Dust and Stars for the Days of Awe
Surfing the expanses of space and time in distances that challenge understanding and imagination, the James Web Space Telescope has become a mild personal obsession since it was launched in December 2021. The Space Telescope is approximately the size of a large truck. Orbiting the sun – nearly 1 million miles from Earth – it is exploring, documenting, and transmitting images of space across 13.6 million light years. The enormity of the distances means that the Space Telescope is not only seeing across space, but it is looking back in time. Because all travelling objects take time to pass from departure point to arrival, their travel can be measured in relation between speed and time. Because of the distances involved, the images transmitted back to NASA by the Space Telescope record portraits of stars and systems not as they are in 2022 on this planet, but as they were approximately 13.1 billion years ago. As the Space Telescope continues its mission, it will challenge the basic ways that we understand the birth and growth of the universe, and our place in it. I am no scientist and have never had any scientific training. However, something about the skill and the ingenuity of the scientists behind the project, the magnificent beauty of the far-flung places and times captured in the transmitted images, and the ability to reach out and touch the enormity of the universe ignites in me a glimpse of the spirit.
As we begin to enter the orbital path of the Days of Awe, the Jewish ritual rhythm propels towards a period of soul searching. Who are we? What is worthwhile? What trajectory do I want to set for my own life? And where I have fumbled and fallen, how do I pick myself up to keep moving ahead? Like a high-powered telescope, we are encouraged to refocus and look deep into our past, our location, and our direction.
From early morning slichot to the primordial wail of the shofar to the wearing of white, the Days of Awe push us to diminish personal ego as a prerequisite in moving from self-examination to change. These ten days are not only about the creation of the world but also about an opportunity for self-creation.
Between perusing articles and images about the progress of the Space Telescope and the approach of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I hear Van Morrison whispering in my ear, “Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder? Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright? Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?”
What comes to my mind considering the ramblings above?
The Days of Awe are a lesson in humility. We are mortal. We live as members of families. We exist in circles of community. We are part of a path of memory. While so much of contemporary culture is about the individual, the sovereign ‘I’, the Days of Awe and maybe also the path of the Space Telescope reminds that we are small, and not particularly significant in the broader contexts of galaxy upon galaxy, light year after light year. Both for us as individuals but also for ‘The Chosen People’ our relative insignificance is a big pill to swallow. Carl Sagan, a scientist and public intellectual whose science included a profound sense of wonder offered the following reflection on a famous 1994 photo showing the pinpoint Planet Earth from space, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” (Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot. 1994)
The sentiment that Sagan shares above seems to echo those of Abraham in his recognition that we are all but ‘dust and ashes.’ (Genesis 18:27).
There is another face to the coin. Sagan hints above – and develops this theme in both The Pale Blue Dot and other of his writings and work – that the relative inconsequentiality of human existence in the context of the expanse of the universe does not absolve us from responsibility for our own lives and for the places where we live. Likewise, Abraham’s recognition of the inescapable confinements of human existence are not a call to surrender responsibility. In the same sentence where he admits our base material composition, he also stands straight facing the God of Israel and argues for mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges divine will and rises above ashes and dust to be a champion for those who cannot advocate for themselves. In that sense, the Days of Awe are not only about self-effacement before the heavenly throne. Because the Days of Awe are about the possibility of soul searching, and about the prospect of change based on reflection; they are also about human agency and potentials.
Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a leading Hasidic master of the late 18th century, is famously quoted by Martin Buber. Rebbe Reb Bunim taught that one should guard in separate pockets two distinct verses – “I am only ashes and dust” and “for my sake the world was created.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a). The first is a therapeutic prompt against the excesses of pride. Simply said – Don’t believe your own hype. I am not the center of the universe. The second is a restorative against despondency. Although we are ashes and dust, we are also – as Joni Mitchell reminds us – “we are star dust, we are golden.” Although we all experience self-doubt, we possess the potential to surpass our own assumed limitations. We may not always succeed, but we are able to invest the effort. Each one of us contains literally a bit of celestial energy. “We are each the joining of two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of Adam…” (and of Eve).
I began to carry the Rebbe Reb Bunim (by way of Buber) text in my wallet. That way I can be assured that my wallet contains something of real value. Hopefully – together with sporadic updates from the James Webb Space Telescope – I will be spurred onward for the new year.