Chukat 5767 — The Torah of Flying

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This week’s Torah portion contains detail after detail about the purification of a person who had been contaminated through contact with a corpse.

The process started with finding a perfect red heifer, one without even a spot on it, it must have no blemish, and it must never have been used to work the fields.

Eleazar the priest was to bring it outside the camp, and someone was supposed to slaughter the red heifer in his presence. Eleazar was then to take some of the blood from the red heifer and bring it back inside the camp to the Tent of Meeting and sprinkle its blood seven times (not six, not eight, but seven times).

Then Eleazar had to go back outside the camp, and someone was to burn the heifer in his sight – and the instructions specify the animal’s skin, flesh, blood, even its dung was to be burned. The priest was then to take cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the fire with the burning heifer. After all of this, the priest was to wash his clothes, and bathe, and afterwards he was to come into the camp; even after his bathing he was to be considered unclean until the evening.  The one who was in charge of the fire is also instructed to wash his clothes and bathe, and he too is considered unclean until the evening.

Meanwhile, someone in a ritual state of purity was to gather up the ashes, collect them in a ritually pure place outside the camp, and store it to be used lmei nidah, as a water of sprinkling, for purification purposes. The person who was clean who collected the ashes of purification is himself rendered unclean in the process and had to wash his clothes and he too was unclean until the evening.

Not only are the instructions perplexing – the same substance that is used for purification renders those working with it impure – but they are so complicated and detailed! And all of this isn’t even the actual purification ritual itself, it was just the preparation for the purification ritual.

These two factors – elaborate preparation and attention to a lot of detail – are something that we also see in one of my favorite hobbies, piloting aircraft. A few weeks ago on Shabbat I quoted a Chasidic teaching which says you can learn something from anything – and I proceeded to give a sermon about the Torah of riding motorcycles in the desert. That made me realize that even though I have occasionally used aviation references or analogies in my Divrei Torah, I have not yet spoken in general about the Torah we can learn from flying. So that’s what we’re going to explore this morning.

This week’s Torah reading starts out with very elaborate preparation. The whole ritual I described earlier is not the actual purification process itself – rather it is simply the preparation for the purification ritual. And it is critically important that the preparation be done properly, for if one step were done wrong, the purification process would be invalidated: all the effort would have been for nothing.

We also learn this lesson from flying. Preparation is essential. Given all of the details in the preparation of the ashes of purification, clearly the priest performing the ritual needed to be highly trained, so that he knew exactly what to do. Similarly in flying, the person performing the ritual, who we call a pilot instead of a priest, needs to be highly trained in order to perform the ritual of getting the airplane into the sky and returning it to the ground safely.

The first Jew to recognize the importance of training was the first Jew – our father Abraham. When Abraham was getting ready to rescue his nephew Lot, the Torah tells us וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו יְלִידֵי בֵיתוֹ, that Abraham armed his trained servants, born in his house. If the people who were trained were born in his house, it’s probably a safe bet that not only did Abraham recognize the importance of proper training, but he was the trainer himself.

King David famously slew Goliath with a slingshot. Undoubtedly, when David took his famous shot, it was not the first time he picked up a slingshot. He was an incredibly well-trained shot – undoubtedly he spent many hours slinging rocks at the hills while he was tending his father’s sheep.

Training, of course, can’t necessarily provide you with ALL the answers: in flying it is taught that there are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

And sometimes we learn what to do from observing the mistakes of others. I think that’s why the Torah records so many of the blunders of our ancestors. From Abraham passing his wife off as his sister, to the Israelites complaining in the wilderness, to Saul taking his own initiative instead of listening to God, the Torah records a lot of mistakes – and we are supposed to learn from them. As one pilot put it, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make all of them yourself.”

Preparation involves more than just proper training. Preparation also means having a plan. When I was in the military they taught us the “six p’s” – proper prior planning prevents poor performance. Before every flight we have a flight plan in mind: where we are going, how long we are flying, what is the expected weather and how do we adapt to it, how much fuel we need, and what we will do in the event of unforeseen circumstances. This too is a lesson we learn from Torah. When Jacob was preparing to meet up with his brother Esau he wasn’t sure what to expect. So he made a plan, and put it into action. He first scouted out the situation, then he divided his camp so that in the event of an unforeseen attack at least part of his people would escape, he sent gifts, and he prayed.

In aviation, part of the planning process of course is deciding whether or not to go flying at all – after all, as one sage pilot observed, every take-off is optional, but every landing is mandatory. It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground!

Once the preparations have been made – you have a trained pilot and a plan – and you’re ready to go flying, the first thing you do is a preflight inspection. In the preflight inspection you check the airplane to make sure it is ready for flight, checking details like the oil and fuel levels, making sure there are no oil leaks, making sure the propeller is in good condition, checking the inflation of the tires, etc. This week’s Torah portion does not tell us about Eleazar’s preflight inspection – but you can bet he did one. Can you imagine the mess they would have been in if they got the red heifer outside the camp, and then discovered no one had remembered to bring a knife? Or that if they got the fire going and discovered no one remembered to bring the hyssop?

And with all of those details to remember, we come to the second major lesson from flying and this week’s Torah portion: details are important.

We may not understand all of the details of the perplexing ritual of the parah adumah, the red heifer, but the Torah is giving us a metamessage – all of those details are important. God cares about details.

