On Monday NASA successfully landed its InSight robot on the surface of Mars. After a six-month journey across hundreds of millions of miles of deep space, a mission nearly ten years and close to $1 billion in the making it landed flawlessly despite the enormous odds against it. (It’s one of the hardest planets to land on especially because of its super- thin atmosphere).
Other craft have landed on Mars before. However InSight’s a very different mission because it’s going to drill into the crust of the red planet. It’s going to drill deep below the surface…..
I’m entranced by the sheer curiosity that prompted this and indeed other space missions; not by chance an earlier Marscraft was called Curiosity! Rav Soloveitchik in his seminal and possibly most poetic essay on human motivation, Majesty and Humility, writes about the captivating, cosmic vision that drives us. Remoteness, he suggests, magnifies rather than diminishes our curiosity: “The further the object, the greater and more hypnotic the curiosity.” God entrusted us with the galaxies, ‘the earth and its fullness‘ (Psalm 24:1). He invites humanity to study and comprehend the cosmic drama, to share the planets and interstellar spaces of his glorious universe. Not only to do so intellectually, but to engage emotionally through experiential involvement. Even this is not enough for the restless spirit of man and woman. Ultimately we want more than an unmanned vehicle, we ourselves want to move “with the velocity of light into a world of the unknown” or to adapt the words of the poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) we want the moon, we want the stars. For Housman we may want it “but shall get no more”; today however you can book a flight into space and conceivably could one day book a ticket to Mars and get even more…
The serious scientist of NASA are our not so much driven by space travel as they are by unlocking the secrets of the earth. “By peering into the past by studying the interior of Mars,” says Robert Braun of NASA “In doing so, we’re going to learn about Mars, but also about the early history of the Earth.” InSight’s goal is to study the interior of Mars and take the planet’s vital signs, its pulse, and temperature.
I’m blown away not just by the inquisitive intellectual energy of this mission but also by its wider implications. Its’ recognition that to understand natural phenomena you need to dig beneath the surface, its implications that if you want to understand life, you need to dig beneath the crust. And thus if you wish to understand yourself and others, you need to go beyond the superficial.
We are, in many ways, incredibly superficial beings; we are taken in by surface appearances, by the glitter and the glamour, the ersatz rather than the essence. The digital age reinforces our reliance on the façade. Facebook is often just that – a purely facial book; it’s unidimensional and suggests that what you see is what counts. In all of this we are in danger of minimising the human spirit, cheapening our sensational souls.
The Torah is a call to remember the inner-life, to break the outer shell or what Kabbalah calls the Klipah, קליפה. The call of Torah is surely to go deeper, not to be satisfied with platitudes. We are challenged to do this in our study of the Torah, to unpeel the layers, to move beyond the pshat (simple obvious meaning) to the remez and drash (the allusion and interpretations) and ultimately to the sod (the deep secret life of the text). We are challenged to do this in our tefillah (prayers) – not just mouth the words on the page but to penetrate to the heart of the prayer, to connect to the Creator.
The InSight vehicle’s name stand for ‘The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations’. This refers to the fact that InSight won’t move around Mars but is stationed on one spot. From here it will probe Mars’ quakes caused by meteorite impacts and tectonic movements; the vibration apparently help scientists decipher the interior structure of the planet. In order to explore ourselves and the interior of others, we need the same kind of focus. We need to pause in our frantic busy-ness and stay still in one spot long enough to perceive our own subtle shifts of consciousness, the impact of the meteorites and stresses of our daily experiences on our sense of self. Rav Nachman of Bratslav would suggest we should all carve out a quiet hour of solitude and meditative space every day.
We also need to develop enough stillness to be aware of the changes in temperature in our relationships with others, how they ebb and flow. And, of course, we are called on by God and Life itself to measure the major tectonic shifts that occur in our lives and relationships and how they impact on us and those around us.
In the most recent Quarterly Essay 72, Sebastian Smee laments about the loss of inner life in the Digital Age. He writes poignantly how the very idea of “a dark, inner being, silent inaccessible” seems exotic and unfamiliar “like a rumoured lake in a forgotten forest.” His definition of the inner life is “your apprehension of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you… Inner life is our ‘real work’.” I would add that it’s also about our apprehension of the Divine, our yearning for meaning, connection and substance; our longing to reach our inner-neshama.
In some ways the pursuit of the inner self is much more difficult than the journey to the stars. The exploration of inner space can be far more daunting than the expedition to outer space. The poet W.B. Yeats suggested: “Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.”
It took some seven years for InSight to be developed and be fit to land on Mars; it can take some seventy years for most of us to develop real insight into our lives.
The Talmud says if an individual is born under the sign of the red planet Mars, they will have a tendency to spill blood. This doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be soldiers, killers or hunters (like the ‘Red Man’, Edom or Esau); they could also be surgeons, slaughterers (shochtim) or circumcisers… I would suggest they could also be individuals who are passionate and aware, alive to the blood that pulses beneath the exterior.
The location of the InSight vehicle might seem boring, a relatively flat region, free of boulders, craters and other obstacles, no soaring, ancient mountains, but it might contain underground pools of warm water and microbial life. It’s a reminder that the banal is often the gateway into the bold and beautiful. It’s also a summons to us to search for answers beneath the surface for some of the daunting challenges that face us today. As the Psalmist reminds us “Seek and you shall find.”