The Moon and the Jews

(Published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, July 19, 2019)

     Fifty years ago this week man first walked on the moon, something fantasized about by human beings since ancient times. It was a triumph of human ingenuity that united all of mankind for a brief moment, and that, in the summer of 1969, brought a brief respite from the turmoil that tormented American life – a summer noted for mayhem (the Manson murders), music (the Woodstock retreat) and endless marches against the Vietnam War.

I missed all of that, spending my first summer in Israel and not yet Bar Mitzvah. I recall standing on July 20, 1969, with many others, on a street corner in Netanya looking at the grainy black-and-white television images of the first steps on the moon. The excitement was palpable. Earth’s moon was our gateway to space and the universe beyond. And then, oddly, the attraction of landing men on the moon faded quickly. No person has touched the moon’s surface since 1972. What happened? And is there a Jewish perspective on this accomplishment?

The scope of the moon program and its ancillary achievements were astonishing. More than 400,000 people worked for NASA on the space program and the inventions that were largely unknown byproducts of the drive to land a man on the moon transformed our world – everything from scratch-resistant lenses and anti-icing equipment to the first widespread use of Velcro, microchips, MRI’s, and the gravity-defying space pen (before the space pen, the astronauts used… pencils).

The drive to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth came about for the most prosaic reason: a desire to supersede the Soviet Union whose space program was then more advanced and successful. And it was fraught with danger that, in that era of stoic and understated heroes, was downplayed. But a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in 1967. Less than a year after the successful landing, Apollo 13’s flight to the moon was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on board; that crew returned safely. We have witnessed two space shuttle explosions in the ensuing decades.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were flying into uncharted territory. All precautions were taken but the slightest mishap – as happened other times – would have taken their lives. President Nixon had a failure speech prepared in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon, lauding their courage and inspiration. Indeed, it was not known for many years that while exiting the Eagle moon landing craft, one of the astronaut’s backpacks had broken the switch on the computer that armed the engine! Fortunately, Buzz Aldrin inserted a simple pen that he brought with him – and the system worked (Newsmax, July 2019).

Strange as it sounds, Jews have always had a special relationship with the moon. We count our months according to the moon’s cycle (Masechet Sukka 29a) and as a nation are compared to the moon (Midrash Tehillim 22). The moon was singled out for creation on the fourth day, and it is the only aspect of creation that perceptibly changes shape every day before our eyes, waxing and waning every month and thereby meriting its own beracha upon its monthly reappearance. It seemed so close and yet so unreachable that the text of the accompanying tefilot characterized the moon as “aini yachol lingoa bach,” I cannot touch you. And yet touch it we did. One rabbi quickly opined that we should no longer recite that phrase; he was overruled. For all but twelve men, the moon remained untouchable, part of our world but literally beyond our grasp.

Poskim debated whether or not there was an obligation to observe mitzvot on the moon, with some claiming that mitzvot were mandated only “on the earth” (Devarim 12:1). That proposal never got off the ground. A joke circulated about the Jewish astronaut who reported on the difficulty of his mission orbiting the earth: “It was amazing, except for every 70 minutes – Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv…” In reality, there have been more than a dozen Jewish astronauts – Americans, Israelis and one Soviet Jew, Boris Volynov, who in January 1969 became the first Jew in space.

For all the exhilaration of the moment, the next moon landing just four months later drew much less attention. By 1972, missions were being canceled due to budget cuts. The late Eugene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the moon, on December 17, 1972. Almost as quickly as man arrived, he determined that there was no reason to return.

Great moments of joy are often followed by emotional deflation. The feat, once achieved, no longer energizes. We remember the first person to do something, much less the second, and not at all the tenth. The space program stumbled in this essentially human way, the sense of “been there, done that, now what?” The mystique and enchantment of the moon landing fell victim to cost-benefit analyses and financial constraints. A fantasy fulfilled simply begets another and different fantasy.

And perhaps this as well: The American culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s eroded the nation’s moral core, and government failures – ethical, military, diplomatic and economic – sapped the people’s trust in the traditional institutions of American life. The contrast between the harmony in the heavens and the chaos on earth was too glaring – wars, massacres, human suffering and misery, and the emergence of new challenges and adversaries, all on earth – to justify spending resources on space without any immediate benefit. And Americans, now caught up in the throes of a consumerist and increasingly libertine society, prioritized pursuit of pleasure in the present over adventure in the great beyond. Man’s intellectual and technological achievements often carry a whiff of “my power and the might of my hand have accomplished all of this” (Devarim 8:17). Success feeds the ego in a potentially destructive way but also leaves man looking for new hills to climb and different hurdles to overcome.

Of course, there was and is another way to approach this, and why the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing evokes such nostalgia and good feeling. It is because the grandeur of the universe also reminds us of the smallness of mankind, underscoring our humility in the face of the Creator and His creation. “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your hands, the stars and the moon that You brought into existence. What is a human that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You remember him? Yet You made him slightly less than the angels and crowned him with glory and splendor” (Tehillim 8:4-6).

From this great distance, the astronauts reported, the earth looks so small and peaceful. If only we embraced that perspective, then our humility, ingenuity and commonality would impel us to imbue this planet with G-d’s presence and an eagerness to obey His will. For one fleeting moment fifty years ago, that perspective became possible – an eternal tribute to those whose courage revealed for all the extraordinary frontiers of human potential.

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