By Yonatan Gordon
Is there life on other planets? Can a 2.5 billion dollar, 2000 pound science project, be the start of a human colony on Mars? To understand the meaning behind NASA’s Curiosity Rover, let’s further the boundaries of our exploration—at least 154 million miles long.
Listen to this episode (podcast version presented in collaboration with ChabadLife.tv)
PASSAGE BETWEEN WORLDS
What do we hope to gain from another planet? In the case of this Mars exploration, the motivation seems very straightforward: to see if the red planet was once inhabited by life. One can argue that this is the primary motivation for any exploration into space. Certainly, this seems to be the topic that has captured the public’s imagination for decades.
When we speak of “passing” or “crossing” from one planet to the next, the word for this (עבר) also means “anger”. So it is fitting that our journey should be to a red, fiery planet whose name in Hebrew is Ma’adim (מאדים from the root אדם or red).
As with Moses who wanted to “cross” from the west side of the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, and Abraham who was born on the other side of (עבר) the Jordan River, the word Hebrews (עברים) itself denotes a passage. The Jewish people are known for being travellers. Now let’s explore how these travels can also be seen as a journey between planets.
The consciousness of either Moses, or to some extent the Curiosity Rover mission, is that we are asking to receive something for free. In our present-day scenario, we are asking to receive the gift of another world. We are on one side of the river, and now we’d like to get to the other side. But in order to get there, we need to first change the way we think. While the best example for this is Moses asking permission from God to cross over the Jordan River to the Land of Israel; we can still take some lessons home to our discussion as well.
BILLIONS OF STARS
Space travel both excites a sense of wonder and smallness at the same time. While imagining travel through galaxies is quite fascinating, the fact is, the planet Earth is relatively a speck of dust in comparison to the entire observable universe (about 46 billion light years).
It’s not all about size though. God wants the Jewish people because they lessen themselves. They make themselves the least. So too, like Moses praying for permission to enter the Land of Israel, our space travelling mindset is that we are physically very small indeed. But with this sense of smallness, comes a great potential for progress and growth. When Moses was praying to enter the Land of Israel, he was asking that it be like a “gratis gift” (מתנת חנם) from God. So too, the public is asking for a present called Mars; a new planet to inhabit and call our own. If this gift is to be given, it can only come through a sense of smallness. All space exploration is based on this concept.
One of the main facts spurring NASA on is that on previous missions they found ice and signs that water once flowed. Water is a prelude to life. Where there is water, then the next step is to test whether carbon and microbes can be found as well. This again is similar to our source example. Moses was praying to traverse one world (outside the Land of Israel) to the next (Land of Israel). While the water is an important prelude to the mission, it is only an intermediary. The real motivation is to settle the new land. In space travel, we don’t know if Mars was and is inhabitable, so we need to take samples. In the case of Moses, he knows that it is a land flowing with milk and honey. The question though is whether he is allowed to enter.
THE SEVERE PLANET
When Moses was asking permission to cross into the Land of Israel, he was asking permission to begin perfecting reality. How would we relate this to our discussion? There is something wondrous about transforming a severe planet into something inhabitable. Moses’ prayer to enter the Land of Israel was in order to build a kingdom there. Like Moses who wanted to begin building a kingdom, our journey entails drawing down might/restraint (גבורה) until its extension in acknowledgment/perseverance (הוד). This perseverance (as with this Mars mission that was three years and over $1 billion over budget) is already in order to construct a kingdom (מלכות). This then explains our desire to create a colony (מלכות) on Mars (the severe planet). According to Kabbalah, Mars itself corresponds to judgment (גבורה) whereas Earth is loving-kindness (חסד). God created the world with judgment, but He added loving-kindness in order to sweeten it. So in some ways, Mars is a more primordial representation of our Universe even more than Earth is. The difference being that a kingdom built from judgments rules with force; whereas one built with loving-kindness rules with compassion. God constructs His kingdom with loving-kindness. If the choice is between the two, we would always choose to live on Earth rather than Mars. The kind planet over the severe.
SWEETENING THE HARSH
While if given the choice, we would prefer to live on Earth, there is indeed some advantage to seeing life from Mars. As mentioned, the Hebrew word for Mars is Ma’adim (מאדים), meaning red but also man (אדם). Whereas blue (Earth) connotes spiritual wellbeing, red (Mars) signifies physical health and longevity. The color red also has a long wavelength. This is why a redshift in science means that the universe is expanding whereas the short wavelength of a blueshift signifies a contracting universe.
If we were to view the colors of these two planets as relative and not intrinsic, then maybe the reason Mars appears so red to us is because it is so hard to settle. It is moving away from us faster than the other planets. What would happen then if we were to settle Mars? Earth would now seem red and we would appear the blue ones. Although technically speaking, the Earth is blue and Mars is red because of the physical makeup of each planet, the doppler effect of blueshifts and redshifts does have a tangible effect on the visible light emitted from objects in motion. The lesson here is that maybe Mars is moving away from me, or I’m moving away from Mars. Maybe we’re really the red ones, we are moving away from Mars, not the other way around. This is a way to apply Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to our discussion. If Earth is really red, yet we are still able to inhabit it, then I have sweetened harsh judgements without the space travel.
This brings us to our motivation for space travel itself. In order to land on Mars, NASA’s Curiosity rover had seven minutes to go from 13,000 mph to a complete stop. This is like the Divine service of going out of one’s vessels. In order to warm our present blue (cold) reality up with something red (hot), we need to first go through a freefall experience. When approaching people that take delight in mundane matters, for instance, the way to approach them is by going out of our own boundaries. To show them that although we live on a small planet, there is something wondrous to be gained from this sense of smallness and awe in face of creation. As we come closer to Mars, it becomes bigger from our perspective. So too, the greater we experience warmth and fervor in our lives, the greater we complete our life back here on blue Earth. Once we have made the freefall, then we can return back to our daily lives with new vigor and exuberance. In order to conquer space, we must first see our planet as one that unifies both blue and red elements as one.
Photo Credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech/Associated Press