After two tragic airplane accidents, Boeing is in the news. Possible liability has depressed its stock price and shaved tens of billions of dollars off the company’s valuation. I covered troubling questions of cut corners in the design of the latest generation of the 50-year-old 737 and the disturbing relationship between government and one of its largest military contractors in my podcast here. However, today let’s look at the approximately 2,000 Boeing 737s in the air at any given time every day and the fifteen normal take-offs made by a 737 every single minute of every day.
Before each 737 starts to taxi away from the gate, the pilot in the left seat and the first officer in the right work their way down a printed check list that each could recite by heart. “Navigation lights” calls out one and the other glancing at the panel responds, “On.” Then comes “Taxi Lights.” “On.” This is followed by altimeter, radios and autopilot and the correct response for each is “Set.” Not until the long check list has been completed does the airplane begin its pushback.
The repetitive routine could anesthetize ordinary people into robotic compliance. But commercial pilots are not ordinary people, they’re professionals and they’ve trained themselves to view each and every run down the check list as if it was the first time. They might have asked one another those same questions on three earlier flights that day but on the fourth, their eyes still scan each switch and gauge with the same alert focus they did on the first. Their confirmations are still precise and accurate.
The routine of repetitiveness can dull the senses and even dehumanize us if we fail to learn the secrets used by the flight deck and other professionals. Most of us shower or brush our teeth so automatically that sometimes we don’t even remember having performed these basic ablutions. When the harried young mom tries yet again to teach her toddler not to throw food on the ground during meals it is hard for her not to sound weary; she’s already remonstrated with her offspring eleven times this week alone. When the office worker prepares his weekly report for the forty-third time this year his weariness comes through in the words he chooses to write. Yes, repetitiveness can dehumanize us unless we learn how to transcend it.
Successful living depends on establishing routines but we also need the vital life skill of keeping routines fresh so they don’t detach us from passionate living. This indispensable life skill is taught in the longest chapter of all the 187 chapters found in the Five Books of Moses. Chapter 7 in the Book of Numbers details the altar dedication gifts brought by the head of each of the twelve tribes.
The first was Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah. While not intending to bore you to death, I am reproducing the text detailing his offering. You’ll see why in just a moment.
His offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver dish of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs…
The next was Nethanel ben Tzuar of the tribe of Issachar. I don’t have to reproduce the text of his gift (Numbers 7:18-23) since it was word for word identical to that of his predecessor. And so with Eliav Ben Cheilon of Zevulun (Numbers 7:24-29) and so with the head of the tribe of Reuven and so on, all the way to the twelfth gift by Achirah ben Ainan of the tribe of Naphtali (Numbers 7:78-83). Every gift was completely identical.
If the purpose of God’s message to mankind was merely conveying dusty and irrelevant historic information, 66 verses could easily have been omitted. I think the way that you or I would have written this would be simply, “And each tribe’s head brought the same gift of ____.” There we would have inserted those six verses one time instead of twelve. Had we been especially diligent we might have added, “And for those of you with no lives to live, we provide the names of all the tribal heads in the appendix at the end of this volume.”
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that although the material details of all twelve gifts were identical, each was enumerated separately because each was uniquely given with its own unique symbolism. For instance, the numerical value of the letters making up the words ‘one silver bowl’ add up to 930 which Nachshon meant to allude to the years of the life of the first man, Adam who lived 930 years. He meant its weight of 130 to allude to Adam’s age when he begat Seth (Genesis 5:3) from whom the world’s population spread. In similar fashion, Zevulun intended his silver dish to represent the oceans upon which he sailed. (Genesis 49:13). Without going into all the details here, each tribe gave the same objects but personalized them all with their own unique identities.
Therein lies the secret of escaping the repetitiveness routine. While I may brush my teeth just as I did yesterday, each morning is quite unlike any other morning of my life. This morning is filled with all kinds of yet undreamed-of potential and my conversation with God and gratitude to Him for another day will reflect that each day is a very special day.
I might be speaking to my child in just the way I did yesterday but each and every interaction with that tiny potential-filled bundle is its own privilege with its own possibilities. I might be preparing a routine weekly report but if I used the past week well then I am a slightly different person and my work will reflect that fact. And those pilots up front? While you’re settling into seat 27B, fastening your belt and making sure your entertainment system works, the flight crew professionals are meticulously working their way through a routine. They are doing so with the feeling that this is the most important flight ever. This morning’s flights are forgotten; tomorrow’s haven’t yet come to mind.
All that matters is this moment when my soul comes together with what I must be doing right now and this blending creates an utterly unique moment, breeding a one-time set of actions done like they have never been done before. 72 verses in the Book of Numbers makes that so clear.