For several days this July 2018, many all over the world were glued to the story of a Thai teen soccer team and their coach trapped behind rising water and depleting oxygen deep inside the Tham Luang cave complex and the daring efforts to find them and bring them out to safety.

At the time when the news was coming through, all kinds of life lessons and Jewish connections starting to pop into my mind, but while the children were trapped in the cave the focus was on their practical rescue, to physical safety in good physical health, not a time for figurative interpretation. Now that they have all been successfully rescued, and the world breathes a collective sigh of relief, I’d like to reflect on some meaningful messages to be learned from the details of this harrowing experience and incredible story of rescue.

Some of the big challenges & concerns for #ThaiCaveRescue: limited oxygen, the darkness, murkiness of the water, extended underwater swimming, tightness of the “choke” passage, and the fact that most of the boys can’t swim – never mind dive, and may panic during the rescue, the risk to the divers themselves, all of these can have their counterpart applications in our own lives, even if we aren’t expert divers or a boys soccer team trapped behind water deep inside a cave for two weeks. The challenges may be very great but they are not insurmountable for the skilled, brave & dedicated.

In no particular order:

Great sacrifices were made to rescue these boys. The divers that went into the cave (and there were around ninety divers as the various aspects of the rescue involved different teams of divers) each put their lives at risk. Saman Gunan was a Thai rescue diver who went in to replenish oxygen tanks and heroically died during the mission. In an effort to try to lower the water levels inside the cave the Thai government pumped out many thousands of gallons (liters by their measure) of water that flooded and ruined nearby rice farms, ruining all their crops. One farmer women who suffered the most famously said, “I can regrow rice, but we can’t regrow the children”. All this emphasizes the infinite priceless value of human life, as highlighted in this story. 

John Volanthen, the British lead diver at #ThaiCaveRescue (who originally found the boys) said, “I dive for passion and always wondered if it would have purpose. The last two weeks was what I prepared for my entire life.” That juxtaposition of passion and purpose is a very meaningful one, something more of us should think about on a regular basis. These words by Mr. Volanthen recall two poignant Rabbinic statements: (1) Rabbi Akiva said in the Talmud at the time of his martyrdom, “All my life I pined and yearned for the fulfillment of what we say in the Shema!” (2) The Baal Shem Tov taught, “A soul can descend to this world for seventy or eighty years just to do a favor for another!”

A huge concern in the #ThaiCaveRescue is something most of us take for granted and hardly ever think about: getting enough oxygen. Thai Navy Seal diver #SamanGunan died while bringing oxygen tanks into the cave leading up to the rescue. The Friediker Rebbe, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, 6th #Rebbe of Chabad, uses the parable of pearl divers who must maintain a line of oxygen to the surface, the only way they could survive & fulfill their mission deep down below. So, too, with our worldly engagement, we must always maintain the spiritual connection!

Darkness. Famous as a plague back in biblical Egypt, it deeply affected the boys living in it in that Thai cave for so many days. They had no idea of the passage of time. And it affected the divers, too. Even with headlamps, the water was so murky it was difficult for them to see where they were going. Figuratively, in our personal lives, spiritual or emotional darkness (especially the type of darkness within our own minds) is also a common obstacle & hindrance for us all. It makes everything so much more difficult, more confusing. 

The “Choke” passage. Much of the journey was difficult to traverse. There were whole stretches of underwater swimming, places where one had to dive, and narrow passages where it was too tight for divers to fit while wearing the oxygen tanks, they had to be removed and held in front of them. But one of the hardest spots, perhaps the hardest passage of them all, was called “The Choke” because it was a very narrow passage that also turned upwards. The extreme narrows, the tightness of that spot, made it especially challenging. We say this in Psalms and it relates to the shape of the Shofar, “calling out to G-d from the narrows (the small mouthpiece) that G-d responds to us very broadly (similar to how a Shofar flanges out where the sound comes out of)”. Narrowness is a scary place to be, too tight for comfort.

Fear of Panic. Many have credited the coach for keeping the boys as calm as possible for the ten days in the dark, in a cramped space on a ledge behind rising waters. This is no small feat. He taught them to mediate, to stay positive, not to panic. One of the big concerns of the rescue team was the fact that none of the boys knew how to dive, and a few of them did not know how to swim. Much of the 3-4 kilometer journey back to the entrance was underwater! Were a boy to panic along the way it would endanger the rescue. Fear is a biological response to react to (perceived) danger, but it also can put us in danger. As FDR famously said (paraphrasing from Sir Francis Bacon): “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Baal Shem Tov’s father’s dying words to him were: “Fear not!” and that’s the meaning of the “Al Tirah!” song we sing after the prayers. 

The Cable. Among other things (like replacement oxygen tanks) that support divers set out along the route inside the cave, they ran a long cable through its length, so that the divers (and teens) not lose their way. The Mishkan Tabernacle had this “Briach HaTichon” unifying center support beam that ran through the middle of all of its walls. We are so prone to wander, to digress, to be distracted, to be pulled away by currents, that it helps for us to have a thread, a rope, running through our lives, to help stay on track. 

Rising Waters. Usually, we think of water as life-sustaining. Water makes things grow, water keeps us alive. But flood waters can be quite dangerous. A verse and a Chassidic interpretation sees stormy waters as the financial pressures that burden us and try to drown our feelings for G-d. So you could say our relationship with money is kind of like how we see water. We need it, things won’t grow without it, but once it oversteps its boundaries, when it goes where it should not, when it makes us run or feel trapped or stranded – that’s no longer life-sustaining, but life-threatening. It is important that we should understand and know its appropriate healthy place. 

What if the lamps are out at sea? In a famous farbrengen, the Rebbe Rashab explained that a Chassid is a lamplighter. Each Jew has fiery potential, our mission is to try to help get that fire going. Among other questions at that farbrengen, the Chassid asked, “Wait, what if the lamps are out at sea?” And the Rebbe insisted that we have to go out there, get wet, reach that soul. 

Ninety divers, a thousand rescue personnel, teams from many countries. The most skillful and experienced cave divers were British. The Thai Navy Seals did much of the work. An Israeli company provided technology equipment to reach deep into the belly of the mountain, and one of the rescue divers was Israeli, too. An Australian doctor named Dr. Richard Harris examined the boys while they were still stuck in the cave and he was part of a large team of divers from his country. Help, expertise, equipment and personnel came from the United States, Finland, Canada, Russia, China, Czech Republic and other countries. Many social-media memes proudly and colorfully celebrated this international consortium, this global humanitarian effort, the underlying core sense of humanity. There was so much goodwill, positive energy, all to save a bunch of lost kids. The incredible power of people coming together. 

and of course this is a story about Hope. The situation looked desperate at first. Time was running out, more rains were forecast, there were too many complications. Even after the boys were reached and rescue plans formulated, there was much skepticism about the success of the mission, whether all the boys could be saved. But in the end, all were saved. And the rescue divers pulled it off in much less time than originally expected. Too often in life we see the daunting overwhelming odds, we realize the challenges we face, and we are too quick to give up and throw in the towel. #ThaiCaveRescue is another great story that teaches us never to give up hope! 

There’s so much more to be learned, but that’s it for now. Hopefully, they all recover their strength from the ordeal and come out of this doing OK!