Higher Altitude

Only Heaven knows

By: Rabbi Dr David Fox

The long flight was crossing the continent and its passengers were sleeping, reading, or doing their best to relax. Somewhere over the midwestern states a scream was heard. Flight attendants rushed to see what had happened. It was a woman clad in the attire of a Moslem wife and she was hunched over. Barely articulate, her English was at best limited and given her apparent pain, her words were garbled and unclear.

“If there is a doctor on board please come to row 16,” the pilot announced over the PA system. No one rose. No doctors were on board. The flight attendants huddled close by, whispering, unsure what to do. They did not even know what language the woman spoke. Meanwhile, a passenger nearby called out that the floor around the woman’s seat was drenched. It occurred to one of the female flight attendants, then, that she might be pregnant and going into labour.

A woman in the next row stood up and said to have the woman lay on the floor in the aisle. Cautious, but also concerned about a mishap, they gestured to the distressed passenger that she should move carefully into the aisle and lay there. Somehow, buckled over and wincing, she followed their gestures and was soon on the floor, a pillow beneath her turbaned head and a blanket covering her. She whimpered and she yelled, and clearly was terrified.

The pilot explained what was happening, asked everyone to stay calm, and announced that he was going to radio ahead to ask that they land at the nearest airfield so that the woman could be brought to a hospital. The screaming continued from the aisle, and in every row, passengers were whispering, clearly worried, confused, impatient, or annoyed about the delay in their travels.

The screaming continued. The flight continued. At one point, an agitated flight attendant called out, “Can’t anyone help?”

The short, bearded man arose. Clearly a rabbi, he calmly walked up the aisle until he got to the spot where the woman lay writhing in fear and discomfort. He kneeled down close by and in his simple, limited Arabic, he told her he was going to stay with her. She opened her eyes, somewhere between surprise and suspicion. He pointed above, an almost universal gesture to heaven, and pulled out a small prayer book, chanting some verses. He looked back at her and held her gaze calmly. She began to breathe more slowly. And then, he sung to her. A soft, gentle tune came from his lips and she relaxed visibly. He continued his song and she began to soften, loosen, and to smile amidst her weeping. He continued quietly, calming her with his soft voice and his sustained eye contact.

The plane began to descend. They were going to make an unscheduled landing. The plane rolled to a stop and emergency medics boarded the plane with a gurney. Gently placing her on the wheeled device, they rolled the woman to the exit and she pointed to the rabbi, signalling him to come with her. He did, and escorted her off the plane, continuing to hum his tune, and he accompanied her until the ambulance.

He never saw her again, and neither knew the other’s name. There is no way of knowing what she thought of him, or what she would remember. There was no way of knowing what anyone else on the plane thought, since virtually no one on board said anything to the rabbi once the plane was in flight or upon arrival. What was on people’s minds, heaven knows. But the spiritual impact, Heaven knows.

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