Judah Kerbel
Judah Kerbel

The Space Competition in Moshe’s Opening Words

Sir Richard Branson was the first private citizen to fund his own trip to space, and he accomplished his mission this week. Although he only reached the edge of space, his 50 mile high flight was nonetheless groundbreaking. Better yet, he managed to beat billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It is undeniable that this feat is representative of developing human achievement in the fields of science and technology. Yet, Sir Branson’s trip has not been without controversy. He invested over a billion dollars in his Virgin Galactic company to be able to get to space. Private flights are said to cost at least $200,000, possibly $500,000 going forward. Never mind that to fly on Jeff Bezos’s upcoming trip, someone spent $28 million. To fly all the way to the International Space Station, possibly $55 million. Is the astronomical (pun very much intended) amount invested in flying upwards justified?

Moshe’s farewell speech is introduced by the Torah with the words אלה הדברים – “these are the words.” The root דבר is commonly understood to connote sternness, toughness, meaning that Moshe’s “words” so to speak were not color war chants but, as Rashi says, words of rebuke. The pasuk goes on to describe where Moshe delivered his rebuke – בעבר הירדן, במדבר, בערבה מול סוף, בין פארן ובין תפל ולבן וחצרות ודי זהב. It took place “across the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Plain, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan, and Hatzerot and Di Zahav. Why such a detailed description of where B’nei Yisrael are situated at that moment? Rashi explains that each one alludes to particular sins that took place at those locations. It is the last one I want to call attention to: Di Zahav. What is the significance of Di Zahav? Di Zahav, an unknown location, is explained by Rashi as:

הוכיחן על העגל שעשו בשביל רוב זהב שהיה להם.
Moshe rebuked them regarding the golden calf they made due to the abundance of gold they had.

Rashi says that in order to understand what Di Zahav is, we should pay attention to the literal meaning of the words. דִי comes from the word דַי or דֵי – enough – they had more than enough gold; too much gold! It is not necessarily clear if the abundance of gold directly caused them to make the eigel, but certainly without it, they would not have been able to make this eigel. It is important to note that their wealth was acquired justifiably – they took gold and silver from their neighbors in Egypt as reparations, as commanded by God. But instead of using the gold to serve God, the gold served as a distraction and allowed them to worship something else that is foreign – they committed avodah zarah in this process.

While the original source of the prohibition of worshipping other deities is obviously the Ten Commandments, the command is repeated shortly after: לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשו לכם. The latter part obviously prohibits the golden calf; what is לא תעשון אתי? The Gemara understands that to mean that we may not make graven images of the sun, moon, and constellations, inasmuch as they are objects of worship. The peshat of the Gemara is that three-dimensional images of these items are prohibited, but the pesak evolved that even two-dimensional images are prohibited. In fact, a few years ago, Yeshiva University hired an artist to paint a mural near the library. The artist included images of the planets and the like. Sure enough, the mural had to be changed because of this prohibition. So not only are we not allowed to worship a golden calf, which may seem obvious, but even natural phenomena can be a source of idolatry.

In thinking about Sir Branson’s trip to space, and impending flights by other individuals, the relationship between di zahav and outer space seems worth evaluating. While we are not talking about worshipping outer space per se, is the “di zahav,” the abundant affluence of some of the world’s most wealthy, turning outer space into a distraction from religious values?

A few points of nuance should be noted. First of all, I believe Judaism overall supports a degree of choice we have with our assets. It is recommended to give at least ten percent of our income to tzedakah, and while more is encouraged, the Gemara explicitly states that one should not donate a hefty fifth of their income to tzedakah. It seems that beyond that, and whatever expenditures are involved in fulfilling mitzvot, we have some autonomy over our spending.

Another point that needs to be stated is that scientific research into outer space can be a positive thing from a Jewish perspective. Rambam, in chapter 3 of Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah, is very clearly interested in how the luminaries and constellations operate. Whatever research may enhance our ability to perfect our world and our appreciation of the vast universe Hashem created can be a form of serving Hashem.

However, the critiques against these space flights have made a straightforward point: in the millions and billions of dollars that will be invested in this recreational activity of going up into space, what about everyone and everything down here? What about all of the problems we have here on earth, from fighting a pandemic to reducing poverty to ensuring everyone receives a sufficient education? How much of the money spent on space flights could solve these problems?

A devil’s advocate will say that one could say this about any of the entertainment and luxury industries we have on earth. Does it mean that we never go on vacation and give it to tzedakah? Live in the smallest house possible? What is unique about this situation? Furthermore, what if someone can afford to give half of their income to tzedakah and still be comfortably able to buy a $250,000 ticket to space?

Perhaps, in fact, this does cut both ways – maybe the space flights are no different than other forms of entertainment and luxury, whether you are pro or against this kind of lifestyle. But this need not be reduced to the absurd in order to evaluate our priorities in a meaningful way based on this week’s events.

Tonight and tomorrow marks the fast of Tisha B’av. If we look at Isaiah chapter 58 – the haftarah for Yom Kippur – we are reminded that it is not really the fast that Hashem cares about:

(ה) הֲכָזֶה יִהְיֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ יוֹם עַנּוֹת אָדָם נַפְשׁוֹ הֲלָכֹף כְּאַגְמֹן רֹאשׁוֹ וְשַׂק וָאֵפֶר יַצִּיעַ הֲלָזֶה תִּקְרָא צוֹם וְיוֹם רָצוֹן לַיקֹוָק: … (ז) הֲלוֹא פָרֹס לָרָעֵב לַחְמֶךָ וַעֲנִיִּים מְרוּדִים תָּבִיא בָיִת כִּי תִרְאֶה עָרֹם וְכִסִּיתוֹ וּמִבְּשָׂרְךָ לֹא תִתְעַלָּם: 

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?… It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.

The affliction mandated by the fast is only a means to an end, not an end to itself – the goal is to remind us of those who do not have enough to eat and to open our hand. That is an indispensable part of serving Hashem.

Maybe taking a short trip to space is not worse than the next seemingly superfluous thing. Of course, probably very few of us are planning to sign up for a space mission, anyway. But the di zahav must at least give us pause and wonder: are the endeavors that society uses that excess money for worthwhile endeavors or just to satisfy a thrill? Are they providing meaningful knowledge and contributing to the development of the world or just another way of competing for status? Are they a means towards serving God or worshipping the ability to fly towards the objects we are told not to worship?

The answers to those questions should guide us in how we decide to enjoy and partake in this world on whatever it applies for us. In moderation, David Hamelech said והארץ נתן לבני אדם – God gave us this earth to benefit from and appreciate. We can take some vacation, savor a delicious steak with a high-class glass scotch, and dress fashionably – in moderation. But God also put us here to be His partners in creation to improve this world, and in our desire to enjoy material gifts, a servant of God should endeavor to use his or her gifts for holy purposes.

I suggest that if we want to elevate ourselves, it is not putting ourselves in a rocketship that will get us there, but the spiritual reward of using our God given gifts to make the earth He gave us a holier and more just place for all.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and teaches middle school Judaic Studies at Ramaz. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School.
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