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When the Lights Go Out

Yizkor Yom Kippur 5779

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Kehilat Shanghai

There was an incredible news story this year in Thailand about the youth football team—in America we call it soccer—that went exploring in a cave and were trapped by rising floodwaters. On June 23rd the Wild Boars—not a very kosher name, of course—and their assistant coach decided to go exploring, as they often did, in the Tham Luang Non cave network, an area near their homes in the mountain range north of Chiang Rai, the very northernmost part of Thailand close to Myanmar. I’m sure you are familiar with the basic facts: how the boys, between 11 and 17 years old, and their 25 year-old assistant coach often ventured deep into the caves to explore, and to initiate new members into the team. How they had torches, flashlights, but virtually no other supplies. How they were planning to stay for just an hour or so and then go home.

But the coach and his team didn’t know that almost as soon as they entered the cave a sudden and torrential rainfall began. While the caves are normally unsafe from early July through November, during the rainy season, this time the rains unexpectedly arrived early. The team and was trapped, and had to retreat farther into the cave to escape the rising floodwaters. Their bicycles and backpacks were soon discovered outside the cave, and a full-scale search and rescue operation, truly international in composition and ultimately involving more than 10,000 people including 100 of the most skilled divers in the world, was begun.

The scale of the operation, and the difficulty in finding the boys and then, especially, rescuing them, was extraordinary. A variety of plans were suggested and attempted, including simply leaving the group in the cave and ferrying in food, water and medical supplies by divers until the waters receded in a few months. But falling oxygen levels made an active rescue critical. Huge amounts of water had to be pumped from the caves. Diving experts from around the world arrived, as well as rock climbers and zip-line specialists and physicians and anesthesiologists all added their skills to the complex and delicate operation. As the world followed every twist and turn in the story—including the tragic death of one volunteer expert diver, Saman Kunan of Thailand—the boys and their assistant coach were eventually all rescued, in essentially good health and without permanent damage, after two weeks. It was the feel-good story of a year that desperately needed one.

Even after the divers reached them with limited supplies, it took another week to rescue them, and that rescue process itself was incredibly dangerous, involving sedating the boys, encasing them in wetsuits and masks, changing pressurized air canisters along the mostly underwater route and much else. Amazing. If you are a diver you are even more amazed by the incredible difficulty of this operation.

There were many subthemes and human-interest elements in this almost fantastically complicated situation, and many true heroes. The assistant coach is a former Buddhist monk named Ekkaphon Chanthawong. He helped the boys survive the ordeal, led them in meditation, kept their spirits up, and accepted full responsibility for endangering them even though the boys’ parents firmly insisted he had done nothing wrong and the team members all loved him.

Interestingly, three of the 12 boys, and the assistant coach himself, are stateless, having grown up in an area in which boundaries are blurred between Thailand, Myanmar, China and Laos. One of the most positive results of the operation was that the stateless boys and their coach were all granted Thai citizenship after the ordeal was over, and Thailand agreed to end the stateless situation by the year 2024.

This incredible rescue operation in the water-filled caves of northern Thailand made you feel proud to be part of the human race, and affirmed that we still have the ability, in this increasingly polarized world, to work together across all boundary lines for a good and noble purpose.

But the Tham Luang Nang Non cave story also made me think about how those boys and their 25-year old coach managed to keep their spirits up during their long, dark sojourn. It took nine days—nine—before the first rescue divers found them. That was their first human communication with the outside world from the time they went into the cave. So how did they manage? Not the practical details of keeping alive on slim rations and small quantities of drinkable water, difficult as that must have been. But as the batteries on their torches weakened and went out, as they rationed their small supplies, as the light faded, how did they manage to keep their hope alive? How did they keep their spirits up in the total darkness of the cave?

What was it that allowed them to survive spiritually in the midst of blackness? How did these untrained adolescents overcome the natural human tendency to despair in such a dire predicament?

There is no doubt that the soccer team must have had a great sense of cohesion, the kind that some sports create. There is also no doubt that the young coach who led them, the former monk, was a very good, sensitive and caring man, and that his training surely helped them. Perhaps his presence, his humility and piety enabled them to see light where it simply didn’t exist. It clearly took something extra for them to be able to survive all that darkness.

