Lessons from the Shipwreck Medusa — Yom Kippur Sermon

If I could hold it up—though it is really quite large—or project it on a screen, most of you, I think, would recognize the monumental painting called The Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericault now hanging in the Louvre.  With gruesome detail, this painting depicts the final hours of the 15 survivors and many more dead riding a half submerged, storm tossed raft off the coast of Western Africa.  In the foreground of the painting is a father holding his dead son, his blank face a mask of suffering.  In the back, forming a dramatic triangle, a half-naked man desperately waves his ragged shirt at a distant ship, while others around him lift their hands pathetically pointing and praying.  In his zeal for realism, the painter even exhumed dead bodies from their graves in order to get the shapes and colors of the floating dead just right.

Unveiled in strife-torn France in 1819, The Raft  became a heady symbol of the dangerous excesses and incompetence of monarchy and an international symbol of the urgent necessity for revolution now, appearing on album and book covers in Europe, Ireland and South America.  In Germany, for example, a 20th century book on socialism dedicated to Che Guevara displays this picture on the front, just beneath the title.

The story of the ship called the Medusa is even more dramatic than its painting.  The ship set sail for Senegal in 1817 with the new governor, his family, about 100 armed soldiers of several different countries, and a couple hundred more passengers including women, children, and businessmen.

Due to the extreme incompetence and hubris of the captain, the Medusa ran aground on the famous and well mapped Bank of Arguin, some 60 kilometers off the coast of what is now Mauritania.  Still, the situation did not need to be so dire.  The ship would have easily floated off the shoals if the 16 heavy canons had been thrown overboard, but the captain would not permit it for reasons which appear somewhat delusional.  Instead he delayed any decisive action until a moment of panic in which he ordered that they abandon ship.

Of course, as we learned from the Titanic movie, there would not be enough life boats.  A makeshift raft was hastily thrown together for some 150 remaining passengers.  By the time they were all loaded, the raft sunk so far that water was up around the chests of those on the outer edges.  With nothing to hold on to, some passengers simply floated off right away and were gone.

The plan was that the four lifeboats would tow the raft the 60 kilometers to the African shore.  However, headway on roughening seas was very difficult, and supplies were low.  The captain and governor in their lifeboats grew afraid.  In a dramatic, horrifying gesture recounted by one of the raft’s 15 survivors, the tow lines were severed with a single blow of an ax. ….  Just like that.  The helpless raft was set adrift, while the boats rowed to relative safety on the invisible shore.

Back on the raft, no one knew they were going to be set adrift and no one was meaningfully in charge.  With no enforceable command or communication structure, the first night a fight broke out in the utter darkness between armed soldiers and sailors.

In the morning, the raft was 60 people lighter.

Through the next few days the scene would degenerate further, to include the tossing of the weak and sick overboard, and cannibalism.  In the end, only 15 would remain, half of these would die within a week of their rescue.

Now, I know any one of you, could say with good reason, “that is a great story Rabbi, though more than a little gruesome, but I don’t see why we are hearing it tonight, on solemn Kol Nidrei.”

Tonight we speak about vows we have made and promises we have meant to keep.  In a way, it is an evening of lovely music and esoteric meaning.  Nobody really makes these kinds of vows that we are annulling anymore, and unless its New Year’s Eve, when we make promises we do our best to keep them, though we understand that, as our cantor said to me when I missed a rehearsal, life happens.  Sometimes the unavoidable does happen and we break promises and miss appointments and life goes on.

So what position and role do vows and commitments have in Judaism?

I think still they are fundamental to our lives with one another.   And that’s where the story of the Medusa comes in, to help us figure out what vows or fundamental commitments we have made and how we are supposed to honor them.

You see, I think by the mere fact of being human and in relationship, by being Jewish with family and friends in community, by virtue of our fundamental interconnectedness we have entered into a mutual vow or obligation, for example, to not endanger anyone else’s life by our own hubris and incompetence.  By our presence here tonight standing with one another before the Torah we are stating to the best of our abilities we will be responsible human beings.  We will fulfill the basic obligations of our humanity.

A basic obligation is to not be the captain of any Medusa, Titanic or Donner Party.  By which I do not mean that we are promising to never have disasters, because of course we will.  What we are promising is that we will do our utmost to not cause any disasters or make any disaster worse through pride or short-sightedness or a desire to look cool or wave at pretty girls on the shore.

I believe that a fundamental core of Judaism is that we adults who are in charge of our own ships with others riding in them, we are obligated to be mature adults and steer those ships carefully.  To, as my personal hero Johnny Cash used to sing, “Walk the Line.”         If we have character flaws such as pride or greed or jealousy, or just like to show off, we are required to keep them in check, to address those flaws with struggle and growth before they ruin anyone else’s life.  If we have addictions we are obliged to get help and deal with them before they shipwreck our lives and our families.

The sin of hubris sunk the Medusa and the Titanic and countless other ships, expeditions, safaris, business, and some marriages.  The Medusa was also sunk by the sin of incompetence.

