Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
Many of us are familiar with the phrase by Rebbe Nachman, “All the world is a narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid.” To what is he referring? A narrow bridge between the nothingness at the beginning and the nothingness at the end. We spend our whole lives on this precarious span, unaware that we are even on it. Then on day we wake up and see it, and we feel terror. We say to ourselves, “My God, what have I been doing with my life?
January 13, 2018 began as any other day in the sunny tropics of Hawaii. For many, it was a normal day of getting ready for work, enjoying the dream vacation, honeymoon, or other mundane activities that would be irrevocably shattered.
At 8:07AM, the following text was sent to every mobile phone in the State of Hawaii:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
What occurred over the next 38 minutes was a stone cold revelation for the millions of people who lived through, what ultimately turned out to be a false alarm. They were able to answer, truthfully, who they were, based on how they reacted.
On reddit, a website used to share content, comment, and discuss amongst members, someone started the topic: “People who made an impulse decision when they found out Hawaii was going to be nuked, what did you do and do you regret it?” What followed was an incredibly open, brutally honest, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, account from thousands of people who lived through this surreal episode. I have collected just a few of the thousands of responses, to gain an insight into the thoughts, emotions, and reactions of the almost 1.5 million people living in Hawaii.
- Currently in Kailua on the island of Oahu. When my wife and I got the message, we were in bed. She asked me to make scrambled eggs with sausage, toast, and avocado. So I went downstairs and made breakfast as fast and best I could. Gave my pup some too cuz he's going to dine like a king if it's really his last meal. After the false alarm, we made an appointment at an ultra sound office to see our unborn daughter. Life is precious.
- I texted my mother “I need to tell you I love you. In case everything goes wrong please, please tell everyone I love them and I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m very happy.” She called me in a panic and I told her I loved her. She asked me if I was going to leave and I told her I was going to stay with my husband no matter what. I ended the call because I didn’t want her to hear me die if it did happen. Then I kissed my husband and we held each other on the couch. It was a good day.
- I made an impulse decision to stay in bed with my wife. Nowhere to go for safety, no time to get there anyway. Might as well be comfortable in my bed with someone i love.
- My best friend is vacationing there. She crawled into bed with her 3 and 5 year old daughters and held them while accepting that they were going to die. Her husband called from a fishing boat trip to say he loved them and wished he was with them.
- I felt like this alert showed me that I can keep calm and that I'm a bit apathetic towards death.. and I'm pretty proud of myself.
- My grandma told us she bought MRE’s on amazon when she got the alert. We had to actually explain to her how that wouldn’t have helped
- Around the time of the warning I was playing Call of Duty Zombies. I got the text and immediately texted my off island family. I then texted our on island family to let them know I had the 95 year old family matriarch sleeping happily on my couch. Once I notified everyone as to our whereabouts then I gently woke her up and apprised her of the situation. She asked a few questions and then sat back and thought a bit. After a short while she said “we should make coffee because the power will be out soon” I made her coffee and continued to take phone calls and texts while just kinda hanging out with my grandmother. She survived Pearl Harbor and didn’t seem overly concerned and I saw no reason to worry her. I’d like to say I chugged my special occasion booze, smoked my most expensive cigar, did rails of coke off a stripper...but but none of that mattered. I was right where I wanted to be. She raised me and we would be able to easily find each other if there is a next life. When we got the all clear sign she demanded pancakes. The picture i took of her eating pancakes while I enjoyed the beautiful, sunny, apocalypse-free morning will always be my favourite.
- I was in the living room changing my 2 month old sons diaper. My wife was in the bedroom sleeping in. I hear the alarm go off on my phone a couple feet away and just think "oh it's just one of those amber alerts" and go back to changing his diaper. A second later my wife comes running out of the bedroom screaming that we were going to die. I kind of froze up, all I could think was how helpless I felt and how I couldn't do anything to save my newborn son. My wife was running around the house grabbing diapers and formula for the baby and I was just slowly finishing changing his diaper because I just couldn't imagine that something like this could happen. After about 2-3 minutes I sort of snapped back to reality and focused only on getting my son and wife to some sort of safety. I live in a relatively small beach house with very thin walls so I knew it wouldn't do anything but I told my wife we would be safest in the bathroom in the middle of our house. It really wasn't an impulse decision but throughout the whole thing I didn't think to even call or text any of my family on the mainland. If you had asked me what I would do if put in this situation I would say I would call my parents and tell them I love them but I didn't even think of that. I just thought about how much I love my wife and son and how sad I was that I wouldn't be able to see who he would become when he grows up. This has really given me a completely different perspective on life and makes me sad that I didn't even think to say goodbye to my family back home.
- One person recalled, after trying to rush home but getting stuck in traffic: The only thing worse than dying alone is dying in traffic, surrounded by people you hate.
- All I regret is filling my emergency water containers right behind the car. So now I'm blocked in the garage by 150 gallons of water.
