Credit Nate Pesce for The New York Times
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.
Credit Nate Pesce for The New York Times
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.”
After Rabbi Berger and his wife died on July 19, 1989, his brother Samuel and sister-in-law Trisanne stepped in to take care of the family. The rabbi’s middle child, Ilana, then 13, had been at camp at the time of the crash. Avigail spent a month in a coma from her injuries, awakening to the absence of her mother or father at her bedside. Jonathan suffered lesser injuries.
Samuel Berger found the text for “Five Minutes to Live” while cleaning out his brother’s office. The sermon made its way to Avigail, who laminated it and keeps it in her jewelry box.
The sermon also took on its public life. Rabbi Michael Swarttz of Temple B’nai Shalom in Braintree, Mass., quoted large portions of it in his homily on Yom Kippur in 1989. Rabbi Larry Pinsker of Congregation Beit Tikvah in Baltimore assembled a “book of remembrance” about Rabbi Berger, in which many contributors mentioned the sermon.
Rabbi Mel Glazer of Colorado Springs, Colo., included part of the sermon in his 2013 book, “A GPS for Grief and Healing.” Twice in the last two years, Rabbi Bernstein in Florida has referred to “Five Minutes to Live” in online essays — one on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the other after the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight in 2014 over the Indian Ocean.
“I find it in hindsight even more moving than when I heard it,” said Marty Solomon, who was president of Rodeph Sholom in 1986. “As much as anything else, it’s a living legacy from Kenny. It’s universal and it will be forever.”