Of Interest
October 5, 2016, 2:23 PM

The Last Five Minutes

The last five minutes:  “If I Only Knew!”  Have you ever heard yourself saying these words after a painful experience or after having learned about a loved one’s sudden death?  Most of us live life as if it will last forever.  And because we think this way (probably a coping mechanism), we often whittle away our time as if the end of our earthly life will never arrive.  Below is an interesting article by Samuel Freedom that speaks about living your last five minutes, or your last five days, or your last five years.  Whatever the timetable might be, we need to treasure each day, giving thanks to God for the time that has been given us.  Take a read below and let me know your thoughts.   Pastor Karen Siegfriedt+


A Rabbi’s Enduring Sermon on Living Your Last Five Minutes


Thirty years ago, amid the somber prayers of Judaism’s holiest day, Rabbi Kenneth Berger rose to deliver the Yom Kippur sermon. He spoke to his congregants about a tragedy many of them, including his daughter, had witnessed eight months earlier in the Florida sky: the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

Rabbi Berger focused on one particular detail, the revelation that Challenger’s seven astronauts had remained alive for the 65,000-foot fall to the ocean. He called the homily “Five Minutes to Live,” and he likened the crew members to Jews, who are called during the High Holy Days to engage in the process of “heshbon ha-nefesh,” Hebrew for taking stock of one’s soul.

“Can you imagine knowing that in a few moments death was imminent?” Rabbi Berger said at the Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa, Fla. “What would we think of if, God forbid, you and I were in such circumstances? What would go through our mind?”

Not quite three years later, Rabbi Berger was on a flight to Chicago from Denver returning from a family vacation. The plane’s tail engine exploded en route, crippling the controls, and for 40 minutes, the passengers prepared for a crash landing.

The rabbi’s wife, Aviva, fainted from the shock. Rabbi Berger reached across the seats and gathered the hands of his daughter Avigail, 16, and son Jonathan, 9, trying to reassure them, Avigail would later recall. The plane burst into flames after it hit the ground in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, including the rabbi and his wife, both in their early 40s.

As Jews enter the Days of Awe, which begin at sundown on Sunday, Rabbi Berger’s sermon on the Challenger has achieved a piercing and eerie kind of immortality. Between its eloquence and its prophecy, “Five Minutes to Live” continues to be cited, written about and delivered as a tribute, especially during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Both the sermon’s theme and its presentiment of the rabbi’s death resonate with the theological essence of the High Holy Days. In his sermon, Rabbi Berger plucked several well-known sentences of the liturgy, rearranging them for heightened effect: “Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall attain the measure of a man’s days and who shall not? On Rosh Hashana, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.”

 “People are hungry for guidance in living a life that matters,” said Rabbi Edward Bernstein of Temple Torat Emet in Boynton Beach, Fla. “Rabbi Berger, in his words, inspired people to action. And his death made those words holy.”

Judaism is hardly unique among world religions in urging its believers to undertake a moral inventory. Catholics participate in confession, formally called the sacrament of reconciliation, while Muslims call the process of repentance by the Arabic word “tawbah,” which means “turning back.”

What is unusual in the American Jewish idiom is that heshbon ha-nefesh is addressed by rabbis on the two holidays each year when synagogue attendance grows exponentially. Mindful of another autumn ritual, Rabbi Berger called it “the World Series.”

Kenneth Berger, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia, was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and took on the pulpit of Rodeph Sholom in 1983.

There he made his reputation as a trusted confidant for congregants in crises who could also code-switch into donning a Big Bird costume to entertain the children. He boiled down Judaic erudition to aphorisms like “There’s no roof overhead unless you build it.”

Invariably chewing a straw and clutching a pen, he drafted his sermons on a yellow legal pad, and then read them over the phone to his father in Pennsylvania. When the rabbi’s words really connected to his synagogue audience, he would permit himself a brief moment of ego, telling his children, “I hit a home run.”

On Sept. 16, 1986, the day Rabbi Berger delivered “Five Minutes to Live,” the Challenger tragedy was fresh in the minds of his congregants. From that shared memory, Rabbi Berger extrapolated in both prosaic and profound directions.

He touched on the ordinary ways that people forget to express love for their families, blithely assuming there will always be another day. He recounted the story of a Jewish father, facing imminent death during the Holocaust, who bestowed a final kiss on the young son he was sending away to safety.

“That scene still haunts me,” Rabbi Berger said as the sermon closed, returning to the Challenger. “The explosion and then five minutes. If only I… If only I… And then the capsule hits the water, it’s all over. Then you realize it’s all the same — five minutes, five days, 50 years. It’s all the same, for it’s over before we realize.

 “‘If only I knew’ — yes, my friends, it may be the last time. ‘If only I realized’ — yes, stop, appreciate the blessings you have. ‘If only I could’ — you still can, you’ve got today.”


12-02-2016 at 8:44 PM
Karen Pellizzer
Thank you for posting this article. I truly appreciated it. Every time I say goodbye to my parents, who are in their eighties and live in Oregon, I worry it might be the last time.
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