Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A petichta (a verse from far afield, and insights drawn from it, used to open new vistas on a present scripture) on bereshit bara “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth....” and related hagadot, from space-travelers of the past century. The idea here is to listen to the words of our first extraplanetary explorers in a way something like the way in which the redactors of classical midrash recalled and wove together the teachings of the earliest rabbinic sages – lehavdil (with due respect for the difference).

“When I see the work of Your fingers, the Moon and the stars that You have ordained – what is humanity that You should recall it, and the child of Adam that You should be mindful of him?" (Psalm 8:4)

Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell says, “We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb – everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself, all behind your thumb, and how insignificant we really all are; but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.”

“...yet You have made him just a little less than a divine being, and have crowned him with glory and splendor” (Psalm 8:5)

Astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell, remembering the experience of looking out from the Apollo 14 capsule at the stars in the universe’s vastness, says: “It was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realized that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, and the molecules in the bodies of my partners were all prototyped and manufactured in some ancient generation of stars – and that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness; it wasn’t them and us, it was ‘That’s me – it’s one thing,’ and that was accompanied by an ecstasy, a sense of ‘Oh my God, wow, yes,’ an insight – an epiphany.

And the gathering together of the waters God called Seas” – Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins says, of recovery from spash-down: “I can remember the beautiful water. We were out in the deep ocean, in the Pacific. It’s such a startling, violet color. I remember looking at the ocean and admiring it, “Nice ocean you’ve got here, Planet Earth!’“

Another interpretation: “How peaceful and calm and tranquil and serene, and, Lord, how fragile it appeared. That was, oddly enough, the overriding sensation I got looking at the Earth. It was: My God, that little thing is so fragile out there!”

“It really is an oasis and we don’t take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that consciousness is a real contribution to saving the earth, if you will.”

“And God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” – Astronaut John Young (Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, Space Shuttle STS-1, STS-9) says: “Earth has changed a lot since we started flying in Gemini. There are a lot of things like urban pollution, and you can see that when you hit orbit now. You can see the big cities all have their own set of unique atmospheres, they really do. We ought to be looking out for our kids and our grandkids, and what are we worried about? The price of a gallon of gasoline. In the United States we’re worried about three-dollar-a-gallon gas; and that’s awful.”

And Apollo 12 Astronaut Al Bean says: “Since that time, I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic. I’m glad there are people around. One of the things I did when I got home: I went out to shopping centers, and I’d just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something, and just watch the people go by, and think, ‘Boy, we’re lucky to be here.’ Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.

Another interpretation: “I felt that I was literally standing on a plateau somewhere out there in space, a plateau that science and technology had allowed me to get to – but now, what I was seeing, and even more important, what I was feeling at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for – literally no answers. Because there I was, and there you were: the Earth, dynamic, overwhelming – and I felt that the world was just too much purpose, too much logic, it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident. There has to be somebody bigger than you, and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense. There has to be a creator of the universe who stands above the religions we ourselves create to govern our lives.”

And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day" –
Astronaut Charles Duke says: “I say my walk on the moon lasted three days and it was a great adventure, but my walk with God lasts forever.”

(Quotations are drawn from the documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, currently in theatres. The twenty-four men who traveled to the moon between 1968 and 1972 remain the only human beings ever to have seen with their own eyes the circle of the Earth all at once, as a planet suspended in space.)


chillul Who? said...

That's amazing. Something in me says that a "tefillat haderech" for astronauts would read like Barchi Nafshi or Nishmat Kol Chai.... there's a certain point beyond which you're no longer relating to your surroundings on a personal level of what you want, but wonder/amazement/gratitude just takes over everything else.

Ben Newman said...

אמיץ כעוף יעלה בכח כעמוד אש מאחוריו
כבר לבבו בתוך הכוכבים ובשמים חלומותיו
עוד יראון מן היריח תכשיט כחול וירוק לפניהם
הצור השלישי מן השמש הוא צורי ולא עולתה בו

Amitz ka'of ya'aleh, bako'ach ka'amud esh me'achorav.
K'var levavo betoch hakochavim, uvashamayim chalomotav.
Od yir'un min ha'y'riach tachshit kachol v'yarok lif'neihem.
Hatzur hashlishi min hashemesh hu — tzuri, velo avlata bo.

(The bold shall rise up like a bird, with power like a pillar of fire behind him.
Already his heart is among the stars, and his dreams in heaven.
From the moon they shall yet see a blue and green jewel before them.
It is the third rock from the sun — my rock, in which there is no flaw.)


JonahSteinberg said...

Ben, I didn't see your comment earlier - and what a 'comment!' I enjoyed hearing you sing this composition at the NHC also. You might, of course, capitalize 'Rock' in the last line, as a name of God - and that raises a question of earth-worship/pantheism and, some would say, a spectre of paganism; but I have no problem with calling the sight of our earth a divine vision (mar'eh elokim), so long as we allow that there is more to to the Divine, beyond our ken - pan-en-theism, that is, as opposed to pantheism. Thanks so much for sharing this here.