Making It Out Alive

"O Lord, You have brought my soul from the grave; You have revived me from my descent into the pit."1

Today the entire world is talking about a miracle of survival. The rescue at the Copiapó mine gives us pause to reflect on the remarkable capacity of the human being to live through conditions that resemble death itself. While the actual rescue brings the story to its climax, what is much more amazing is what happened for the sixty-nine days beforehand – that the miners were able to stay alive long enough to be rescued at all.

A Lesson in Survival

The Baal Shem Tov taught2 that from everything that one sees or hears, one should try to learn a lesson. Thankfully the miners are all safe, and the harrowing episode is ending in joy and elation. But what can we take away from our knowledge of this story?

For one thing, this amazing story causes us to consider the question: What are the most basic needs for human survival? What does a human being need to live?

The rescue operation didn't just work to provide the miners with their physical needs such as food, water and air. Experts were brought in from all over the world to help promote the miners' mental and emotional health as well. NASA specialists who monitored the crisis commented that perhaps the most decisive factor in the miners' survival was that a clear leader stepped forward early on to organize the men.

Luis Urzua, 54, the shift chief on duty when the mine collapsed, made the tough decision to ration food – a spoonful of tuna for each man every forty-eight hours – for the first seventeen days until contact was made with rescue crew above ground. In the days that followed, Urzua continued to lead his men, and, under his organization, various roles emerged. One miner became the group's spokesman, another saw to their health, and still another was designated to provide comic relief.

When we consider our most basic needs, most of us probably think only of bodily necessities like air, water and food. Perhaps this is because we, who merely ponder this question theoretically, tend to overlook the obvious. When we look at the men who actually emerged from nothing less than a sixty-nine day burial within the bowels of the earth, we see that there may be a need even more crucial to survival than all others. The need for a leader.

Working in the Mine

On a few occasions, the Rebbe related a Chasidic parable of his father-in-law's that likens us Jews to a crew of miners.3 Our souls descend from on High to do a job down below, the Rebbe explained. Like work in a mine, our duties are strenuous and the conditions are dangerous. As we navigate the twists and turns of this life looking for its treasures, one thing is crucial to our safety and survival. We must have a leader, and we must follow his direction.

So, in light of this parable, and in light of recent events, let's ask the age-old question. What is the secret of Jewish survival? Is it anything like the survival of the thirty-three miners? Could it be that we have survived innumerable challenges to our existence because, even when our collective mission has lead us into the deepest and darkest places in the realm of human experience, there has always been a leader down there with us?

The Limits of a Leader

The Rebbe explained that there is another aspect to the parable of the miners. Although the miners' welfare depends on submitting themselves to the care and direction of their foreman, there is one thing that he cannot do for them. Each miner has to have access to the lifeline that connects the mine to the world above.

In spiritual terms, a Jewish leader can set an agenda for how we as Jews ought to live. But the leader can't live for us. Each of us needs to have our own lifeline to the One Above in the form of a vital and conscious connection with G‑d.

To Live or Enliven?

There is a verse in the Book of Habakkuk4 that reads, "The righteous one will live by his faith." Because Scripture is written without vowels, a single word may take on various meanings. In this case, by changing the vocalization of the verb, this same verse may be read, "The righteous one will enliven with his faith."

Is the tzaddik defined as one who lives his own life by faith, or as one who enlivens others with faith?

When the Chabad school of Chasidism first emerged in the late 1700s, one of the key points by which Chabad differed from the other branches of the fledging Chasidic movement had to do with which reading of this verse described the role of a Chasidic rebbe.5

The Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad method of "intellectual Chasidism," insisted that although a rebbe could teach his disciples how to relate to G‑d, he could not "give them life" – that is – have a relationship with G‑d on their behalf. Each and every soul that descends to toil down here on earth must have its own connection to the Source. In practical terms this means that each of us must have a personal appreciation for G‑d that comes as a result of our own study and meditation.

Whether we speak of our bodily needs or our spiritual needs, we cannot rely on someone else to give us life – not even on the very person who is keeping us alive. Maybe that's why being a Jew requires such a unique blend of deference and independence. Maybe that's also why the best metaphor to describe the secret of our miraculous survival is the image of miners, who, no matter how deep they must go, always remain connected to their source up above.