“That Sinking Feeling: Lessons From the Costa Concordia”
Last weekend we all watched the tragedy of the Costa Concordia cruise ship turned on its side after hitting some big rocks in shallow water off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. 11 people died and 21 are still missing. The captain, Franceso Schettino, apparently abandoned ship before many of the passengers. He later said that he was helping passengers get into the life boats when he slipped and fell into one of them, prompting a coast guard officer to yell at him in vain, “Get back on board damn it!”
When the Titanic went down, women and children were given precedence. A great majority of them survived because of the chivalry of those, like Benjamin Guggenheim, who chose to stay behind, changed into his evening clothes, and said to those to whom he gave his seat in the lifeboats, “We dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
If reports are to be believed, the Costa Concordia crew fought with the passengers for the few seats in the lifeboats. The captain was among the 1st to flee, giving the lie to the noble ideal that the captain always goes down with the ship. The strong pushed aside the weak. And the moral order that defines us as civilized—as the best of creation, as those formed in the image of Gd—also perished with the victims.
I was trying to make some sense of it all when Rabbi Benjamin Blech sent me an article he wrote about it on www.aish.com. It seems that Blech was once a passenger on the Costa Concordia in the summer of 2008 serving as a rabbinic scholar-in-residence for a kosher program. He writes: I won’t ever forget the luxury, the beauty, and the latest state-of-the-art technology that was evident throughout. A high ranking member of the crew gave me a private tour, pointing out some of the remarkable advanced equipment and GPS which insured our total safety. What stayed with me was his jocular reference to a famous ship of a century ago, as he assured me that, “No one will ever have a Titanic experience here.” And yet that’s exactly what happened.
How could such a thing happen? With all the advances in modern technology, how can a ship go aground like that? The answer has profound implications for our understanding of the root cause of such tragedies. Actually, there was no reason for the Titanic to have sunk either. It happened only because people in 1912 were so awed by the size and technological achievements of the Titanic that the thought it was invincible. That permitted the order to be given to sail “full speed ahead” through icy waters. This order was given by the Titanic’s owners to recapture the trophy for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic from the Germans to help with publicity and revenue. And so the captain of the Titanic selected a northern—more icy—crossing which was much shorter than the traditional southerly route used by mariners during that time of the year.
This Titanic disaster was completely avoidable. North Atlantic crossings held perils well known to mariners and firsthand reports of ice conditions had reached the officers of the Titanic earlier that day. The Titanic had a radio, and both sent and received a steady stream of messages throughout the voyage. Wireless operators had 2 functions: track weather reports and transmit messages for the rich. They made their money from the latter. On April 14, 1912, another ship, the California, continually sent wireless messages to the Titanic that a large iceberg of one million tons was directly in the Titanic’s path.
No matter how good the technology of the Titanic, it could not compensate for moral error. Receiving these messages annoyed the operator trying to get messages out for their rich patrons. In fact, the Titanic operator demanded the California operator stop bothering him. He did and turned off his wireless. The messages never made it to the Captain. The 804 people who died were killed by greed. No matter how good the technology of the Titanic, it could not compensate for that.
Today’s Torah portion tells the detailed story of 7 of the 10 plagues that Gd rained upon Egypt because Pharaoh refused to let the Jewish people go. Each plague brought more and more devastation. By the end of the Torah portion, Egypt was in ruin with its fields and livestock destroyed. Thousands upon thousands of people had died. Yet Pharaoh still stubbornly refused to let the Jews go. Yes, in the beginning, Gd had hardened his heart, but by the end of the Torah portion it was Pharaoh who hardened his own heart. Couldn’t Pharaoh see the signs that his stubbornness was ruining his people and his land? Anyone could see it. Yet he put his own ego and pride above his people.
The Costa Concordia was the proud symbol of contemporary scientific nautical marvels. It, too, was unsinkable. Its GPS unerringly kept it on a safe course. Yet the ego of the captain who wanted to go closer to shore so that he could show off his “toy” cruise ship to friends on the island overrode every precaution. A GPS system can only give us direction. It can’t force us to steer in the direction it points to.
Perhaps that’s the message for us that comes out of this tragedy. Gd has given us a GPS. Rabbi Blech calls it “Gd’s Perfect System.” Otherwise known as the Torah, it guides us through life, pointing to the proper paths we should take. But it can’t force us to stay on the right path. We still have the freedom to obey or to disregard its warnings. What we can never avoid, however, is the consequences of our actions. The consequences of the captain of the Costa Concordia ignoring his GPS resulted in catastrophe. The consequences of ignoring our GPS—the Torah—can be equally as devastating.
We live in an age that worships every new scientific breakthrough. We are obsessed with gadgets meant to make our lives easier and more fun-filled. Yet we spend so little time stressing the importance of life’s values, without which all of these advances are meaningless. This tragedy happened because of human error. It was compounded by striking moral failures. Only with a renewed commitment to the morality of what’s right and wrong can we prevent disasters of Titanic proportions in the future. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis