Parashat Bemidbar | June 11, 2016
It was almost 10 months ago that I stood before you during Kol Nidrei services with somewhat of a confession. That after doing my best to keep it secret for a little while, I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I outed myself as a nerd. A space nerd. A big space nerd. On that night, I brought pictures with me that astronaut Scott Kelly had taken from space during his one-year stay on the International Space Station. I hoped that they could serve as an inspiration for us to see the majesty and wonder of the Universe around us, as a way of appreciating God’s role in our scientific age. Those pictures still hang in my office as a reminder to me of the many ways we can find inspiration.
In the months since that night, it seems my space-nerdom has grown even larger. I have visited Kennedy Space Center, seen Space Shuttle Atlantis and various launch pads, I have downloaded an app that serves as a star map and even alerts me when the International Space Station will pass by overhead, I have watched the web streams of many rocket launches and SpaceX landing attempts, and on a memorable night in March, I stayed up late to watch the live coverage of Kelly’s return to earth on NASA-TV. (Yes, that’s a thing.) I have done just about everything I can aside from seeing a launch in-person, although I’m always looking at schedules to find a date that will work.
That’s why, it should come as no surprise that on Thursday afternoon I was trying to find the live coverage of a rocket launch scheduled to take place that day. Spoiler alert, the weather wasn’t cooperating and the launch was postponed until later today. But as I was googling to find the launch information, I saw a headline that caught my eye.
“NASA’s Charles Bolden bolsters space cooperation between America and Israel.” Bolden, if you’re unfamiliar, is the Administrator of NASA and runs this country’s space program. This past week, he visited Israel, met with leaders in the Israeli space program, and received an honorary doctorate from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. In describing this trip on the official NASA blog, Bolden wrote:
“Today, I’m embarking on a journey of my own — to meet with our global friends in international space agencies, governments, private companies, universities and other forums; folks who are eager to be part of NASA’s Journey to Mars. I plan to carry with me a message of partnership as I remind them of how much the American people value their friendship, especially when it comes to space – which in many ways is the great global connector.”
He continued, “Over the course of this trip, I will have the opportunity to discuss NASA’s Journey to Mars with the Israeli Minister of Science, Technology and Space, the Israel Space Agency (ISA), and Israeli innovators, students and entrepreneurs. I’ll also be meeting with students in both Israel and Jordan who participate in the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) science and education initiative, of which NASA is a proud partner.”
It many ways it’s not so surprising to learn of this partnership between NASA and the Israeli space program. We regularly hear about Israel as the Start-Up Nation, with its many technological and engineering advancements benefiting itself as well as other countries around the world. Additionally, we of course remember in 2003, Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli astronaut before tragically losing his life along with six other astronauts on board the Space Shuttle Columbia. That moment, even with its tragic ending, did symbolize the growing strategic and technological partnerships taking place between our two countries.
But there was also another symbol to remember from that occasion. On Ramon’s personal insignia, which he wore into space and a copy of which is on display at the Astronaut memorial at Kennedy Space Center, you can see an astronaut proudly standing in a space suit, holding a dove, with the images of the United States and Israeli flags coming together. And on the side, right by the start of the Israeli flag, you can also see an image of a Torah scroll. Why of all symbols, is the Torah represented on a patch of an astronaut? Ramon wrote in his description of the insignia, “The sacred Torah scroll inspires this quest and Israel’s partaking in the betterment of humanity.”
Ordinarily we would not think of the Torah as inspiring our journey into space. We see the Torah as our law code, as our history, as our guidelines for living a good and just life. Tomorrow morning, on the first day of Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, we’ll read the Ten Commandments, our foundational laws for ourselves and our justice system. This is the Torah we ordinarily think of. But even still, there is so much more to the Torah than just this, and so much that can inspire our journeys in all that we do.
Today we began reading ספר במדבר, the Book of Numbers. Although the english name for the book is derived from the census that takes place in the first few chapters, the Hebrew name better summarizes its content. Bemidbar – in the wilderness. It is in this book that we’ll read of the Israelites journey into the unknown and through the wilderness of Sinai. Last week we read the final verse of Leviticus that said, “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” (Lev 27:34) This week as we begin this book we read, “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num 1:1) So from one book to the next, we continue our journey, leaving behind the relative comfort and stability of Mount Sinai, and now head out into the wilderness. There is an intimate connection between the giving of the Torah and entering the wilderness, so much so that this week’s parsha, Bemidbar, is virtually always read on the Shabbat just before Shavuot.
Our sages were intrigued by this notion as well, and sought to understand why the Torah was given in the wilderness. The Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah teaches that the Torah was given with the accompaniment of three things; fire, water and wilderness. Why these three? Because each of these are open and belong to all humanity. They are accessible and available for anyone who seeks them out. So too, the words of the Torah are free to those who seek them out. Continuing in this theme, they go further and say that the wilderness did not belong to any specific people or person and so too God’s love and loyalty do not belong to a single people.
I’d also like to suggest a third reason for the prominence of the wilderness. As the Israelites are setting out into the wilderness, they are confused, disjointed, and separated. The parsha makes clear that there are 12 distinct tribes who camp in their own areas. During their journey through the wilderness they experience many ups and downs, attacks, adventures, and challenges. On multiple occasions the leadership of Moses is challenged by his rivals. Tribes bicker and fight with each other over a variety of matters. Finally, after their long journey through the wilderness is over and once they do enter into the land of Israel, there are still certain divisions among the tribes, but as a people they have been greatly united. As a result of coming through their journey and surviving in the wilderness, they have come together to form one people.
This is true in so many areas of our life. When we want to bring a group together, we take them to the wilderness. At the start of each school year, here at the Martin J Gotlieb Day School we take all the middle school students on a retreat to Camp Ramah Darom, with the hopes that they bond together as a unit. Today, as we celebrate many of our children who are going off to camp, once again they will have the opportunity to form close friendships in their bunks and eidot. Even as a family goes off on vacation, they can share new experiences, create new memories, and grow closer as a family. This is the power that traveling has, particularly through the wilderness. To bond, to grow closer, to unite.
So too is this true as a civilization working to explore our new wilderness of space. When the first component of the International Space Station was launched in 1998, it brought together 26 different countries to unite behind a common goal. This week, as Charles Bolden traveled to Israel and other countries to gain support for the journey to Mars, he too realized the great unifying potential of journeying into a wilderness. As he wrote, “ I plan to carry with me a message of partnership as I remind them of how much the American people value their friendship, especially when it comes to space – which in many ways is the great global connector.”
In his words, space is the “great global connector.” But I’ll adapt that to say any journey together into an unknown wilderness is also a great connector. Whether you are a child traveling to camp or to Israel, whether you are a family taking a trip somewhere new, whether you are the Israelites traveling through the wilderness, or yes, even if you are trying to organize a global partnership to land humans on Mars for the first time, all of these journeys, all of these wildernesses have the potential to connect and unite us together.
Wherever your summer journeys may take you, we wish you well, safe travels, and a safe return.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah.