(Inspired by Space shuttle Challenger 1986)Feb 20 2016 (20 years, one month later)
Those of you were here last week recalled that I opened our session on the introduction to the Shacharit with the discovery that Einstein was right. It only took science 100 years to prove it, which, from the point of view of history , is really very soon.
I used that as a hook to bring in Einstein’s view of God, which was not very traditionally Jewish, but certainly Jewish in an extended sense of the abstract God of Maimonides. His best line was probably,” God does not play dice with the universe.” He had to retract it, because the God of physics does play dice, but that is a different discussion. He did sense though: The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. In that sense, he said, he was “ deeply religious.”
In any event, the discovery of waves of gravitation reinforce an ancient sensibility, that the universe is one magnificent song of praise of God, reflected in the Psalms and in the opening of our Shacharit service, with El Adon.
El Adon, with its imagery of stars, sun and moon, and forces and power, mercy and lovingkindness, reflects an ancient drive to see the wonders of God in heaven, the Merkabah, the Divine Chariot.
Now, our Torah reading, Tetsaveh, and the rest of the Book of Exodus, is dedicated to just the opposite theme: This is a reverse of the premise of the entire rest of the book of Exodus, which is dedicated to bringing the heavens down to earth, in the form of the Mishkan, ( The entity of presence, sh-kh-n)the Tabernacle. This would seem to make sense to us: let’s have a flavor of God down here on earth, with us mere mortals, V’shachanti betocham, I will live in their midst, or, even more stirringly, as we say in the reading for Yom Kippur ”,that dwells in the midst of their impurities ( Lev 16:16)”.Hence, our term, Shekhinah, for the Presence of God everywhere.
But what about going the other way, about us going up! Moses goes up Sinai; Elijah goes up in a chariot of fire. Do we go up to the Heavens in any way?
We know that we have been flirting with this for over half a century. I still recall sitting in my school seat while the PA system broadcast the report of the first flight, by Allen Shepard, a few minutes of up and down, but a flight nevertheless, and then, not long afterwards, the first footsteps on the moon. It has also been 20 years, plus a month, to the great disaster of the Space shuttle Challenger, which exploded in mid-flight and some 13 years since the disaster of the space shuttle Columbus.( In both cases, seriously bad decisions led to the disasters, preventable decisions, that date back, if we follow the Midrash, to the one great flaw of the Tower of Babel.)
. As in the Greek legend of Icarus, who dared to fly above the bounds of the earth, such events serve to raise the question: may we move beyond the bounds of our planet ? Are we not, rather, to be tied to this earth on which we were created?
The Greeks, in their myth, said " No". To aspire too high was to court disaster, the punishment for any attempt to reach beyond the physical limitations of mere mortals, the sin of hubris.
What does the Torah say? What have Jewish scholars and visionaries to offer us, visionaries who lived thousands of years before the Wright brothers left the solid ground beneath them?
We didn’t have physical space flights, but we did have visions of trips to the heavens. We Jews, you know, do a lot of imagining. So we have our own history of space flight, but a flight conducted from within the heart and mind, not from the launch pad.
Our ancient sages were drawn, in their way, to penetrate the mysteries of the universe. Their way was meditative, yet in their belief, it was as powerful as or more powerful than the Saturn booster rockets.
They were also aware of the dangers. Together with Rabbi Akiba, it was said that three other Sages ascended to heaven. Here is one such version (Talmud Masechet Hagiga 14b)
Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the ‘Garden’, namely, Ben ‘Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher, and R. Akiba. R. Akiba said to them: When ye arrive at the stones of pure marble, say not, “Water, water!” For it is said: He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before mine eyes. Ben ‘Azzai cast a look and died. Of him Scripture says: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. Ben Zoma looked and became demented. Of him Scripture says: Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it. Acher mutilated the shoots. R. Akiba departed unhurt.
ת"ר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם ר"ע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר (תהילים קא) דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר (תהילים קטז) יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר (משלי כה) דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום
What one earth does this mean?
Had we lived in the second and third century , we would have known these descriptions of the voyage to the seven heavens. These were so well known that a similar space travel is mentioned also by Paul a century earlier to his audience.