What can we learn from these young boys and their courageous and noble assistant coach? What can they teach us about how we, ourselves, might overcome the darkness that sometimes enters our lives?

I have read a great deal about this group of young people and the fantastic rescue operation. And I cannot say for certain just what it is that kept them strong and unified in the absolute darkness and isolation of the cave. But it had to be something strong and noble, a very special light that came from within. I believe that there was an essential light of goodness that kept hope alive in those dark caverns.

For as we approach our Yizkor service on this Yom Kippur, we know that none of us—none of us—are exempt from times of personal darkness and even despair. We know that all of us—all of us—will lose someone we love and depend upon. We know that we will live through painful and tragic losses that damage us, and make the world appear very dark. Sometimes it will be as dark as the inside depths of a subterranean cave.

How are we to deal with this darkness? A Chasidic story provides a potential answer.

Once there was a Chasid who was afraid of the dark. “Tell me, Rabbi,” the Chasid asked, “How can I chase the darkness from the world?”

The Rebbe thought for a moment, and then took a broom and handed it to the Chasid. “First you must go down into the deep darkness of the shul’s basement. Go and sweep the darkness out of the basement.” The Rebbe being the Rebbe and the Chasid, being a Chasid, did as he was told.

But before long, the Chasid returned. “Rebbi,” he said, “I swept and swept, but the darkness did not budge an inch!” The Rebbe nodded, and murmured sympathetically. Darkness can be stubborn thing… Next, he reached into his drawer and took out a ruler.

“Take this little stick and drive the darkness out by beating it.” So down the dark stairs the Chasid went with the ruler. But he soon returned and told the Rebbe, “Beating it did not chase away the darkness!”

Next the Rebbe suggested that the Chasid shout and scream at the darkness to frighten it away. Once more, down the stairs he went, but yelling savagely at the dark did not work either; it only made the Chasid’s voice hoarse.

Exhausted, frustrated, he made his way up the stairs, tired and afraid, and approached the Rebbe again. This time, the Rebbe took out a candle, lit the candle, and led the Chasid back down the stairs. And it was a miracle! For wherever the light’s glow met the darkness, the darkness evaporated before their eyes.

“We dispel darkness,” the Rebbe said gently, “Not by sweeping gestures, or by violence, or by loud noisy cries, but by bringing a little bit of brightness to our world. That is the only way to dispel darkness.”

You know, we have always been afraid of the dark. Our sages tell us that as night descended at the end of humanity’s very first day on earth, Adam saw the sun go down, and was terrified. Would the sunlight ever return? He did not know, having no experience of darkness. So Adam sat and wept. Was the light to be banished forever? And God gave him the capacity to think of a great idea, perhaps humanity’s most important innovation: to pick up and strike two stones together and so to create a spark that brings fire and light. The name that Midrash Tehillim gives the stones is suggestive: one is ofel, deep darkness, while the other is tzalmavet, the shadow of death. It is out of these very elements of dark despair that light is created.

This year, as in every year, many of us have experienced moments of anxiety, fear and loss. We seek to banish the darkness, to sweep it away, but our efforts may seem futile. We strike out, yet change nothing positively, bring no new light. We shout angrily, but the world is the world, it is large and indifferent, even sometimes hostile. The gloom lingers.

My friends, we are only finite creatures of flesh and blood and weakness who cannot prevent sickness and loss, who cannot stop terror attacks or alleviate great suffering. So how can we possibly remove darkness from the world?

We can’t. But we can learn from the Chasidic story: it is not our task to sweep away darkness, or beat it into submission or shout it away. Instead it is our task to kindle light. When things seem darkest we, each of us, and more importantly all of us together, have the capacity to bring, from our very own souls and hearts, the gift of light.

We can learn from those lost boys in the Thai cave. If we have faith, if we seek to perform acts of goodness and blessing, we can bring light in places of darkness.

As we begin our Yizkor service, may we be strengthened by the understanding that light can and will come. In our remembrance of loss, may we be fortified to act to illuminate the darkness.