In England, we like to say that you wait all day for a London bus and then two come along at once. It seems that what is true for London buses is also true for billionaires who want to fly into space. We’ve waited (or not really waited) all of this time for a billionaire to blast off into space and then two come along at once.
In a span of under 10 days, first Richard Branson and then Jeff Bezos jetted off into space. I don’t really want to talk about the rights or wrongs of billionaires spending hundreds of millions of dollars so they can take a rocket 50-something miles into the sky and then come back. I was unfortunately not consulted by Branson or Bezos about their plans, although given how much my family buys on Amazon, I do feel that I was at least a little invested in that mission.
The cynic in me wants to remind us all that the day Jeff Bezos chose to fly into space was the 42nd anniversary of NASA not just flying into space, but actually putting a man on the moon. There was a lot of fuss about two men doing something that NASA has been doing for half a century now; their first flight into space actually went twice as far as our two billionaires.
But I don’t want to be cynical about what we all witnessed. What was amazing to me was that, for a few hours on both of those days, in the midst of a global pandemic and multiple climate disasters, we shifted our focus to these two missions into space. There was live coverage on the news channels; there were conversations about what this might mean; press conferences were held before and after the events. It was and remains a story that excited the world and that we watched together. I’ve been thinking about why I found this story to be so powerful and why I wanted to talk about it.
For Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, while I have legitimate questions about the way in which they spend their money, I am struck by the fact that they set themselves a goal and pursued it relentlessly. They had a dream of flying into space and they were both in the privileged position to spend the money necessary to pursue and achieve their dream. Along the way they could not have known whether they would succeed; there were no guarantees that the investment would ultimately pay off, and there was significant risk involved not just with the undertaking as a whole, but with the specific mission of space flight. But they did it anyway.
I think this is a very Jewish story; in many ways, it is the story that dominates almost all of the Torah and is at the heart of the Jewish experience. As a Jewish community, we embark on a journey toward an unknown destination, uncertain of whether we will succeed, but with a sense of faith and hope that we can achieve something new and better than what has gone before.
This is the journey that Abraham and Sarah undertake with the initial call from God to go on a journey to a land that God will show them, so that they might be a blessing and through them all the families of the earth will be blessed. And following their example it is the story of the biblical Israelites and countless generations since then. We imagine a Promised Land, in part as a specific geographic location, but also in terms of the potential that is inherent in the world, something better than the status quo, a place where we as people can broaden our potential to stretch higher and to reach further.
The Promised Land within the Torah is not a place that the people know; once Jacob and his family leave the land of Israel for Egypt, we never return. And by the time we end the Torah, only 12 people, the spies, have actually entered the Promised Land with two of them, Caleb and Joshua, still alive. For four of the five books of Torah, we have a goal in mind—journeying toward the Promised Land—but we don’t know if we will make it there and we don’t really know what to expect when we get there.
The story of the journey to the Promised Land resonates for us and for so many others because it is a story that excites us; it is a story about the potential that is inherent in the world; it is an adventure story. Success is not guaranteed; rather, it is through hard work and determination that the people ultimately reach their destination. I don’t want to suggest that the quest to fly into space is of the same order of magnitude as the journey to the Promised Land, but it shares a lot of the same characteristics, and it can also inspire us.
While many characterized the trips into space as vanity projects, I was struck by the comments from Jeff Bezos after he returned to earth. He talked about the fact that no borders are visible from space, sharing, “It’s one planet, and we share it and it’s fragile.” Alongside this sentiment he also declared that the journey had reinforced his commitment to fight climate change and that “we have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future.” And he is not alone in pursuing space travel with an eye to the future and the ways in which the earth can be nurtured and protected.
Dayenu—it’s enough if we reflect on these journeys into space as quests to build a better future for our world. But there is another element that is so important in parallel to our own journey to the Promised Land. There is an element of risk. When the Israelites left Egypt, they did not know what lay before them, and while it is true that life in Egypt was no picnic, there was significant risk involved in stepping out into the unknown and leaving the certainty of the life they knew behind. When we read the account of the spies in our Torah, it becomes clear that their report of the Promised Land essentially said we won’t be able to conquer it.
They didn’t argue that it was a good land, rather they were fearful of the inhabitants; they had no appetite for the risk involved in conquering the land. It was only Caleb and Joshua who stood apart and declared, yes, we can; they were ready to take a risk, imagining what might be possible. In the shadow of COVID-19, we have understandably tried to mitigate risk for ourselves, our families, our community, our society and the world. We have taken the necessary precautions so that we can avoid the dangers that are out there. And while risk aversion is right and proper when facing a pandemic, it cannot be the way that we approach all areas of life. So many of the moments of breakthrough and progress in history have come about because of a willingness to take a risk.
It will be interesting in the forthcoming decades whether we reflect on the risk and rewards of the journeys into space that we just witnessed. In his address to Purdue’s graduating class of 2021, university president Mitch Daniels talked about America as a country that has always been willing to take risks. As he said: “There’s a companion quality you’ll need to be the leaders you can be. That’s the willingness to take risks. Not reckless ones, but the risks that still remain after all the evidence has been considered. Great societies before us tended to look backward for their inspiration, to locate their golden ages in the past. Here our eyes have always been forward.”
While Daniels suggested that looking forward is an American characteristic, I would argue that before it was American, it was Jewish. We always looked forward to the potential of what might be, rather than dwelling on the past and what was. What is the journey to the Promised Land if not this? From the original call to Abraham and Sarah we began to look forward, imagining a world that could be better and filled with blessings; and from the moment they embarked on their journey, we as a people accepted that there would be an element of risk in seeking to fulfill our biblical legacy.
We have just witnessed the opening chapter in the story of private travel into space, and we do not know where the story will end. But it can remind us that our Jewish story has been and will always be about the adventurous spirit and undertaking the necessary risks to journey toward the Promised Land. That story is one that is never-ending, but it continues to transform us and our world for the better.
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