One of my boyhood heroes, former astronaut and US Senator John Glenn, died this past week.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, back in 1962. When I was a kid I wanted to be like him – a test pilot and astronaut. Unfortunately, my lack of perfect vision prevented me from becoming a military pilot, but I turned that childhood inspiration into a little bit of reality when I became a civilian pilot when I was 19, and I’ve been flying ever since.
When Glenn made that first orbital flight of his, he was impressed by the beauty. He said, “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”
But when he flew into space again in 1998 – 77 years old at the time, and to date the oldest person to have flown in space – his perspective had changed. This time he said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.”
Comparing those two things Glenn said 36 years apart reminded me of something our ancestor Jacob says in this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze: “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.”
I’m certain in retrospect Glenn would have seen the sublime beauty of those four sunsets as the presence of God as well; perhaps at the time he just didn’t contextualize it that way. I think back to one of the most awe-inspiring flights I ever took in a small plane. Flying over the Arizona desert on a brilliantly clear, moonless night. I turned the cockpit lights completely off; there were occasional lights in the distance on the ground. Without a moon, I couldn’t see the horizon clearly. It was what I imagine flying through space would have felt like. I felt a combination of awe at the beauty of the sight, and a feeling of oneness with the universe, being suspended in the midst of these points of light. At the time, I didn’t contextualize the experience in “God-language,” but I can look back at it now and say “God was in this place and I didn’t know it.”
Jacob and John Glenn share another similarity – having their heads in the heavens, but being firmly grounded as well.
This week’s Torah reading opens with Jacob on his way to Haran. He’s fleeing for his life – he’s worried his brother Esau wants to kill him, because he stole Esau’s blessing from their father, twice. He stops for the night and has a dream. He sees a ladder, planted in the earth, with the top of it in heaven. He sees angels going up and coming down the ladder.
The rabbis tell us that the ladder symbolizes Jacob’s approach to life, grounded very much in the physicality of this world, but bringing holiness to this world, elevating this world.
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that the world was created in a sort of cosmic work accident. God’s energy was filling vessels called sefirot, and the sefirot couldn’t contain the overwhelming light and energy and they shattered. The world we live in are those shattered remnants of the vessels, called kelipot. But just as if you took a glass jar of honey and smashed it on the floor, where there would be some honey stuck to the glass, some of God’s holiness is still present in our world, clinging to those shattered remnants. When we do mitzvot we raise those bits of God in this world and bring them back to God.
When we say a blessing before or after eating, we’re taking that bit of God’s light that had adhered to the food and are elevating it, bringing it back to God. Connecting something from this world, something very mundane and profane, with the holy and divine.
That’s why in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, there’s a phrase we say, “kedoshenu kadosh Yakov,” our holiness is the holiness of Jacob. We too are being the kind of bridge that Jacob was, connecting heaven and earth by bringing some holiness into the act of eating.
John Glenn was also, in his way, well grounded in this world, despite being an astronaut with his head not only in the clouds but far above the clouds. When he came back from the heavens he put the fame he achieved as an astronaut to use by winning a seat in the US Senate, and there’s nothing more grounded in the mundane muck of this world than serving in the rough and tumble of Congress.
Maybe one of the reasons John Glenn chose to join Congress is because he felt there was something not quite right about the way the government spends money. When he came back from that first groundbreaking orbital flight he said, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.”
John Glenn’s desire to serve his country was grounded in a desire to help others. In a 1997 speech, he said,
If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.
Today is a day designated for the Jewish people to focus on something more profound than our own self-interest. It’s Human Rights Shabbat.
There is no greater bridge between the heavens and the earth than taking care of other people. The Torah teaches us that we are ALL created in God’s image. Each and every one of us. White, black, gay, straight, Israeli, Palestinian, American, Syrian, Jew, Christian, pagan, atheist. You can believe what you want, but you’re still created in the divine image. That ultimate reality stands above our divisions.
On returning from space, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman said:
The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me — a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Borman had a taste of God’s perspective. We need to bring that Godly perspective – the eradication of nationalistic interests, famines, wars, and pestilence – down to earth. We need to labor on behalf of all people by bringing kindness, care, and concern for others to all that we do, whether it’s how we treat each other in the synagogue, or supporting human rights organizations protecting those who need protection, whether it’s victims of human trafficking, Syrian refugees, Palestinian farmers, or fellow Jews facing anti-Semitism.
Kedoshenu kadosh Yakov. Our holiness is the holiness of Jacob. Let us bring holiness down from Heaven and elevate this world, make it more divine, through caring for God’s world and God’s children.