Titanic II and Yeridos Hadoros
Yeridos Hadoros translates as “the Decline of Generations”
Rabbi Benjamin Blech had an interesting piece last week at Aish.com on the Costa Concordia disaster. A few years ago, Rabbi Blech served as the scholar-in-residence on a kosher cruise on the magnificent ocean liner. Guests were escorted on a tour of the state of the art ship and its multiple levels of safety devices. At one point on the tour, the guide remarked, “No one will ever have a Titanic experience here.”
The builders of the Titanic famously asserted with even greater hubris that not even G-d Himself could sink it. Yet the Titanic did not survive its maiden voyage, and 1,517 passengers drowned.
In both cases, the ships were brought down, not by failures in technical design, but by the moral failings of those in charge. The owners of theTitanic were eager to claim the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing, and thus settled on a northerly route, at a time of year when that area of the Atlantic was known to be still filled with icebergs. Worse, the telegraph operator received numerous warnings from another ship of a huge iceberg directly in its path. But the telegraph operator received large tips for transmitting the messages of wealthy patrons, and told the ship sending the warnings to stop pestering him and tying up his lines, which he could put to more profitable use. As a consequence, the captain of the Titanic never received any warning of the danger looming ahead.
In the case of the Costa Concordia, the ship became grounded because the captain decided to show off his magnificent toy to friends on the shore of the nearby island.
Human foible remained a constant in the hundred years between the Titanic and the Costa Concordia disasters. But there were differences as well. The captain of the Titanic instructed his officers to maintain calm as women and children were allocated the first seats on the lifeboats, of which there were far too few because the possibility of disaster never entered the owners’ minds. Some of the richest members of New York high society went down with the ship in evening dress, prepared to die as “gentlemen.” The captain did not desert the ship, and the ship’s orchestra continued playing as it sank.
The contrast could not have been sharper to the Costa Concordia disaster, in which passengers clawed for seats on the lifeboats, with the strongest prevailing. One of the first off the ship was the captain, who abandoned a sinking ship and ignored an order from the Italian coast guard to return to the ship. He was promptly nicknamed the “chicken of the sea.”
One hundred years ago, there still existed a code of honor by which honorable people – gentlemen, if you will – were expected to comport themselves. Such codes of honor are for the most part a remnant of the past.
So far we have been discussing the non-Torah world. But a similar decline can be seen in our world as well, albeit over a much longer time frame. This week I was learning a Gemara in Bava Basra, which discusses how far earlier generations would go to avoid having to take a shvuah (oath), even when they were telling the truth. Another assumption of the Gemara is that a person will not lie about matters that are likely to become known eventually.
Yet today we find instances of the most bald-faced lies. Signatures of prominent rabbonim are affixed to letters that they never signed, and this is done despite the fact that the number of signatures added in this fashion is so great that it will inevitably become known.
Every lie lessens the trust that is the basic glue holding any society together. But the avla (outrage) is compounded many times when it lessens public trust in pronouncements purporting to be from those upon whose leadership the public relies. Even if the one promoting false messages is motivated by his vision of the public good, it is hard to conceive of any purpose that could compensate for compromising public trust in the words of the gedolim.