So first, what is this Garden? The Hebrew word, originally Persian, is Pardes, which has entered the English language as “Paradise”. In other words, this is a trip up to the Heavens done through meditation. It is intended as a warning to amateurs to leave this up only to the greatest of the greatest, as those who are merely great become damaged goods.
They are warned not to say” water water” when they see shining marble plates. The understanding is that the vision is overwhelming and the visionary fails at that moment to realize the truth. Hence, Ben Azai, the first one,” hetzit vamet”; he peeked in and dropped dead.
Ben Zoma peeked and “ nifga”, was struck insane.
“ Acher”, the “Other One”, refers to Elisha Ben Abuya, the great teacher of his day.
” Kitzetz banetiyot”, he cut down that which was planted. If Paradise comes from the word for a garden, then this metaphor is well placed—he uprooted the garden. He abandoned Judaism, abandoned the Torah, visited a prostitute and violated the Shabbat in her presence, at which she gave him the nickname,” Acher”-the one who is different, very different from the Sage that he had been.
These are our versions of the Space shuttle disasters, our Icarus falling from the sky.
But. of Rabbi Akiba, the Sage who is their guide to Pardes, it is said ,”he went up in peace and returned in peace ( variant text).”
So what is it that Rabbi Akiba envisioned? Ancient manuscripts attribute the first version of Alenu as a song of praise that he uttered when he was up on high. And what was it that he saw?
“ He ( God) invited Man to his established place:
To ascend on high, to descend below
To drive on wheels of the Divine Chariot
To explore the world, to walk on dry ground
To contemplate the splendor. . .
To behold what is below
To know the meaning of the living, and to see the vision of the dead
To walk in rivers of fire and to know the lightning.( Lieberman in Gershom Scholem, Merkabah Mysiticsm p 77, Hekhalot text)
If this is not a description of a flight into Space- a flight of fantasy, a flight of imagination, whatever you may call it, then how else to describe this. In contemporary parlance, “ an out of body experience.”
These texts never were part of our standard canon. They were kept out of our Talmudim and our Midrashim, for sure ( except for very esoteric quotes in Talmud Hagigah). The story of the four who entered Paradise was a warning to all: Three out of four of the greatest failed! But it is still testimony to the human need to know that which is beyond comprehension. The quest for a spiritual; vision never vanished. Medieval mystics entered prophetic trances; the Baal Shem Tov beheld such heavenly visions. The late Rabbi Zalman Schachter tripped on acid with Timothy Leary ( not something I recommend to anyone).
In the second and third century, it was a trip into a spiritual space. In our times, it is a trip into physical space, whether by rocket flight, or by gigantic electronic installations trying to fathom what is above, what is below, ”To walk in Rivers of Fire and to Know the lightning."
This our very understandable drive :to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, be it beyond the bounds of the planet earth or to delve down into the miniscule world of neutron, proton, pion, anti-matter and the like.
However, should we not, as people of religion, ponder what happened to the mythical Icarus who dared to fly to high in the sky?
That is not a Jewish question. It is a pagan question.
When the ancient Greeks told the tale of the origin of fire, they saw the gods as haters of humanity. Only one Divine being, Prometheus, had pity on humanity and gave the first man the secret of fire. For this sin, Prometheus was bound and tortured, for all eternity.
God never prohibited the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; He prohibited eating of the fruit of knowledge of Good and Evil. He prohibited the desire for evil, for moral evil, that the tree represents.
Quite the opposite: In Jewish belief, God is the inspiration for human inquiry and knowledge, Chonen HaDaat..
So the Jewish story of fire is the exact reverse.
It was, our sages said, a gift from God, an act of compassion for the human being, to conquer the darkness and conquer fear.
When a Jew prays to God, he does not ask for the ability to believe. Nowhere are we asked to believe blindly. We give praise to God, instead, every day, for gift of wisdom, and God is described as the one who hanenu meitcha deah, binah v haskel- give us of your knowledge, understanding an discernment.
Knowledge is never forbidden. It is only the purpose for that knowledge that is questioned.
So, while our Torah portion deals with bringing a bit of heaven down to earth, we also keep in mind, that we ourselves want to be able to bring something of ourselves up into the Heavens, whether in our mediations and imaginings, or through our science and exploration.
To walk in Rivers of Fire and to Know the Lightning.