By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The death this past week of 37 miners in central China – for those who were aware of the disaster – presented a tragic counterpoint to the enthralling rescue of the 33 Chilean miners that took place mere days earlier.
Those events, along with the loss of 29 miners in the collapse of a West Virginia mine in April, and that of nine other American miners in eight accidents since, have served, no doubt, to cause countless people to imagine what it must be like to be confined thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, physically separated from loved ones – indeed, from the entire world.
And it was surely a rare individual who, following the recent drama in Chile, didn’t picture himself shut into in a tight, dark capsule as it wound its way through the stone and earth separating the mine from civilization. And, then, emerging, finally, wonderfully, into the light and fresh air, into the presence of family and friends; laying eyes again on familiar things, the sun, the sky, the faces (leave aside the book deals). Imagine the immeasurable gratitude that would well up in any human heart at such a moment.
And then consider that each of us undergoes a similar experience each and every day.
We wake up in the morning.
It’s not only the fact that in sleep we are unconscious, not in control, or that people can and do die in their sleep; or even that sleep, like death, is insistent, and will only allow itself to be postponed so long. Chazal said something more; they considered sleep itself to be a virtual microcosm of death – “one sixtieth” of it, in their turn of phrase and thought.
The regularity with which we are granted new life each day dulls us, regrettably, to the indescribable import of the fact. That is only human nature, what the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson alluded to 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. And that is why, while all too many of us awaken each day with grumbling about the speed with which morning arrived, our mesorah mandates that a Jew’s first words upon awakening in the morning are to be those of “Modeh Ani” – one of the first things frum parents teach their young children.
“I gratefully acknowledge You,” the short tefilla goes, “living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me with compassion. Abundant is Your faithfulness.”
Few of us, thankfully, will ever experience anything like what the trapped miners in Chile underwent. But all of us can benefit from thinking about those men, and consciously, pointedly, relating their experience and feelings to what we do in fact undergo each and every day, as we pull ourselves from unconsciousness and dark into awareness and light. Our gratitude should be boundless.
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]