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Parshat Shemini

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More than 1500 people died on the Titanic. As a result of the tragedy, out of date conventions and procedures were changed, navigational mistakes were identified and corrected, and the threat of ice was taken seriously—even in the era of modern ships. Walter Lord, in his seminal book on the disaster, A Night to Remember (1955), wrote: “Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From then on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the ‘unsinkable ship.’ Nor would icebergs any longer prowl the seas unintended. After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution” (p.87).

One of the great tragedies of the disaster is that so many little things went wrong and conspired against the great ship. Had any of these things not happened the voyage might have turned out differently. Lord captures this sentiment with the following prose that seems almost poetic in nature. “What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the ice messages on Sunday…if ice conditions had been normal…if the night had been rough or moonlit…if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later…if she had hit the ice any other way…if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher…if the Californian had only come. Had any one of the ‘ifs’ turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy” (p.145).

One of the most striking examples of a small thing that might have changed history is the case of the lookouts’ missing binoculars. To help navigate the Titanic through dangerous waters two lookouts were stationed high up in the crow’s nest toward the front of the ship. In the days prior to radar, the lookouts’ job was to scan the ocean, identify any dangerous objects and alert the bridge to avoid them. To help the lookouts execute their duty, binoculars were procured for their use. However, the Titanic’s lookouts had no binoculars. They were locked up and nobody could find the key.

Due to a personnel change shortly before she sailed, David Blaire, who was the Titanic’s original second officer, was transferred off the ship. Among Blaire’s responsibilities was the safeguarding of the binoculars for the crow’s nest. In his hurry to leave the ship he apparently locked them up without telling anybody where they were, and left the ship with the key to the locker. As a result the lookouts scanned the dark ocean on the night of April 14 without the benefit of binoculars. The surviving lookout, Frederick Fleet, testified in the U.S. inquiry that he believed had he been using binoculars he would have spotted the iceberg somewhat earlier, leaving enough time for the Titanic to have evaded the iceberg. Alas, another small detail that might have given the Titanic the few more seconds it so desperately needed to escape its doom.

Although leaders must think about the big picture, they ignore details at their own peril. The Torah at the end of this week’s parsha makes this point abundantly clear. Regarding the laws regulating the criteria of kosher animals, the Torah states (11:47): “That it must be distinguished between the pure and impure and between the animals that can be eaten and those that cannot be eaten.” Rashi explains, based on Midrash Halacha, that the Torah in this pasuk does not come to exhort us to differentiate between kosher and non-kosher animals. That requirement had already been made abundantly clear. Rather, the Torah is underscoring the importance of differentiating between an animal that has been slaughtered properly and one that has not been slaughtered properly. The difference between them is negligible. If even slightly more than half of the animal’s parts which require cutting have been cut, then the animal becomes edible. If, however, only half (or less) has been cut, then the animal remains forever assur to eat. This sespite the fact that the difference between these two cases is barely noticeable.

The great Chassidic master Reb Bunum of Peshischa teaches that this pasuk warns humankind that the difference between good and evil, holy and profane, and purity and impurity is often the smallest amount. A person must bear this message in mind at all times. A story is told in the name of various great rabbis, of the student who was offered the opportunity to become a shochet. Upon receiving the invitation the student turned to his rabbi and related to him that he is afraid to accept such an awesome responsibility. After all, many people will rely on his actions and the slightest error on his part might cause them all to eat non-kosher food. The rabbi responded by asking his student rhetorically—“Who should I recommend for the position, someone who is not afraid? Someone who thinks he is ready for the job?”

Only a person who is cognizant of the importance of the small details, who is aware of the dangers of slight mistakes, and who understands the broader ramifications of such small errors, possesses the integrity to accept such a responsible position. People who are leaders must be especially careful in this regard. If only one of the small “what ifs” happened on the night of April 14th, 1912 perhaps it would not have become “a night to remember,” but remained just “another night.”

Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division. Comments can be emailed to him at mdrabbi@aol.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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