Israel is poised to make it big in the Space Race over the next few days. If all goes well, by the end of next week, our nation will join that elite cluster of countries who have successfully landed on the Moon.
Beresheet (named for the book of Genesis, in case the spelling threw you), Israel’s first Lunar Lander, is an ambitious project. If it all works, and as of this week, it’s very on track, it could totally revolutionize interplanetary travel.
You could call Beresheet “The Little Lunar Lander That Could”. Like its host country, Beresheet is tiny. The smallest lunar lander ever, it weighs a mere 150kg (compare that to the 75 tons of a Space Shuttle or the 15 tons of Neil Armstrong’s “Eagle” or even the 900kg of Mars Curiosity Rover).
It’s cheap (did you expect any less from a Jewish development team?). The project cost around $95 million, a fraction of the $355 million that the United States spent to first land on the Moon (that’s in 1960’s money, which is well over a billion dollars in today’s currency).
In fairness, the Apollo missions carried astronauts and Mars rovers are chock-full of equipment, while Beresheet only carries a time-capsule and a few pieces of scientific equipment.
Still, nobody would have predicted that you could cover over 6 million km (the distance of the route Beresheet takes to the Moon) on about 430l of fuel.
The Israeli team did two things to get the Lander to the Moon. One, they hitched a ride into Space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (call it Space Uber Pool, if you will). Second, they designed the lander to lasso off the Earth’s orbit until the right moment, when it would be caught by the Moon’s gravity and take a sharp right towards the Moon. If that sounds simple, it really isn’t. Flight control engineers needed to make a series of precise maneuvers, at exactly the right times to to move the craft from our planet’s orbit to that of its famous satellite.
Thursday was the critical day when Beresheet had to slip out of Earth’s orbit to be pulled by lunar gravity. Technicians at SpaceIL held their breath for six intense minutes, then celebrated the success of a never-attempted maneuver. Touchdown is now on track for next week Thursday.
They couldn’t have timed it better.
This Shabbos we’ll read HaChodesh, the special Torah portion that comes around annually just before Pesach and is the reason that Jews have been obsessed with the Moon for over 3300 years.
HaChodesh describes G-d’s very first instruction to the fledgling Jewish People, the commandment to design a calendar. A calendar based on the Moon. In the week that Jews will recall the mitzvah of the Moon, Israel plans to land on it.
(By the way, because HaChodesh is our first mitzvah, the famous medieval commentator, Rashi, suggests that the Torah should logically have opened with it, rather than with Genesis. Ironic that the Israeli spacecraft headed for a Moon landing in the week of HaChodesh is named Beresheet- for Genesis.)
Ever since the Nissan of the Exodus, Jews have had our eyes on the Moon. In Temple times, we’d scan the skies every 29 days to spot the New Moon so that we could sanctify Rosh Chodesh. Nowadays, we step our every four weeks to recite a blessing over the Moon. Our holidays track the Moon and most of them coincide with Full Moon.
The Talmud says that we count our months according to the Moon, because our nation is compared to the Moon.
The Sun is bright, intense and consistent. Each morning it blazes into the sky. Each evening it simmers into sunset. It’s never half-Sun or waxing or waning. It’s consistent, life-sustaining… and too intense for us to handle up close.
The Moon has its ups and downs, bright nights and dim ones, growth and shrinkage. Moonlight is really just a glimmering reflection of the Sun. Like the Jews.
Our history is of a nation that waxes and wanes, illuminates the world and then recedes, only to rebirth into new light, life and inspiration. As the Moon refracts intense sunlight into cool visible light, the Jewish people reflect infinite G-d to inspire His finite world. Isaiah called us a “light unto the nations”. Like, the Moon, we are imperfect; inconsistent. We radiate a dribble of light, on and off, sometimes a little more, sometimes none at all.
That is our power.
The Sun is powerful, intense, even blinding. Too much Sun and you burn; too much Divine revelation and you vaporize. In plain English, if G-d were revealed, we’d lose our personalities and our opportunity for choice. Each blessing, all inspiration and every achievement would be His. We’d be irrelevant. So, He designed a Moon, a dull surface that takes sunlight and makes it useful. When he chose us to be His people, he made the Moon our central icon, a reminder that our imperfect yo-yo nature allows us to have real impact. It means we might damage our world, but, more importantly, we can illuminate it.
G-d’s plan wasn’t for angelic Saturn rockets or Space Shuttles to roar past the spiritual stratosphere on autopilot. He wanted lightweight, low budget, limited ability Beresheet human-crafts that would exploit solar energy and gravitational pull to achieve a mission way beyond their weight category.
G-d aligned the planets to have Beresheet make its mark on the Shabbos that recalls the genesis of the Jewish People, a tiny nation that would- like SpaceIL hopes Beresheet will-revolutionize the course of humanity.