Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Thirteen Lives

In the course of my professional life both as a congregational rabbi and high school principal, I have learned that I am only one piece of a large tapestry. The success of the synagogue or school does not depend on me alone. It depends on many people working together for a common cause, teachers, office personnel, janitorial staff, a supportive lay leadership, and many others, some of whom work tirelessly behind the scenes. People from different backgrounds working together on one critical mission is the subtext of Thirteen Lives, the gripping true story of 12 high schoolers from Thailand who go missing in a flooded cave right before monsoon season.

On June 23, 2018, 12 boys of the school soccer team and their assistant coach Ekkaphon Chanthawong finish practice and go off to explore the Tham Luang cave. When the boys do not arrive at a birthday party organized by their parents, their families travel to the cave, only to find it partially flooded and the boys missing. They only see their bikes left at the entrance. The parents immediately contact emergency services.

Thai Navy Seals arrive to begin searching for the boys, but the dive is too difficult for them to locate the team. Vernon Unsworth, a local caver from England, suggests that the rescue authorities contact the British Cave Rescue Council. The Council calls upon two British cavers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, to attempt the dive. Fortunately, they find the boys and their coach four kilometers from the entrance.

The question then becomes how to extricate boys from the cave before the monsoon season begins in full force. To give the rescue team more time, a water technician from Bangkok receives permission from local farmers to divert water from the mountain, water that is rushing into the cave, and channel it to the fields of the farmers. The painful economic consequence will be the destruction of the farmers’ crop.

In spite of this financial loss, the farmers are ready to make this sacrifice in order to save the boys, even though the outcome of all the efforts to rescue them is still in question. Indeed, the agreed-upon strategy to rescue the boys is totally unconventional and risky; but everybody, parents and rescue workers, support it.

What is significant is that the rescue is successful because the rescue workers only have one thing in mind: to save the boys. There are no egos getting in the way of positive, heroic actions. The Thai Seals, the impoverished farmers, and the rescue team from Britain do not waste precious time deliberating over what to do. They forge ahead even in the face of significant risk because the lives of the boys are at stake. Working together courageously and selflessly is their recipe for success.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg makes some recommendations for people who are working with one another for a noble cause. He observes that it is important to assume that your view of things is not the only way to perceive a crisis situation. When the rescue team thinks of an innovative way to rescue to boys, different points of view are considered seriously; but the ultimate decision is based on analyzing the evidence objectively. Each member of the rescue team considers the pros and cons of various plans to save the boys and each one values the honest feedback of the other.

The Torah tells us: “two are better than one.” This is because then you have more ideas and perspectives to think about. When there are more people offering possible solutions to a problem, there are more possibilities for finding the right answer. When everyone is searching for truth, it is always good to have more than one person examine the situation.

Furthermore, Rabbi Weinberg writes: “The key is to be a judge, not a lawyer. What’s the difference between a judge and a lawyer? A lawyer argues for the side that’s paying his fee. A judge remains objective so he can weigh both sides and discover the truth. People who get into arguments as lawyers are only interested in winning the discussion. They may listen to the other person, but they don’t really hear. They hear only what they want to hear.” In Thirteen Lives, the rescue team considers all possibilities, even unconventional ones, and that enables them to come up with a plan to save the boys.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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