By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Chelsey B. “Sully” Sullenberger continues to amaze me. Of course, we are all familiar with the “miracle on the Hudson”, in which Sullenberger, the heroic captain of US Airways flight 1549, successfully landed his crippled aircraft in the frigid Hudson River just minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia airport on the morning of January 15th.
We are also certainly impressed by the deep concern with he expressed over the health and wellbeing of the passengers and flight crew, a concern which propelled him to search the entire airplane cabin twice after its evacuation, to ensure that no one remained on board (this, despite the fact that the rear of the plane was rapidly filling with water). Sullenberger also repeatedly contacted authorities that day until he was able to confirm that all of the passengers were accounted for and safe.
Each act alone would have been sufficient to garner our collective respect and admiration.
But there is something else which has emerged about Sullenberger subsequently that I also find to be quite impressive. The pilot recently signed a lucrative book deal with Harper Collins to detail his life story, as well as to record his version of that fateful winter morning. (He will also author a second book, which will feature a collection of inspirational poetry.) The combined deal will pay him a reported $3 million.
Based on Sullenberger’s age (58), newfound wealth and notoriety, not to mention the jarring trauma associated with his emergency landing, I would have expected the pilot to retire from active flying. After all, he has accomplished everything that there is to achieve in aviation, including a number of years as an Air Force pilot. He is slated for a comfortable retirement and can assuredly work the speaking circuit for some time to come.
However, according to Alex Clemens, a spokesman for Sullenberger’s family “Sully” intends to return to his job with US Airways sometime in June or July. “While he has agreed to write a book about his life and the dramatic events of January 15, 2009, he is eager to return to his profession and the US Airways family of 34,000 employees in the near future,” Clemens said.
Clearly, in Sully’s world, there is more to flying than simply an opportunity to generate an income for his family. To the now-famous captain, flying is a means of serving others, of being part of something that is larger than himself. In his mind, he was simply doing his job that morning, nothing more. For him to give up his passion because of one moment of glory would undermine everything that he had worked towards until that moment.
In our cheapened era of self-serving entertainers, corrupt politicians and dishonest CEOs, it is comforting to know that people with Chelsey Sullenberger’s combination of courage, care and selflessness still exist.
Of course, Klal Yisroel does not need to look far to identify many of our own such “heroes” of the spirit. L’havdil elef havdalos, there have been many such individuals throughout our long and storied history who have displayed much greatness of character and devotion to their Maker while moving past serious personal challenges.
One that comes readily to mind is Aharon HaKohein, who suffered through one of the most sudden and dramatic shifts of personal circumstance in Jewish history. On 1 Nissan, 2449, after many months of waiting, the Mishkan was formally dedicated. At that time, Aharon was conferred with the status of Kohain Gadol, and assumed the primary role in performing the daily avodah.
However, this moment of great joy quickly turned tragic. As we recently read, immediately after Aharon dutifully completed his personal avodah, his great sons Nadav and Avihu lost their lives.
One can only begin to imagine Aharon’s enormous pain. Just a few moments earlier, Aharon was in the midst of experiencing perhaps the greatest day of his life. Now, his world was turned upside down, and he was forced to quickly accept the painful loss of his beloved sons.
How did Aharon react to such challenging circumstances? With great strength and courage. Aharon silently accepted Hashem’s will and continued to perform the avodah as if nothing tragic had occurred. For this, he was rewarded with a special, direct command from Hashem.
When Aharon heard that his sons had been G-d fearing, he remained silent, and was rewarded for his silence… From where do we know that he received a reward for his silence? From the fact that he was privileged to have the divine utterance addressed to him alone, as it is said (Vayikra 10:8), “And Hashem spoke to Aharon.” (Vayikra Rabbah 12:2)
This same greatness of spirit can be seen in the conduct of Rabbi Akiva, who lost twenty four thousand disciples during the sefirah period. Again, let us try to comprehend how awesome this tragedy was. The personal story of Rabbi Akiva is well known. Until the age of forty, he was a poor, ignorant shepherd. From this lowly beginning, he rose to become the greatest sage of his generation, and one of the greatest in history.
However, he was not content with his personal growth. Rabbi Akiva invested great degrees of effort to nurture his own students. Soon he developed one of the largest cohorts of talmidim ever known in our history. Imagine the great satisfaction that Rabbi Akiva must have received from the knowledge that he was directly responsible for such tremendous outpouring of Torah study.
Suddenly, and without warning or explantaion, everything started to collapse underneath him. This great mass of talmidei chachamim quickly dwindled, until they were completely gone. One can only begin to imagine the deep sense of loss and pain that Rabbi Akiva must have suffered as a result of this great tragedy.
Still, he did not become despondent. Rather, he rose up yet again, this time in his advanced years, and raised a small group of talmidim (including R’ Meir, R’ Yehudah, R’ Yosi, and R’ Shimon bar Yochai) who “filled Eretz Yisroel with Torah” (Bereishis Rabbah 61:3). It was through them that he would rebuild once again, and ensure that his Torah legacy would be preserved.
The lesson that we must learn from these spiritual giants is clear. In these very challenging times it is easy for a person to become despondent, and allow his circumstances to overtake him. Still, it is our responsibility to emulate Aharon HaKohein and Rabbi Akiva and do everything within our power to rise above our personal adversity and continue to pursue our one true goal, the fulfillment of ratzon Hashem.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Principal at Yeshiva Shearis Yisroel/Veitzener Cheder and an instructor at Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, IL. For more information about Rabbi Hoff, visit his website, www.rabbihoff.com.