Friday, 20 January 2012

Whose Boat are You Floating?

This past week saw an event of immense disaster and tragedy. What could be called "the biggest claim in insurance ship history" - over 300 million pounds (money value), went down into the sea. The episode caused the death of over 20 people so far. While a granddaughter of a passenger of the Titanic who lost her life, was saved (as the theme song of Titanic "My Heart will Go On" ironically played beautifully!) others lost their lives.

The story goes that the captain was apparently doing a slight detour in order to salute people at another land point. Just 150m away from land the ship hit a huge rock cutting through its hull, and within no time at all the ship began to tilt and thereafter sink. As for things "on board" it seems the captain had chosen not to signal that anything was amiss... until some 40 minutes later! With thanks to the mobile phones of passengers, other help was already underway. The "Captain" meanwhile seems to have been preoccupied with "business" in seeing to the "safety" of those "in need" and was caught up in the tilt of the ship, sliding down himself - neatly, into a lifeboat that just happened to be underneath him. (It does bear a resemblance to Haman conveniently finding himself upon Esther on the couch, in the story of Purim!)

What with all the "hustle and bustle" the story continues that the "Captain" remained looking on as "his" 300 million pound boat went under - with whatever else was on board, including any passengers. Who knows the truth for sure?! After all, maybe Haman did really fall on Esther by accident!

But what is the message for us? We must learn a vital teaching, because if we see this story as just an accusation against some captain (rather than ourselves) we may well have missed the fundamental teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, to learn a lesson from everything we see or hear.

The story of the passenger who drills a hole underneath his seat on the boat as they are travelling upon the sea is well known! When another passenger asks him what he is doing, he explains that he is merely drilling underneath his own seat which he did indeed pay for! He cannot get away with his feeble excuse, because everyone is on the same boat. The hole he drills will indeed affect everyone!

But what can we say about the captain?! And who is he anyway?! And where is he anyway?! This weeks very Parsha (Va'Era) teaches us about another captain. His name was Moshe, and he well knew about steering ships. In fact, his ship, the Jewish people and seeing to it that they were freed, was his most important mission (at least until this part of the story.) He was willing to risk everything - even approach the most evil of men at the time (Pharaoh) in order to get what he wanted. He would do anything - and promptly!

Such leadership qualities should be envied by each of us. Envied - because it is vital to take into account the important role of leadership - something we think is the exclusive domain of "Moshes" only.

Take another look at our captain. Do you remember boarding his ship this week? A fine looking man, dressed smartly! He looked like a hero - didn't he - with his "stripes" on his shoulders. In command - no doubt! A learned man. Just how much respect would you have given to him... then?! Of course, underneath all that, we know the truth. We know what was really going on in his head. He was interested in something else. It had nothing to do with his humility for achieving the great learning he had done to acquire a role in life that in all probability brought him much wealth! Externally - a "Moshe" - but internally... Take off his shiny garments. Take him away from his helm - where the superb photo of our hero was taken to show just how in command he really was. Take him away from his steering wheel. Take away his clothes... and you'll see, he's really just an ordinary person - just like all of us.

It seems that honour got the better of him. With a smashing white clean shirt with stripes and maybe even a fancy hat, he was more than entitled to all the honour of everyone who would see him. Wouldn't the next best thing be to show it off, even if it meant taking a divergent course - just for a moment? But then there was a crash. The largest cruise ship in history went down killing real people, frightening thousands of others for life (when it comes to such trips again) - let alone being able to put one's trust in another "captain" again. All - for the sake of "honour" of course.

Without his captain garments, wearing ordinary clothes again - with hands cuffed, he looks like a "normal" person again. In fact, even his facial expression - once filled with ego, is whitened after the destruction this one man has caused for thousands...

What are we to learn from this? We must know one thing. We are all ordinary people - much the same as others. But every now and again, we are given extra "leader ship" roles. One person becomes head of a hospital. Another is given the role of State Attorney. Another sits in the role of administering a charity fund (with millions at his disposal!) let alone those who are independently wealthy with an obligation to help those less fortunate. Another becomes the rabbi of a community. Go ahead... pick your own role. See just how many people may be in need of you - each and every day. In need of your authority - that could determine the difference for you between life and death. Perhaps you think your role doesn't carry that weight?

Maybe our captain thought the same too. He was only driving a ship. He surely wasn't responsible for the people upon it?! But if he would look back now, he would see that not only was the ship a very expensive one, but it actually came with real life on it. Lives, that have been taken away from this world because of honour, negligence and a disinterest in the lives of others - over that "which takes precedence" - one's own life!

Many charity administrators will arm themselves with honour and authority as they turn down candidates literally in a state of life/death. Rabbis will turn away congregants because while congregants may lack money - they have spent years learning, are filled with "wisdom" (thus taking away any need for giving respect to others!) and are wearing honourable garments - a fancy new hat, and beautiful suit. 

But underneath it all - is the same person just like the captain. An ordinary person. Granted, the learning has been done and the effort to acquire the post has been put in. But now the real test has begun. Will our new leader and authority choose to use his role for his self glorification, or will he abuse it for his own glorious honour?!

The social worker who feels her life is okay just because she is a social worker - may one day need the help from the very person who currently seeks her help today... Yet while in her position of authority - she is happy to exhibit her glory of being taken care of - while the other is the one suffering. She misuses her authority - and her boat will not float!

The rabbi "leading" his community with contempt at their own losses in life ("Get over it!" "You deserve it!" "G-d has no reason to pay you any reward! "G-d owes you nothing!") - may one day find that his "leader ship" could sink too, taking down with him an entire community, wealth, blessings, and life itself.

Moshe knew about the role of a real leader. He understood leadership. He taught it over. The real captain is the one who can steer his ship with humility. He can check up on every "passenger" when they are in need of it. He avoids the self honour others might want because of their own selfish desires. His only aim is to take his passengers (whoever they might be) to wherever they need it. His learning that he has done, and the role he has been given (ultimately by G-d Himself) is one that must be taken seriously with true humility. Each and every person who boards his ship must be treated with respect - just because he is another passenger - and also a part of this trip... called "Life."

And should it ever be that the captain sees the passengers who have been entrusted to his care (by G-d Himself) sinking... let him learn a lesson from Moshe himself. Let him learn to do whatever is necessary for them - not him. Let him indeed realise, that if anything - he should be the last person to disembark from his ship - even if there is no lifeboat waiting open and ready for him.

What boat have you been selected as captain to steer in life? Do you know your passengers and their needs? Do you really care? Are you more interested in saluting whoever - just so they should see just how important in life you are... or are you more interested in steering correctly, looking after those entrusted to you - who seek your help? Are you keeping your boat afloat... or - when you take a truthful look at your ship... do you see it tilting...? The consequences of this can be tragic... just take a look at Francesco Schettino - and you'll see what I mean.

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