I know it may sound harsh and prejudicial to name incompetence a sin.  Not everyone has the same skill set and abilities, or equal access to education and training.  I think our basic obligation to do no harm to one another, however, requires that we know and respect the boundaries of our abilities.  Various professions mandate years of specialized education, bar exams and licensing before an individual can practice that profession.  A primary reason for this is to insure competence.  To practice without the education and exams and licensing is against the law.

Where there is no agency or legislation to insure that we be competent or the appropriate agency has failed to do so properly, we are obligated to monitor ourselves.  In the case of the captain of the Medusa, everyone failed: the one who made him a captain as well as the company who gave him a ship.  In the language of Yom Kippur, everyone sinned through the violation of the public trust.

If the circumstances of our lives require skills or knowledge that we do not have, we are obliged to seek that learning before harm is done to others.  That may sound like a lot but imagine these common, everyday tasks, performed without proper knowhow:  driving with a large boat in tow, rewiring your own home, burning leaves, or caring for a baby.  In each case the hubris and incompetence of proceeding without skill and info is reckless, life endangering, and, in my book, in this book, a serious kind of sin.

Admitting that we need more info and ability than we now have requires honesty and humility.  Both honesty and humility are among the virtues we pray for on Yom Kippur and I hope try to cultivate the rest of the year.  Both of these, honesty and humility contribute to and are an integral part of the grown-up personality that preserves life instead of harming it.

In this light, we make a startling discovery:  the prayers and sermons that sometimes seem saccharine and old fashioned, the ritual beating of the breast and endless confession, the forgiving and being forgiven and vowing to do better, all the time and trappings of Yom Kippur may have to do less with finding balm for our souls than basic training for the life and death struggle of the coming year.

Sometimes life isn’t like that, but we Jews know all too well, from within our own family circles to the fullest sphere of world history, sometimes it is exactly this, life and death, and regardless every days brings us a little closer to one or the other.  Whether by car wreck or by shipwreck, the fabric of life is everywhere worn and nearly torn.

May each and every one of us leave this hallowed sanctuary more ready to support and preserve life than end it.  May we be the captains and sailors that know our jobs and do not abandon our responsibilities.

Hubris and incompetence were not the only failings of the Medusa’s captain.   He also failed to set the appropriate priorities.  Without the right priorities, all decisions become skewed.  The priority of any captain should be the life and welfare of all the passengers.  This was clearly not among the captain’s top priorities.  He chose a route that was dangerous—that no other ship would take—in order to save time. When the ship ran aground, he could have freed it by dumping the heavy cannons, but his delusional relationship with the King was more important.  He abandoned 150 people on the raft to almost certain death, because they were not as important as his own life or that of the governor’s.

If his priority was the welfare of all 400 passengers, then the above decisions would not even have been on the table.  Holding the wrong priorities can result in life and death level mistakes.  Having the right priorities and the capacity to hold them even them under duress—are both learned abilities.

This kind of character isn’t honed overnight.  Being able to choose right priorities and to make decisions according to them is a matter of practice and repetition and strength.

On Yom Kippur we pray for the right priorities and the wisdom and strength to live by them.

There is something else for which we often pray, which the Captain of the Medusa very notably lacked.  Whether for family or financial issues, legal, medical, or logistical, a big part of human life—and death—involves intensive problem solving.  Historical accounts of the wreck of the Medusa all comment on the remarkable lack of thought put into his decisions.  For example, did he consider the possibly that the ship might not sink but merely sit trapped on the shoals?  Because that is what ultimately happened.  As the lifeboats rowed away and the raft slowly sank, the ship remained fully intact on the sand bar until it was found by another ship two months later and the handful of smart sailors who hid on board liberated.  By all accounts, his lack of maturity and experience, appropriate priorities and basic human compassion prevented him from taking the time and energy necessary of the kind of serious problem solving process that could have saved the lives of perhaps all of his passengers.

While it is not a sin to be unable to solve a problem, I believe in such matters of life and death it is a sin to not openly and exhaustively explore every possibility.  This is in fact one of the greatest strengths of the Jewish people.  Whether it is how to survive the Inquisition, rescue hostages at Entebbe, or bake delicious cakes with matzah meal, we don’t stop until we have figured out how to overcome, flourish, and eat our Passover cake too.

In some ways, this heritage of problem solving comes from our intellectual tradition.  Centuries of study and debate helped prepare us for the grueling process of working through possibilities, as has our history of struggle, expulsion, and persecution.

I believe our ability to survive and flourish also stems from our work and prayer each year on Yom Kippur.  To focus on what is most important in life, pounding it again and again on our chests and minds; to train ourselves in painstaking self-analysis–This is how we forge of our mortal shell a mind that does not give up and a heart that sees it through.

Tomorrow when we chant that gruesome liturgy—who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst, I invite you all to explore another interpretation.

Do not say, who will die by ship wreck and who by car wreck.  Rather, say who will face shipwreck and who car wreck.  Know that on the august day, by properly preparing our hearts and our minds, by addressing our weaknesses and focusing our priorities, by doing the work we came here to do deeply and sincerely, we can alter our fate.  We can write our names in the Book of Life and declare our selves ready for the coming year, to choose life and not death for ourselves and our fellow travelers.

Let us ready ourselves. Watch the sky and check the tide.

We sail into the new year, right after break fast.

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