Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Fly Me to the Moon

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Operation Inspiration

As I said Kiddush Levana this month, I had some extra kavana in one of the pesukim we say. It was, “k’sheim she’ani rokeid, Just as I dance and jump opposite you (the moon) and can’t reach you, so should all my enemies be unable to reach me for bad.” What prompted this extra reflection? The upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing. 

On July 16, 1969, three astronauts set out to achieve a feat never before accomplished: reaching the moon and walking upon it. For thousands of years, men, women, and most of all children, have gazed up at the shining orb in the sky and imagined what it might be like. 

On July 20, 1969, we found out. The moon was not made of green cheese, but of dusty rocks with a highly reflective surface. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission were the first two men to walk on the moon. They jumped towards the moon and actually reached it. President John F. Kennedy in 1961 had cast the gauntlet down for NASA and given the United States the goal of reaching the moon before the end of the decade and they did it, with five months to spare. 

Neil Armstrong famously declared as he stepped down from his vessel onto the dusty surface: “This is one small step for a man; one giant leap for Mankind.”

Looking back fifty years later, I wonder if we really took such a giant leap. We haven’t gone to the moon much since then, and even with the International Space Station, we are far from colonizing the moon and other planets. So what did we gain?

It was a goal that was set and when it was set the thought was that it would springboard us into the future. It didn’t. 

In life, we often say, “If I can only do this,” or “I just need… and then…” and we believe that if certain things happen it will set into motion a string of fantastic achievements or happy occurrences. And then somehow, when these things happen, they are not the watershed moments we thought they would be. 

Now, that’s not to say the Apollo program was without practical benefits. Numerous inventions created as part of the space program have found their way into daily use, such as satellite technology (GPS anyone?), memory foam, water-purification techniques, the robotics that make prosthetic limbs possible, and even the software used to develop the revolutionary Dustbuster cordless vacuum.

Another good lesson here is that sometimes the good you think you’re doing pales next to the good you actually do along the way. Reaching the destination isn’t necessarily the only reason for the journey, nor the best one. While trying to achieve things we must take many steps in the process and those are often very good for us.

Though the U.S. made it to the moon first, it was not the first country to get to outer space. That honor went to the Soviets as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth in 1961. At a huge reception in his honor, as his close friend and fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov told it, then-premier Nikita Khrushchev cornered Gagarin. “So tell me, Yuri,” he asked, “did you see G-d up there?” After a moment’s pause, Gagarin answered, “Yes sir, I did.” Khrushchev frowned. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said.

A few minutes later the head of the Russian Orthodox Church took Gagarin aside. “So tell me, my child,” he asked Gagarin, “did you see G-d up there?'” Gagarin hesitated and replied “No sir, I did not.” The cleric responded, “Don’t tell anyone.”

R’ Yisrael Salanter has been quoted as saying, “Greater than the distance from earth to Heaven is the distance between the mind and the heart.” Though the astronauts flew millions of miles into space, I believe they were no closer to G-d, with the exception of perhaps praying out of fear for their lives from the danger of the operation.

As I look towards the moon, I reflect on the fact that though a man may fly to the Heavens, he is no closer to Hashem than a person with his feet on the ground who WANTS to be close to Hashem. Connecting with our Creator is not a journey upward but inward. Perhaps that’s what the posuk means by saying that though I jumped towards the moon I am no closer to reaching it. It’s simply the wrong way to reach Heaven.

To return to President Kennedy for a moment, in 1962 he spoke at Rice University and mentioned the moon challenge. His words that day resound with wisdom so I will share them here and end with a simple thought. He said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

We all have abilities and talents that we need to use though sometimes it is hard to realize what they are and focus them properly. Despite that – no – because of that difficulty, the goal is to use them as best we can to serve Hashem. By doing so we won’t make it to the moon; we’ll go much further.

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