As a child, I used to look skyward on clear nights and imagine going to space. I was a fan of science fiction stories and movies; I fell in love with Kirk and Spock and the whole gang on the USS Enterprise at a young age.
But adulthood has the unfortunate tendency to kill many a childhood fantasy, and I must admit that I had not been paying so much attention in recent years to human efforts to conquer space. But something caught my attention this week, and you probably heard about it as well: Sir Richard Branson, English business magnate and founder of Virgin Group, flew into sub-orbital space, about 50 miles up, achieving weightlessness for a few minutes. Among the many companies he controls is Virgin Galactic, a company that promises to be able to provide flights into space for the general public in the near future.
Branson just barely edged out Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, who will also be traveling into space in his own craft in a few weeks. And of course there is investor Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, which has sent a few rockets skyward recently, including partnerships with NASA.
All of these endeavors are the stuff of dreams. And, of course, they are fabulously expensive. These companies are somewhat tight-lipped about how much money they are investing in these flights, but it must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Bezos will have a companion on his flight who has reportedly paid $28 million for the seat. Three people have paid $55 million each for seats on a SpaceX flight to the International Space Station next year. Virgin Galactic already has 600 people signed up for trips into space that will cost more than $250,000 per seat.
But what about the rest of us here on Earth? As much as I am sure that many of us would love the opportunity to travel into space, I will confess that this strikes me as, in the words of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, “Hevel havalim.” Vanity of vanities.
After all, if these investors were to take that money and invest it in people here on Earth – education, literacy, health care, clean water, clean energy, democratic governments, solutions for climate change – imagine the good that they could do on the ground. And in particular at this time, when we are still suffering from a worldwide pandemic.
I am certainly not accusing these men of not being charitable. Bezos made the largest charitable gift in the world last year: a $10 billion commitment to fight climate change. According to what I could find on the Interwebs, Musk and Branson have each pledged to give away half of their wealth to charity. I am merely concerned about the optics of this race into the final frontier when so many are suffering down here on Earth. The great ballyhoo surrounding such extravagant projects that will truly only benefit a tiny few seems a bit tone-deaf.
OK, so let’s face it: there is so much to celebrate right now – success in creating vaccines, returning to something approaching normalcy, seeing people again. The rate of joblessness is going down as people return to the workforce. The economy is beginning to move again, particularly in the hospitality and tourism industries, which were devastated by Covid.
But there is also much to mourn. And that brings me to Tish’ah BeAv, the official Jewish day of mourning. Starting this evening and going through tomorrow night, we will fast for 25 hours to remind ourselves that we are a people that is still in mourning, 1,949 years after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem, destroying the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple that was the center of Jewish life up until then, for the second and final time. While the Beit HaMiqdash occupies a special place in our hearts and minds, it has never been rebuilt. In recalling this destruction, we chant the book of Eikhah / Lamentations this evening, perhaps the most evocative poetry of desolation ever composed (1:1):
אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה
Eikha yashevah vadad ha’ir rabbati am hayetah ke-almanah.
How lonely sits the city, which was once full of people; She who was great among nations, now is like a widow.
Tonight and tomorrow we will mourn not only the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but also many other cataclysmic moments in Jewish life: the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Shoah, and so forth. We are a people whose paths of exile are wet with tears, whose persecutions and dispersions we carry with us just as much as we carry our words of Torah. We are a people for whom there is little solace in history, not much more comfort in the present, and only a modicum of optimism for the future. Jerusalem, rebuilt though she may be, still vibrates with the rumblings of ancient destructions.
Tish’ah BeAv keeps us close to mourning. And that is a good thing. We should not be so high on ourselves that we forget the misery, the pain of our history. We should not be so proud as to think we can conquer time or space, or be free of anti-Semitism, or be liberated from the woes of human life.
Now, I’m sure that many of you are thinking, “OK, Rabbi, we’ve had nearly a year and a half of isolation, of anxiety, of losing beloved family members to a deadly virus. We have grieved enough. It’s time to party, right? Now is not the right moment to lean into the official Jewish day of mourning.”
But, as with Yom Kippur, the goal of fasting and remembering on this day is not for its own sake; it is not merely a day on which we should be miserable just because. As with Pesaḥ, when we recall being freed from slavery and deny ourselves a whole range of foods, we do not do so merely to encourage constipation.
Rather, we afflict our souls on Tish’ah BeAv because occasionally we need to be humbled, so that we know what it is like to be hungry and miserable. We need to remember that there are people for whom every day is a fast day, who have no luxurious leather shoes, who have no comfortable furniture on which to sit, who have no climate-controlled home in which to live.
Over our month of sabbatical, Judy and I saw many homeless people in the cities we visited along the Eastern seaboard. I do not know if there has been an uptick in homelessness due to the pandemic, but I certainly would not be surprised if that were the case; the number of people living on the streets is heartbreakingly large.
ט֣וֹב שְׁפַל־ר֭וּחַ אֶת־עֲנָוִ֑ים מֵחַלֵּ֥ק שָׁ֝לָ֗ל אֶת־גֵּאִֽים׃
Better to be humble and among the lowly than to share spoils with the proud. (Mishlei / Proverbs 16:19)
We fast on Tish’ah BeAv to remind ourselves of the most fundamental responsibilities we have as Jews: to take care of the others around us, to remember their suffering, to recall that even as we aim for the stars, we must work hard to provide comfort for those who have none on Earth.
We have to remember the pain. If we do not, we’ll all be in space, and we will lose sight of what is really going on here on the ground.
I mentioned earlier that this is Shabbat Ḥazon, the Shabbat of the vision of Yeshayahu (known in English as Isaiah). Yeshayahu’s vision is one of suffering, of invasion by the Assyrian empire, brought about by the faithlessness of his audience. Echoing the opening of Eikhah, he says (Yeshayahu / Isaiah 1:21-22):
אֵיכָה֙ הָיְתָ֣ה לְזוֹנָ֔ה קִרְיָ֖ה נֶאֱמָנָ֑ה מְלֵֽאֲתִ֣י מִשְׁפָּ֗ט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִ֥ין בָּ֖הּ וְעַתָּ֥ה מְרַצְּחִֽים׃ כַּסְפֵּ֖ךְ הָיָ֣ה לְסִיגִ֑ים סׇבְאֵ֖ךְ מָה֥וּל בַּמָּֽיִם׃
Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt— but now murderers. Your silver has turned to dross; your wine is cut with water.
Faith has turned to faithlessness; luxuries have been reduced to waste. But, says Yeshayahu, whose very name means “God will save,” we can change that. We return to our holy obligations, and there is redemption. As with the conclusion of Eikhah (5:21),
הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃
Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old!
If we use this fast to spur us to action, to return to Torah and mitzvot, to remember the needy among us, God will save us from future suffering.
God will surely not, however, save us from our own vanity. That is up to us as individuals, and as a society.
Shabbat shalom, and have a meaningful fast.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/17/2021.)