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Sending out an SOS

Rosh HaShanah Eve 5781, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

I thought I’d share what someone told me recently, “Last year at the High Holy Days I prayed for world peace, reduced traffic and more time at home. I guess I really should have read the fine print…”

Should have read the fine print indeed. We all should have read that fine print, no? I mean time at home is great, reduced traffic is welcome, and Lord knows world peace is nothing to sneeze at. But in this crazy time of pandemic, stuck at home for months at a time, unable to do most of what we are used to doing and not sure when we will be able to do so again, who needs it? Who would choose that if it were a choice offered last High Holy Days?

But there wasn’t any way to know that last Rosh HaShanah, was there? We prayed for what we prayed for, we thought what we thought about what would happen in the coming year, we prepared, worked and plotted how our lives would go, and then, well, other things happened. What’s the old Yiddish motto? Mensch tracht und Gott lacht. We plan and God laughs. We launch our ships thinking we are sailing on a voyage to somewhere fabulous, and then… it’s not safe to go back in the ocean after all.

Which calls to mind an ancient story. The only survivors of a shipwreck, Shlomo and Moishe, are stranded on a desert island in the middle of the ocean. To rescue them from their predicament Shlomo works hard to build a signal fire, but Moishe just sits calmly on a rock and stares out to sea.

As Shlomo rushes about gathering palm fronds for the fire and feverishly trying to light the pile, he becomes frustrated with Moishe. "Why don’t you get over here and help me build this fire or they will never find us!"

But Moishe placidly replies, "Don’t worry. They’ll find us.”

Shlomo snaps, “What do you mean, don’t worry? We’re stranded on a desert island hundreds of miles from anywhere and no one knows we are here. What do you mean they’ll find us?”

And Moishe answers, “Don’t worry. They’ll find us. I gave a $20,000 pledge to the Federation last year and I haven’t paid it yet. Shlomo, believe me, they'll find us!"

I thought of that classic joke recently when, in this year of nearly unreservedly bad news, there was some good news. This being the no good, very bad, incredibly unlucky year 2020, naturally it started with bad news.

This real-life shipwreck story happened six weeks ago. One day in early August three men set out in a 22-foot boat to make a 26-mile journey from the Pulawat to the Pulap atolls in the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean. The men were experienced sailors, but weather conditions changed suddenly and they went off course and eventually ran out of fuel. Fortunately, they landed on tiny, uninhabited Pikelot Island, fully 118 nautical miles from their intended destination. Pulap, the island they were originally headed for, is about 500 miles south of Guam, so when the men didn’t arrive a search was requested from the US Coast Guard’s Joint Rescue Sub Center in Guam. It in turn enlisted help from other organizations throughout the region, including the Australian navy.

One of the units employed in the search was a US Air Force KC-135 tanker from Guam, and I’ll let the pilot of that plane tell the story.

“We were towards the end of our search pattern, after flying for about three hours,” said KC-135 pilot Lt. Col. Jason Palmeira-Yen. “We turned to avoid some rain showers when we looked down and saw an island, so we decided to check it out. That’s when we saw a big ‘SOS’ written in the sand, and a boat next to it on the beach. From there we called in the Australian Navy because they had two helicopters nearby that could assist and land on the island.”

A helicopter from the Australian amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra landed on the beach dropping off food and water for the stranded trio while Australian troops confirmed the men's identities and checked they had no major injuries.

Meanwhile, a US Coast Guard C-130 from Hawaii dropped a radio to the stranded men so they could communicate with a Micronesian patrol vessel dispatched from the island of Yap. A US Coast Guard spokesman said rescuers and the stranded mariners kept their distance because of the coronavirus. "After discussions between the responding partners it was decided the safest course of action for both the response agencies' crews and the mariners was to limit exposure to one another due to the COVID-19 Pandemic."

The Micronesian patrol vessel reached the men that night and brought them home.

"Partnerships," US Coast Guard Capt. Christopher Chase, commander of US Coast Guard Sector Guam, said. "This is what made this search and rescue case successful. Through coordination with multiple response organizations, we were able to save three members of our community and bring them back home to their families."

Capt. Terry Morrison, commander of the Australian ship Canberra, praised his crew. "I am proud of the response and professionalism of all on board as we fulfill our obligation to contribute to the safety of life at sea wherever we are in the world," he said.

It’s a good story, no? There these three guys were, literally lost at sea on a tiny island, going to become modern Robinson Carusoes, or worse, when the mere fact that they thought to scrawl “SOS” in giant letters actually caught the attention of their highly cooperative international rescuers. Everyone did everything right, and these three guys survived unscathed and now are back with their families, safe and sound. And no one caught COVID-19, either.

Great stuff. Amazing what human beings can do when they cooperate across all national boundaries. Incredible what can happen when we depend upon one another to figure it all out.

