As I’m sure many of you have been, this past week I have been slightly obsessed with the story of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The complete disappearance of a Boeing 777 jet with over 200 people on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is fascinating and terrifying. What happened? Was it a hijacking or equipment failure? Did the pilots have anything to do with it or were they managing in a difficult circumstance? The lack of any answers in the face of continually mounting questions, along with tiny shreds of evidence and clues, plus the ability to share opinions and ideas across the internet and other media adds up to a compelling story.
Why is this story capturing our imaginations? Because it is a mystery.
Like with any good mystery, we hunt for clues: Why the erratic flight path? Why was some of the tracking computers turned off? Why was no one on the ground tracking the plane?
Like with any good mystery, we offer theories: There was a fire and the pilots were trying to land but ran out of time. The plane was taken to another country with the aim of being used again for terrorism. The plane disintegrated in midair, leaving no trace.
And like with any good mystery, we desperately desire a resolution.
That is the irony of our interest in this story, and with mystery stories in general: we are fascinated by the details as long as there is the promise of a resolution. We ultimately want the answer. The thought at this point of possibly never knowing what happened to flight 370 is unsettling and untenable.
Also this week, we find the news the recent discovery of gravitational waves, evidence of cosmic “inflation,” or the fast rapid expansion of the universe from its earliest moments. In other words, the first glimmers of proof of the “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s origins. First proposed over 30 years ago, the waves were first seen to exist this week after years of research and advances in monitoring equipment.
From my non-scientist/clerical perspective, this discovery does not make one iota of difference in how we live our lives. We still know what is ethically required of us. We still mark the cycles of time and life with holiday, celebrations and rituals. We still look to each other and our communities for support and aid. But this advance in science does fulfill that base human need—the need for certainty.
The origin of the universe was too big a mystery to be left alone. We need to resolve it. (Which is why, perhaps, the story of creation as told in the Torah is so inviting to be read as science fact, even though it isn’t—it provides certainty about origins that we don’t get elsewhere). So we examine, we construct, we study and we measure all in order to know for the sake of knowing.
It is a timeless desire. In our weekly Torah reading this week we continue with the sacrificial system of Leviticus. We are taught more details about the ancient Temple cult, how certain sacrifices are meant to be offered at different times for different needs. And while on the one hand thinking of goat slaughter and blood sprinkling as a means of worship seems remote and off-putting, the Torah is describing a system that guarantees certainty. It is very attractive to our frail human psyches to know one is able to absolve oneself of sin through the very concrete and real action of animal sacrifice.
Our ancestors had a desire to know. We have a desire to know. And we orient our human endeavors to try to find out the answers to the mysteries of life.
There is a need to find out some of the answers to life’s questions. If we know how certain diseases manifest and spread, for example, we can learn how to treat them and save lives. We have been successful at solving many of these challenges thus far, and we continue to expand our knowledge and awareness.
At the same time, this leads us to ask the underlying question about the disappearance of flight 370, a question rooted in human pride and, perhaps, hubris: how is it, with all of our technology and advances, is it still possible for an airplane to just disappear? That is the most unsettling question, because it challenges our need for certainty. And maybe it is a good reminder for us, even if we do eventually learn what happened: mystery is a part of life, and we need to come to terms with the fact that we do not have answers for everything. There is plenty we do know about how our world operates. And there is plenty more we don’t.
Science and intellect can only take us so far in generating certainty. The spirit is what allows us to confront the mystery.