On Friday we woke to the grim news: The five people aboard a missing submersible died in a “catastrophic” event, bringing a sorrowful end to the massive search for the vessel that was lost during a voyage to the Titanic. The world paused and acknowledged the words of the Ocean Gates Expeditions spokesperson: “Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time.”
The search for the submersible gripped the attention of the world last week. It reminded many of the Thai cave drama and rescue in 2018. People trapped in the dark, their fresh air and food running out, the dreadful fear and the impending horror of a death far from your loved ones. Sadly there was no dramatic rescue this time, just shattered pieces of wreckage close to the century old remains of the Titanic, the broken hearts of their families, and our own diminishment at the loss of fellow lives. We were reminded that in a world of war, violence and frequent mass losses (think the other recent ocean tragedy off Greece) we can still pause and reflect that every human being counts, that in the words of the Talmud “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” (Sanhedrin 37a).
The Ocean Gates statement added: “These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans”. These intrepid individuals reminded us that the human psyche hungers for the excitement of the new, the allure of the undiscovered. Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great teacher of the twentieth century, speaks of the cosmic spirit of human beings; how we love to travel, seek, explore and search the uncharted lanes of the universe. He illustrates this with the whimsical rabbinic comment that God created the first human beings from cosmic dust or earth gathered from all corners of the galaxy, “God formed the human out of the soil…” (Genesis 2:7).
Soloveitchik does however add another interpretation; that humanity was formed from clods of earth gathered from one spot only, the sacred place in Jerusalem where the Temple would later be built. This interpretation suggests the very opposite of the cosmic yearning – it’s about being rooted to one space, it’s about the need for a secure spot in an insecure and uncertain world. It’s also a warning about hubris, about recognising how small we are in this universe and, therefore, not getting too up ourselves. There’s a lovely teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great Polish Hasidic master at the turn of the 19th century. He is credited with saying the following – “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B). But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27).
Perhaps there’s a lesson here about being too reliant on our technological prowess: The Titanic was said to be unsinkable because of its size and technological advancements. It had eight watertight technological advancements. It had eight watertight compartments on the boat’s hull that would close if water entered them, allowing the ship to stay afloat. There were similar claims about the exceptional safety features of the submersible although reports are now emerging that experts had questioned these. Arthur Loibl, a retired businessman and adventurer from Germany, who went on a voyage to the Titanic site in 2021 said that while he was able to get a view of the iconic ocean liner, in hindsight he felt “a bit dubious” about how the dive was carried out. “I was a bit naive, looking back now,” he said. “It was a kamikaze operation.”
This, of course, raises the ethical issue of how we measure the advantages of risk – taking against the possible harm or loss to human life. Jewish law recommends that while we can engage in dangerous behaviour, it is for the advancement of human life and the risk should not exceed the danger. There are other moral issues that should not be minimised, such as the fact that this undersea adventure was only open to the extremely wealthy and whether the huge costs of the rescue mission were justifiable. The Ocean Gates statement that this trip was about a passion for protecting the ocean is puzzling and dubious, and begs the question about respecting the watery graveside of the many hapless victims of the Titanic itself. The eerie similarities (unheeded warnings, exotic tourism) and juxtaposition of the remains of two vessels may be a voice of warning from the deep unforgiving sea bed itself…
Notwithstanding this, the human hunger for adventure and advancement should not be dismissed, but paradoxically be managed with care, caution and thoughtfulness…
Following the Challenger Shuttle disaster in 1986, President Ronald Reagan quoted from the famous poem, High Flight, about those who seek adventure and go where angels fear to tread. Its sentiments capture the spirit of those who set off on this submersible… they hopefully got to experience some of the elation of discovery before their untimely deaths…
High Flight (John G. Magee Jr.)
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
“Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.