- In the chaos of figuring out where to seek shelter, we ended up deciding to go to the hospital that my wife works at (she's a nurse), figuring we could maybe help out with the flood of people that would be coming to the hospital with injuries. We have about 20 minutes from the time an alert is received until the missile hits. We were up against that limit when I pulled into a parking spot I found on the street. My wife grabbed my son and ran for the hospital. I grabbed some change and started paying the parking meter. My wife turned back and yelled "What are you doing?!?!". I yelled back "We have to pay the meter - even if the world is going to end, we're not savages!!". We didn't get a parking ticket, so no regrets.
- The weirdest part is basically just living today. Yesterday I fully accepted I was gonna die so it’s weird for having to just live with the idea that I didn’t.
- It’s good mate. You’ve seen the worst, and now you can take stock of what is really important and adjust your life accordingly.
- I have a favorite cup that I use all the time. One day, I will drop it and it will break. This is the inevitable end for a cup, but I will still be devastated that it broke. I will curse myself for not being more careful as I pick up the pieces. But if I accept now that the cup is already broken, then every moment with it is precious. If I accepted my death I think it would be hard to go back to regular living the next day.
- Started downloading torrents without a vpn.
- I live in and work for an eco-hostel on the Big Island. I was in charge that day and we had about 14 guests. About half the people on the property were up and the other half still asleep. I couldn't really process when I first saw the message. I tried to call my mom and she didn't answer at the same time I logged onto twitter and all i could find was other people posting the image freaking out. I called my Dad next and he answered and I read him the message and told him I was scared and that I loved him. He said he'd research what was happening. I said ok I love you I have to call Shosh (my girlfriend who lives down the street). She answered immediately and was like I'll be there in two minutes. When she got here, there was a moment where we were standing in our parking lot, I'm holding her hand and our friends are standing next to us. We were all bewildered, confused and scared. All I can see in my one friend pressing a kiss into his girlfriend's hair and head and us joking laughing well if this is it you guys are the best. We lived in the middle of a small town, there was no where to go. Then we found out we weren't going to die and moved on with our day. But for those few minutes, it was like a level of calm panic that I can't really describe. Not exciting but that's my story.
- My cat ran outside when we were packing stuff and getting ready to leave, I went out looking for him but I assumed 20 minutes wasn’t enough so we decided to leave him behind. He was chilling in the backyard when we got back but I felt so god awful what would’ve happened if it was real.
- I’m a college student at UH and I slept through the alarm.
- We kind of breathed a sigh of relief and started towards home after telling everyone it was "nice to finally meet them" and shaking hands.
- I got drunk for the first time in 4 years of sobriety... oops.
While studying and preparing for these High Holidays, I was stunned to learn that one of the camp songs that I knew so well is actually slightly mistranslated. The song I quoted above, Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meod, v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal. “All the world is a narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid,” is most likely taken from Rabbe Nachman of Braztlav. However, in his work Likutei Moharan, he actually wrote something subtly but powerfully different:
וְדַע, שֶׁהָאָדָם צָרִיךְ לַעֲבֹר עַל גֶּשֶׁר צַר מְאֹד מְאֹד, וְהַכְּלָל וְהָעִקָּר
כְּלָל – שֶׁלֹּא יִתְפַּחֵד:
v’da she’ha’adam tzarikh lavor al gesher tzar meod meod, v’haklal v’ha’ikar she’lo lefakhed klal.
“When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”
Fear is a primal emotion; one rooted in our survival instincts. We cannot avoid it or run from it. But we can control how we cope with it. One of our famous commentators, Abarbanel, a 14th Century Jewish Commentator (among other occupations), wrote regarding fear, that there is a distinction between feeling afraid, acting out of fear, and acting in spite of one’s fear.
The stories I related above all reflect one of these distinctions of fear. I have no doubt that all the people were experiencing some aspect of fear. Some choose to succumb to their fears, some to overcome them, and some to accept them. But do not confuse that acceptance as a lack of fear. Someone in that situation, in a dangerous situation, who is not afraid, is a fool.
What then is the solution to this crossing? It is not simply enough not to fear. We need something to fill that void. If one were to read on to the end of that section in Rebbe Nachman’s work, we would find: “You should understand the power of encouraging yourself, and never yield to despair, God forbid, no matter what happens. The main thing is always to be happy, to gladden yourself in any way possible.”
We come to this time in this place, the Yamim Noraim, the 10 days of Awe, or more accurately, Fear, hoping for an epiphany, hoping for some kind of revelation for us to have clarity, and remove our fear. Yet, the reality is, we are always afforded chances or opportunities to evaluate our lives under the spectre of finality, under the ultimatum of a shortened life span, on that narrow bridge.
Did you or someone you love have a diagnosis? Did you have an accident? Where you seriously ill? Are you living under financial strain, no knowing where the next rent check or meal will come from? Did you have a lucky or fortunate escape? Or did you simply wake up in the morning? That journey we are on is fraught, and if we look down, if we lose our focus, we will be afraid. Yet if we encourage ourselves, not allowing the despair to overcome, we can drive away that crippling fear.
We do not always have the luxury of a missile to bring our life into focus. We are here in these days, and hopefully everyday, to choose how we will live our lives, in spite of that constant fear and uncertainty. To strip away all the irrelevancies in our lives to find something pure, something that can help us to cope with that fear. As we cross from one point to the next, from this year to the next, from one moment to the next, let us always find strength in accepting that fear, as we walk confidently to the year to come.