It was a bright and clear Autumn morning, and a young religious Jew was rushing to Boston’s Logan International Airport to catch a flight to Los Angeles. This was not a flight he could miss, as quite a bit depended on him getting to L.A. today and the business meeting he was scheduled to attend would not wait for him. Thankfully, he reached the airport in time and was even able to settle down in the terminal for a few minutes while waiting for his final boarding call.
Finally, he boarded the plane, watched the doors close, and sat down. He rummaged around in his carry-on bag and then stopped. Frantic, he suddenly realized that he had left his tefillin on the seat next to him in the terminal boarding area.
Immediately, he jumped out of his seat and approached a stewardess. He politely explained the situation to her and asked if it would be possible for him to go back and retrieve his tefillin. They were on a seat, just a few short feet from the gate. It was, he said, very valuable and very important. The stewardess, though, did not seem to be worried.
Citing procedure, she told him that once the doors of the plane closed, no one was allowed off the plane. She could notify airport security and they could look for his items in the terminal but she was not in a position to allow anyone off the plane. After a few moments of arguing, he realized that she was useless.
Not about to take this sitting down, he asked if he could speak to the pilot to obtain special permission. Surely the pilot would understand. He caused enough of a ruckus until finally, the pilot was consulted. But he, too, cited procedural rules and refused to comply.
Now, he was at a loss. He knew that he could not trust an airport worker to find his tefillin and hold onto them until he got back. He was not about to lose this precious mitzvah or let his holy tefillin get lost like that, so, not knowing what else to do, he started yelling at the top of his lungs, “I am going to lose my tefillin! They won’t let me get my tefillin!”
Everyone turned to look at this young man gone crazy. The crew tried to hush him. At first, they politely asked him to be quiet and sit down. Soon, their requests became more forceful. But he refused to stop making a fuss and got louder.
He carried on this way for a few more minutes, and even the other passengers began complaining. At that point, the flight crew capitulated and told him that they would let him off the plane, simply because he was a nuisance.
He assumed that he could grab his tefillin from the terminal and run back onto the plane. The whole ordeal would take less than 90 seconds, but after letting him off the plane, they quickly closed and resealed the door once again and would not let him back on. It was clear that they were not going to wait for him.
No matter — He was not about to lose his tefillin, even if it caused him great inconvenience or cost his business a loss. He left the plane, never to re-board.
That flight was United Airlines, #175, the second plane to reach the World Trade Center on the awful morning of September 11, 2001. The plane, and everyone aboard, disintegrated in a fiery ball that killed thousands of people in the worst terrorist attack in history.
But one Jew was spared. This young man’s devotion to a mitzvah saved his life. The consequence of his actions does not end there. Originally, the terrorists planned for both towers to be struck simultaneously to maximize the explosive carnage. Later it was learned that due to this whole tumult, the takeoff of flight 175 was delayed, causing a space of 18 minutes between the striking of the two towers. The fact of the matter is that this delay made it possible for thousands more people to escape alive from both buildings.
Literally, thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lives were spared during those 18 minutes because one Jew would not forsake his beloved tefillin.
(This true story is documented in the book, “Even in the Darkest Moments” by Zeev Breier and retold in a Torah Tavlin newsletter from Parashat Bo 2009).