The ordeal of the nine coal miners in Pennsylvania who were finally rescued after more than three days in a dark, dank hellhole holds substantial food for thought, perhaps even the seeds of a newfound appreciation of an ancient Jewish custom.
The nine men showed astounding courage in the face of what they had every reason to imagine might be their final days in the world of the living, and their steadfast determination to persevere is undeniably worthy of admiration.
Even more inspiring is the consideration they showed for one another in such dire circumstances, sharing among themselves the sandwich one of them discovered in a lunchbox floating in the cold water that flooded their small space, and helping one another stay warm. "When one would get cold, the other eight would huddle around the person.," recounted a trauma surgeon at a Johnstown hospital where several of the miners were taken, "and when another person got cold, the favor was returned."
The miners' focus on the spiritual was also commendable. "We done a lot of praying," recalled one, Thomas Foy, when asked how the group had spent its time. And their gratitude to those who prayed above ground, and to those who labored so intensely to rescue them, was a manifestation of menschlichkeit [humanity] in a cultural era when all too much is taken for granted by all too many. "I came to thank everybody that was out there and helped us and prayed for us," Mr. Foy said from a wheelchair, "not for no story, no fame, no glory. That's the only reason we're here. We can't thank you enough."
Aside, though, from the shining example of the miners' bravery and sense of appreciation for one another and for others, their ordeal itself is worthy of our contemplation.
Picture yourself hundreds of feet below the earth's surface, surrounded by a sea of water vulnerable to life-threatening hypothermia and the bends, without nourishment, cut off from loved ones - indeed, from the entire world.
And then imagine being rescued from the depths, being hoisted to the surface once again, into the light and the fresh air. Imagine seeing familiar things again, the sun, the sky, the faces of others. Imagine the gratitude that would swell any human heart at such a moment.
And then consider the fact that each of us undergoes a very similar experience every day.
We wake up every morning.
It's not only the fact that in sleep we are not conscious, not in control, or that people can and do die in their sleep, or even that sleep, like death, is insistent, and will only be postponed so long. The rabbis of the Talmud said more; they considered sleep itself to be a microcosm of death - "one fiftieth" of it, in their turn of phrase and thought.
The very regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us to the import of the fact. That is only human nature, what Emerson immortalized when he wrote: "If the stars would appear but one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of G-d."
But recognized or not, the import is there all the same, and demands every sensitive soul's attention. Thus, Jewish tradition mandates that a Jew's first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of the short "Modeh Ani" prayer. It is one of the first things observant Jewish parents teach their children.
"I gratefully thank You," the prayer goes, "living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your trustworthiness."
Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the Pennsylvania miners underwent. But all of us can benefit from relating it to what we do indeed undergo each and every day as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness an light. And our gratitude should be no less powerful, and no less heartfelt.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.