On this day of July 23 fifty years ago, Apollo 11’s three astronauts were hurtling homeward. The day before, the Columbia command module had slung itself back towards Earth using the Moon’s gravity. Two-plus* days before that, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the Moon, leaving the indelible image of Aldrin’s famous bootprint in the dust. Three days before, the Eagle lunar module had landed on the Moon, a first for humanity and for our planet.
When Apollo 11 splashed down on July 24, 1969 in the Pacific, the consciousness of the world had been transformed. But exactly six months earlier, Apollo 8 had taken a wondrous photograph called “Earthrise”, revealing a blue half-Earth rising over the moon’s horizon, that also transformed the world. Six months passed between seeing the Earth in full color from space, and taking the first steps upon our nearest celestial body.
People describe “Earthrise” as a moment of great awakening, a worldwide recognition that everything that had ever happened in the history of all Life had happened on that one gorgeous “blue marble”, as people later started to call it. In the language of Gaia spirituality, Earth was “seeing herself for the first time”.
Every place that you find the impression of human feet, there am I before you.
Like “Earthrise”, Aldrin’s footprint was impressed not just upon the Moon, but in the hearts of people from every country and religion, every walk of life. So too did Armstrong’s words about “one small step” and “one giant leap” resound throughout the world.
But the spiritual impact of that footprint and that step is more ambiguous than “Earthrise”. A footprint can be a clue left for others, pointing the way towards courage, enabling us to face the unknown. But a footprint can also be like a planted flag claiming ownership and control, a sign of dominion or domination.
That ambiguity resonates with a 2nd century midrash about footprints. According to Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael, an early commentary on Exodus, the Holy One said to Moshe, “Every place that you find the impression of human feet / roshem ragley adam, there am I before you” (Vayisa 6).
Did the midrash say God is before us because we are the image of God, because we are able to “play God”? Or is God before us because when we contemplate our footsteps, we are humbled and thankful for what God and the Earth give us, for how we have come to where we are?
Rabbi Soloveitchik famously characterized these two ways of approaching the world as Adam I and Adam II in his book Halakhic Man. According to the Rav, as he is called, Adam I, the human of Genesis’s first chapter, is “victory-minded”; his quest is “to harness and dominate the elemental natural forces and to put them at his disposal”. In isolation, the footprint would seem to represent Adam I’s victory.
Adam II, however, the one who relates to the animals in Genesis’s second chapter, is the Adam who would look at “Earthrise” and see God. According to the Rav, Adam the second “looks for the image of God… in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom” – in moonshadow and moonbeam, and in the image of the Earth “suspended in space / talui al b’li mah”. Adam II could just as easily find the image of God in the play of light and shadow that makes up a single footprint. Or, as Buzz Aldrin described, in the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon itself.
Whether we see ourselves more in Adam I or Adam II depends on the frame. As they readied themselves to step out of the lunar module, Aldrin imagined himself more as Adam II when he radioed this message back to Earth: “I would like to request a few moments of silence and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” Then he took the communion his pastor had prepared for him. Even the most giant leap can be done with the greatest humility.
Fifty years ago today, the Apollo 11 astronauts, who had reunited the Eagle with Columbia and left their footsteps behind, were suspended between the moon and the Earth, slingshotting their way back home. They knew what the goal was, as JFK had said: not just “landing a man on the Moon” but also “returning him safely to the Earth.”
Today we have played out the role of Adam I and the path of mastery of the Earth as far as we can go without a profound course correction. We are faced with two possibilities: continue with business as usual and make ourselves the agents of global climate disruption and the world’s sixth mass extinction, or radically change the way we live and imagine ourselves, and return home spiritually and physically to this Earth that is everything to us, this Earth that God beheld and called “very good”, this Earth that God enjoined Godself in covenant to never destroy.
We are suspended between these possibilities: on the one hand, the growth of Gaia-aware spirituality and the inborn desire human beings have to serve others including other species, and on the other hand, evolutionary and scientific reductionism, combined with the desire everyone has to be served by everyone and everything around them, which manifests itself not only in the climate catastrophe we are bringing upon the world, but also in the denial of reality and responsibility for it.
We are suspended between these two realms – the realm of manifesting divine presence through our own footsteps, and the realm of hungry ghosts – but our suspension will not last much longer. And when the suspense is over, we may find ourselves altogether in one realm or the other.
Fifty years ago, the crew of Apollo 11, suspended between the desolation of the Moon and the abundance and Life of the Earth, knew where they were going and where they wanted to end up. Their prayers and commitment to return home were part of every step on the Moon. May it be our will and God’s that we reflect on the image of that footprint left behind, and the footprints we leave upon the Earth, and see ourselves not as separate from all Life, but as the representatives of all Life, of God and the Earth, and know that we too must return home.
* “Two-plus” – the moonwalk happened between 9AM and 12AM Eastern time on July 20, which is between 3AM and 6AM UTC time on July 21