I’ve spoken before about my experiences serving in the U.S. Army. I don’t think I have mentioned that I also very briefly served in the US Navy. I spent 10 days at Naval Aviation Officer’s Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida before deciding I didn’t really want to make a career out of the Navy. The experience was much the way it’s depicted in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” although the real experience was even worse. One thing that made an indelible impression on me was standing in the food line wearing the ugly, baggy fatigues of a new recruit and being yelled at to hold my food tray exactly right. It had to be held right in front of you, the top of your tray exactly at your chin level, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. Not only that, the blade of a knife had to be aligned with the cutting side “inboard,” pointing to the center of the tray, not “outboard” pointing to the outside of the tray. Why? To train us in attention to detail. “Attention to detail!” they would yell at us. “You don’t want to have the landing gear handle in the wrong position when you are getting ready to land!”

I have to admit that at the time I thought the connection between which direction the blade of a knife was pointing and remembering to lower your landing gear was a little tenuous. But I’ve come to appreciate that there is some validity to developing a mindset, an attitude, that respects the importance of details.

This lesson was brought home to me in a flight I made about 10 years ago. I flew my wife, my mother-in-law and a friend from my base in Palo Alto down to Monterey for a company party. It was winter, and the weather was “IFR,” Instrument Flight Rules – meaning we were flying in the clouds most of the way.

After a very pleasant dinner and reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we headed for home about 10pm, with the weather still IFR. Everything seemed totally normal, another routine trip, just like the one down, except at night. And then, while I was flying along in the clouds, sitting there fat dumb and happy over the coastal mountains awaiting clearance for a descent, I noticed the cockpit lights going dim. A quick glance at the instruments showed I was losing electrical power.

My adrenalin shot through the roof – if the electrical system failed we would have no communications and no navigation capability beyond a compass, and we were in the clouds and over mountains. Thank God, I almost instantly recognized and corrected the problem. A quick glance at the instrument panel showed the electric fuel pump in the “on” position. In this particular airplane, the fuel pump uses a lot of current, and it is only used in starting the airplane. I forgot to turn it off, and it caused my alternator to overload and shut down, so my battery was going dead. As soon as I flipped the switch and cycled the alternator the lights came back up to full strength and everything returned to normal. In true macho pilot fashion I even managed to keep my cool so thoroughly that none of the ladies had a clue that their pilot’s pulse was pounding at 150 and his mouth was as dry as James Bond’s martinis.  Five minutes later, we descended out of the clouds and made a normal landing at our home airport.

Attention to detail. Starting an airplane is generally NOT like starting a car. You don’t just turn a key and go. You have to set the mixture, set the prop, flip the master switch, flip a fuel pump switch, prime the engine – lots of details. Get one little detail wrong – one small switch in the wrong position – and you have a potentially disastrous situation.

I think that’s one of the reasons we have all these details in the ritual described in this week’s Torah portion – God wants us to be accustomed to paying attention to details. And when there are a lot of details, it’s a good idea to use a checklist and not rely on your memory, whether it’s to remember to flip a switch, or to remember to bring the hyssop for the sacrifice.

Another one of those details that I think is critical to remember is that the laws of physics are not subject to appeal. As my friend, colleague, teacher, and fellow flying rabbi, Dan Shevitz puts it: “You can go forward or turn. You can’t back up, and if you stop, you crash.” Pretty simple. But it describes some fundamental laws in the physics of flying airplanes – and in the “physics of life.” You can’t back up and undo something you’ve done. You can’t put life on hold and stop while you try and figure things out. You have to keep moving. Stop and you crash.

Now there are some who might say that the Torah teaches us that the laws of physics can be subject to appeal: after all, what about all those miracles, like the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea?

To that I would respond the rabbis in the Talmud teach us that we are not to rely on miracles. Maybe Moses deserved a miracle or two or ten – but you might not be quite so virtuous as Moses and perhaps God won’t do miracles for you.

All the preparation and all the attention to detail in the world will not help you, however, if you have poor judgment. One crucial piece of judgment is to know what to worry about. Put the average person in a small airplane, and as soon as there are a few bumps, he or she gets nervous. The truth is that a few bumps, even big bumps, are nothing to worry about. The things to worry about are things a layperson would not even notice – like an airplane running low on fuel with headwinds stronger than anticipated, or deteriorating weather at the destination. Similarly, today people often worry about going to Israel because of the possibility of terrorist attacks. In the last year, even including fatalities from the war in Lebanon, fewer than a hundred people were killed in Israel from acts of war or terrorism. Yet 600 people were killed in car accidents. But no one says I’m not going to Israel because the drivers are too dangerous! The Torah also has examples of people worrying about the wrong thing – like our ancestors in the desert worrying about the Canaanites in the land, instead of worrying about how to serve God.

Judgment is more important than skill. We can also see this lesson in the Bible. King David was incredibly skilled, but his son, King Solomon, had better judgment. Through victories on the battlefield David was able to create a kingdom. But by using his judgment and negotiating skills, Solomon was able to expand the kingdom and build the temple without having to go to war. In Ecclesiastes Solomon said “Wisdom is better than weapons of war.”

The ideal, of course, is the marriage of judgment and skill. We say “the superior pilot uses his superior judgment to stay out of situations that would require the use of his superior skill.”

So, in summary, I would say the essence of the Torah of flying is threefold:

1) Be prepared

2) Pay attention to details

3) Cultivate good judgment

However, in addition to those practical skills, there is also an important philosophical lesson we can derive from flying.

For a pilot, getting there is often way more than half the fun. We’ve all heard the expression “life is a journey, not a destination.” As King Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men.” There is no need to be in a rush to reach the final destination.

That is why in flying, higher and faster is not always better. The most fun I’ve ever had flying was not in the fastest most sophisticated airplane I have ever flown. Rather it was in an old pre-World War II Tiger Moth, an open cockpit biplane with no electrical system, flying along over Australia at 80 miles an hour 300 feet above the ground. The time to land came all too soon.

The Torah tells us our ancestors wandered the desert for forty years. I hope they at least had the sense to enjoy the scenery!

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Barry

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