But you know, I’ve been thinking about that “SOS” message the lost mariners dug into the soft sand of the beach on that tiny speck of an island in the very, very large Pacific Ocean. I mean, what if they didn’t actually do that? What if they just thought, “We are in deep, deep trouble. I doubt that writing SOS in sand—sand-writing washes away with every tide—will make any difference at all. We are gonna’ die here.”

But they didn’t say that. Instead, they wrote—sent out—that SOS to the world. They had the faith to try something so simple, so basic, so very unlikely to succeed. And by God it saved their lives.

By God.

You know, the High Holy Days are more than a little bit like that lost boatmen scenario. We go through the whole year, think we are headed in one direction towards a goal, and then we unexpectedly get blown off course—and boy, this year, did we get blown off course! And we find ourselves more than a little lost—or, this year, very lost—and wonder just how we are ever going to find our way back again. And sometimes when things look really bleak, it clouds over and starts looking even darker, to be honest. This year, a whole lot of the time, it has looked very dark indeed, and not just from the smoke drifting our way from catastrophic wildfires, like this week.

No, this has been a year to remember, but not in a good way. We have been pretty lost most of the last six months, trying to guess what we can do to return us to a place we want to be. To whom do we scrawl that SOS? Where should we toss our message in a bottle, as the band the Police sang long ago?

But then Rosh HaShanah comes along and promises, “You can still get home. You can find your way back on course. In fact, this holy day season is your chance to write that SOS in the sand. It’s your opportunity to ask for help to get back on track. All you have to do is start.”

In other words, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur tell us to take a chance on someone out there knowing, caring, being willing to help.

It’s not really so much to ask us, is it? To seek help beyond ourselves? To write that SOS request, to send a Hoshanah out there to the universe on the chance that it will be seen and answered?

That’s what our tradition asks of us. Take the time to pray, to do repentance, to seek forgiveness for what you did wrong or what you didn’t do right. Find a way back from that deserted island of the self you find yourself stranded upon. Return to the best that is within you. Admit that you can’t do it alone. Ask God—and the universe—for a little help right now.

All you have to do is take a chance, right now. All you have to do is let go of your little certainties and delusions, your bad habits and poor decisions. All you have to do is ask for help. Open yourself to prayer. Open yourself to repentance. Open yourself to sending out that SOS.

Judaism promises a response will come, if we just take that first step. "Open for me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle and I will it expand it into a door through which wagons and carriages can travel" says the Midrash on Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs (5:2). You know, write an SOS in sand on the beach of an island hundreds of miles from anywhere and God will help find you.

But you know what the sad thing is? Many of us will ignore that prompt. Because after all, what are the chances that some search plane up in the sky is going to see those letters that we have personally scrawled? What are the odds that this pathetic effort to get attention from on high will make any difference at all? That anyone will hear our cry and come save us?

We don’t really think that there’s any help out there, do we? We are just a little too cynical to believe that someone is watching for our own cry for help.

And so maybe we don’t really try during these High Holy Days. Maybe we don’t scrawl that SOS out there to be seen by the great Pilot in the Sky. We don’t believe that anyone really wants us to change for the better.

Only, that's the thing: there is someone out there. There are other people who care. It might even be that God is watching out for that signal from us, that first opening to return, to repentance, to healing.

But we can’t be found until we seek that help. And then, of course, we need to be willing to accept it, wherever it comes from. Because we don’t exactly know from where it will originate. We don’t know just how it will come to us…

It reminds me of that famous story about the flood. You may know it. A guy comes up to the pearly gates, and the Angel Gabriel greets him with a perplexed look on his angelic face. “You aren’t supposed to be here!”

And the man says indignantly, “I should say not!”

“So what happened?” the angel Gabriel asks.

And the man says, “There was a flood coming. The highway patrol came by and knocked at the door and said, ‘Come with us in our car, we’ll save you.’ But I said, ‘No thanks. God will save me.’

“The water continued to rise, and went up to the 2nd floor of my house. The Coast Guard boat came by and told me to climb aboard, but I said, ‘No thanks. God will save me.’

“The water rose even more, and I went up on the roof of my house. The police sent a helicopter, dropped down a ladder, and called out on a megaphone, ‘Climb up on the ladder, we’ll take you into the helicopter.’ But is said, “No thanks. God will save me.”

“And then I drowned, and now I’m here. How did this happen?”

And the Angel Gabriel looks at his clipboard and says, “I don’t understand. It says here we sent a car, and a boat, and a helicopter. What exactly were you looking for?”

The message is that God is more than ready to send help. We just have to be open to receiving it in whatever form it may come.

Because, you see, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we ask God for help. We ask God for forgiveness. We ask God to see our SOS.

But the truth is that if we open ourselves up, if we become aware of it, we will find that God does see us, and that God does care.

And we may also find, if we are open and ask for help, that other people, people in own community, also care, and will also reach out to help us. That help isn’t so far away. And we might even be the source of someone else’s help.

On this Rosh HaShanah, may we each write our own SOS—and may we accept the help we seek from whatever quarter it comes. And may this year be a much better year for all of us.

L’Shana Tova Tiketeivu v’Teichateimu.

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