Where is that airplane, and why did it disappear? The mysterious loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues to vex security and transportation officials, leaders of government and people of good will around the world. Recent reports suggest that the lost aircraft was airborne for several hours after contact was lost with it and that it had flown west over the Indian Ocean. The prospect of foul play, therefore, seems more ominous. For the passengers on the plane, what did they know what was happening to them and when did they know it? On 9/11, many passengers aboard the four hijacked airplanes were able to communicate with loved ones with their mobile phones before dying. We know that they knew. We don’t as yet have such evidence from Flight 370. At the same time, on this Shabbat Zakhor, we recall acts of terror carried out by violent enemies against our people. The ominous possibility that acts of terror in the skies claimed the lives of innocent people gives us the chills. Even if the fate of the aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, let’s reflect a bit further on what the men and women on board may have been thinking.
The prospect of facing certain death and reflecting on it over a period of hours or minutes is terrifying. On Yom Kippur in 1986, Rabbi Kenneth Berger addressed this very issue at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa. In a now famous sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger who perished in the disaster earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”
Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.
Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.
In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, Rabbi Berger probably thought about his own sermon.
On this Shabbat Zakhor, Erev Purim, we reflect on the fragility and preciousness of life. The mitzvah of remembrance is to remind us that innocent lives lost long ago are precious. We resolve to maintain the flame of memory in order to make meaning out of our lives. Why do we have Shabbat Zakhor before Purim? Wouldn’t it make sense to fold the themes of this Shabbat into the somber day of Yom Kippur?
It turns out, there is a strange nexus between Purim and Yom Kippur. Both holidays remind us to ask ourselves what we would do if we had five minutes to live. Various sources in our tradition highlight the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.
The rabbis of the Midrash ask: “What was the good name that [Esther] earned for herself? That all the festivals may be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified… Rabbi Eliezer says, Yom Kippur, too, will not be nullified. (Midrash – Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 944)
Furthermore, according to the Zohar, the Hebrew name for Yom Kippur — Yom KipPURIM — alludes to the similarity between these two seemingly dissimilar days. Yom KipPURIM [literally means] “a day that is like Purim.” It seems incongruous that a day of joyous revelry and a day of awesome introspection should be more similar to one another than any of the other festivals to one another. What is it about Purim and Yom Kippur that create this relationship?
As Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “The reversibility of fortune, the capriciousness of life, is a message Purim shares with Yom Kippur…Yom Kippur compels us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of our lives. But on Yom Kippur we dive into this terrifying reality with austerity, reflection and spiritual wakefulness, whereas on Purim we respond by celebrating, imbibing and masquerading.”
Yom Kippur and Purim ask the common question: “What would I do if I had five minutes to live?” Both holidays acknowledge the frailty and uncertainty of life. The answers offered by each holiday, however, seem diametrically opposed to each other.
Yet Yom Kippur is more than a day of somber reflection; it is a Yom Tov, a festival, when we celebrate being cleansed of sin. At the same time, Purim is more than a day of rowdy gluttony. Our tradition has bestowed us with mitzvot, commandments, to perform acts of generosity and community building on Purim: “Make them days of feasting and gladness and of mishloah manot (sending portions of food) one to another, and matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor)” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Brous writes, “We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim with a renewed commitment to social transformation, responding to the mess of life by giving our family and friends sweet gifts and by giving generously to the poor. In other words, the only way to make sense of the absurd randomness of life and the social order is to honor the loving relationships that sustain us and work to address the imbalance of fortunes that leaves some with abundance and others with nothing. Mishloah manot and matanot l’evyonim come to reinforce that while we cannot control the world, we can control the way we live in it.”
When we give to others on Purim, we acknowledge our lack of control over our destinies. After all, life can change drastically in the span of just five minutes. Therefore, we must give generously today, for tomorrow, God forbid, we could be begging for a little spare change.
Three years before his death, Rabbi Berger had the foresight to remind himself and the broader community that life is not forever and that he only had a proverbial five minutes left.” The same is true for us.
On this Shabbat Zakhor, our thoughts are with the families of loved ones on Flight 370 who must be in unbearable pain. Let us resolve to make sure our leaders are vigilant against senseless acts of violence and terror. Let us also resolve to bring more love and kindness into the world.
We might not realize it yet, but we all only have five minutes left. The clock is ticking….