and thus an appropriate name for a pleasure boat embarking on a mere “three hour tour”.  However, according to Robert Jarvis, the TV boat was actually named for Newton Minow, who Gilligan’s Island executive produced Sherwood Schwartz believed “ruined television”. Minow was chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 1961, and is noted for a speech in which he called American television, “a vast wasteland”. [Robert M. Jarvis, Legal Tales from Gilligans Island, Santa Clara Law Review & Jamail Center for Legal Research [39: 1998],  pp. 185–205.]  Far more importantly, Newton and his wife Jo are longtime and wonderful members of Chicago Sinai Congregation.

[4] Bob Dylan, “Tempest,” Tempest, 2012.  All information about James Cameron’s feature film Titanic comes from the Wikipedia article associated with it:

[5] Adam Gopnick, “Two Ships,” The New Yorker, January 16, 2014, pp. 17-18.  The extended excerpt that follows is from the same article.

[6] Mary McNamara, “Survivalist themes in TV shows, movies, tap into our fear of the big fall,” The Los Angeles Times, online edition, December 15, 2012.

[7] Interestingly, the week of Yom Kippur 5775, I discovered I am far from the first rabbi to notice this disparity between confessing our sins and being in touch with our successes.  The following is from a posting on Facebook about liturgy from Rabbi Kook, is motivated by this thought of his: “Therefore, just as there is a great benefit in repairing the soul through a confession of transgressions, so too in a confession of Mitzvot, in order that our hearts might find joy in them, and that the ways of our life might be strengthened through the ways of the Eternal.”  The Hebrew of his proposed liturgy is below, begins as follows (on the pattern of the “Ashamnu/We have sinned” acrostic): We have loved, we have cried [although I would argue it should be “baninu/we have built”], we have given back, we have spoken well.  We kept faith, we strived, we remembered, we have hugged….

Interestingly, if not obviously, I confirmed the day before Yom Kippur that while the quotation is properly attributed to Rav Kook, this liturgy is from another source: a contemporary Israeli Rabbi, Benjamin Holzman.  The following article from Haaretz illuminates the issue:

[8] Union Prayer Book for the High Holy Days, Sinai Edition, p. 157.

[9] Here I refer to the deep teaching found in “Hilchot Teshuvah/The Laws of Reorientation (Repentance)” that are the fifth section of Sefer HaMadaa/The Book of Knowledge, itself the first volume of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

[10] Again, Gopnick.  It really is a worthy article.

[11] This last sentence is a re-working of Gopnick’s, “We search for parallels of disaster and miss parallels of hope.”

[12] My thanks to Alec Harris, for President of Chicago Sinai Congregation, for sharing with me both the responses he received from students, but also the thoughtful words he shared with graduating students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati this past year.  I also imagine I’m indebted here to Heidi Kon, our Director of Religious Education, who helped collect this incredible “data”.

[13] Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah VII 1:4.  The translation is my own.

[14] Ecclesiastes 7:1. The translation is my own.