That Sinking Feeling

January 18, 2012

6 min read


The tragedy of the Costa Concordia.

I was a passenger on the Costa Concordia that just made headlines around the world as it sunk off the coast of Tuscany.

No, thank God I wasn’t on this last harrowing voyage which resulted in horrible injuries and loss of lives. It was in the summer of 2008 that I had the opportunity of serving as rabbinic scholar-in-residence for a kosher program on this magnificent ocean liner. And I won't ever forget the luxury, the beauty, and the latest state-of-the-art technology that was evident throughout.

A high ranking member of the crew gave me a private tour, pointing out some of the remarkable advanced equipment and GPS which insured our total safety. What stayed with me was his jocular reference to a famous ship of a century ago, as he assured me that "no one will ever have a Titanic experience here."

And yet that's exactly what happened.

How could that possibly be? With all of our scientific progress, how can a ship still go aground?

The answer has profound implications for our understanding of the real root cause of such tragedies.

There was actually no reason for the Titanic to be in that dangerous area. It was only because people in 1912 were awed by the prowess of the Titanic to the degree of hubris that permitted the order to be given to sail "full speed ahead" through icy waters. This order was given by the Titanic's owners to recapture the trophy for fastest crossing of the Atlantic from the Germans in order to secure increased revenue for their venture, and was executed by the captain of the Titanic, who selected a northern crossing which was much shorter than the traditional southerly route used by the mariners for that time of year.

This disaster was completely avoidable. North Atlantic crossings held perils well known to mariners, and firsthand reports of ice conditions had reached the officers of the Titanic earlier in the day. The Titanic had a radio, and both sent and received a steady stream of messages throughout the voyage.

Wireless operators had two functions – track weather reports and transmit messages for the rich. They made their money from the latter. On April 14, 1912, another ship, the California, continually sent wireless messages to the Titanic that a large iceberg (one million tons) was in Titanic’s path.

No matter how good the technology of the Titanic, it could not compensate for moral error.

Receiving these messages annoyed the operator trying to get messages out for their rich patrons. The Titanic operator demanded the California stop bothering him. They did and turned off their wireless. The messages never made it to the Captain.

The 1,517 people who died were killed by greed. No matter how good the technology of the Titanic, it could not compensate for moral error.

The Costa Concordia was the proud symbol of contemporary scientific marvels. It, too, was unsinkable. Its GPS unerringly kept it on a safe course. Yet the ego of the captain who wanted to go closer to shore so that he could show off his "toy” to friends on the island overrode every precaution.

A GPS, just like God's Perfect System for guiding us through life, otherwise known as the Torah, can only give us direction. It can't force us to carry out its will. We still have the freedom to obey or to disregard its warnings. But what we can never avoid is the consequences of our actions.

That's why our moral choices, dictated by a commitment to higher ethical principles, will always be more important than our scientific achievements.

Related Article: Marked for Eternity


That lesson goes back many thousands of years to a major biblical story. It was the tower builders of Babel who are portrayed as the first age of technology. Until then, people were farmers or shepherds. They responded to nature but did not know how to control it or shape it. But the time came when they learned how to build bricks and fashion homes impervious to the weather. Overwhelmed with a sense of their importance, they decided to build a tower with its top in the heavens so that they could topple God from his throne.

What they desired above all, the Torah tells us, was "to make for themselves a name." With scientific advancement came the ego of the technocrat who was convinced that his intellect made God unnecessary.

It was not too long ago that the first astronaut, the Russian Yuri Gagarin, in the same spirit as the builders of the tower of Babel said on his return from outer space, "I looked and looked, but I didn't see God."

But the end of the biblical story makes clear the price that must always be paid when we choose self worship over the authority of a divine GPS. With all of its brilliance, the society of the tower of Babel doomed itself to extinction. Bricks became more important than people. When a brick fell and shattered, they cried but when a person toppled to his death they ignored him. Feelings were replaced by formulas. Human speech and communication no longer mattered. Talk became babble. Technology created a seemingly more perfect world - peopled by those who were far more imperfect.

What I think needs to be stressed as the ultimate lesson is how much we need to reorder our priorities.

The captain was amongst the first to flee.

Reports of what went on as the Costa Concordia sank are chilling as they reflect upon so much of contemporary behavior. When the Titanic went down, women and children were given precedence. A great majority of them survived because of the chivalry of those, like Benjamin Guggenheim, who chose to stay behind, changed into his evening clothes, and said to those to whom he gave his seat in the lifeboats, "We dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

Today’s passengers fought with the crew for the few seats that offered the chance for survival. The captain was amongst the first to flee, giving the lie to the noble ideal that the captain goes down with the ship. The strong pushed aside the weak. And the moral order that defines us as civilized, as the best of creation, as those formed in the image of God seeking to emulate his divine attributes, also perished with the victims.

We live in an age that worships every new scientific breakthrough. We are obsessed with gadgets meant to make our lives easier and more fun-filled. Yet we spend so little time stressing the importance of a value system without which all of these advances are meaningless.

This tragedy happened because of human error. It was compounded by striking moral failures. What it requires from us now is the reminder that our emphasis on technological achievements must be joined to greater concern for ethical growth. Only with a commitment to both can we prevent disasters of Titanic proportion.

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