Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket went up into space again this week with four passengers, including (Jewish!) actor William Shatner, best known for playing Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek. Putting aside any opinions on private space travel and the priorities of billionaires for the moment, it is worth noting how Shatner was clearly moved after the short experience:
But to see the blue color go whip by, and now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing. The covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around. We think, “Oh, that’s blue sky.” And there’s something you shoot through, and all of a sudden, as though you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness. And you look down. There’s the blue down there and the black up there. And there is mother and Earth and comfort. And there… Is there death? I don’t know. Was that death? Is that the way death is? Whoop and it’s gone.
You can see a recording of him here: https://www.space.com/william-shatner-blue-origin-flight-moved-tears-reaction?jwsource=cl
And despite Jeff Bezos interrupting him to spray champagne, we would be remiss if we didn’t pause and consider what Shatner is saying in this moment. While of course he shared observations of what it felt like to be weightless, and what G-Force feels like, Shatner was also reflecting on his experience in a very spiritual sense.
To rephrase what he was saying, Shatner was awestruck at how thin the veil is between our atmosphere and space. Earth and the atmosphere represented light (the “blue”) and life, and space represented the absence of light and death. While few of us will have the experience of making the journey, Shatner observed for all of us that the transition from one to the other, while seemingly great from our perspective here on earth, is actually quite small. The time it takes to move from light to dark, from life to death, and–we could add perhaps–from good to evil, is very short.
Watching Jeff Bezos’ reaction, how he seemingly would rather celebrate achievement than listen to Shatner, is indicative perhaps of a larger problem, that we as a society choose not to think about things in such spiritual terms. We want to only focus on the good, on the successful, on the human achievement. We don’t want to be reminded how tenuous and fleeting it all can be. But we would be wise to listen.
Listening to Shatner I was reminded of a passage from this week’s Torah reading of Lech Lecha, in which Abraham is called by God to take a journey into the unknown by leaving his parents and the land of his birth to a new land and a new identity:
But Abram said, “O God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless…Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” The word of God came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” God took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be.”Genesis 15:2-5
Here too the vastness of space becomes a metaphor. In the Torah, however, that vastness becomes a symbol of hope, of a future promise. A symbol of the fact that, although things seem difficult now, and things are not turning out the way they were expected to, the story is unfinished and a better future lay ahead.
There is even a beautiful midrash that describes how God didn’t just invite Abraham outside the tent to look up, but actually brought him into space:
God brought Abraham forth from the terrestrial sphere, elevating him above the stars, and this is why God uses the term הבט ‘‘look”, when God said “look at the heavens” — for this word signifies looking from above downward.Rashi on Genesis 15:5; Bereshit Rabba 44:12
I also caught Shatner on the Today Show, where he talked about “how precious life is, how quickly its over, and we need those experiences…how beautiful life is and how threatened we are.” He added, “it sharpens your desire to live.”
Shatner was not far off from Abraham here. Both had the experience of looking out there, and both then channeled that experience to figuring out how we live better here. Yes, the boundary between air and space, life and death is razor thin. So we take that knowledge and don’t continue to look out at the heavens, but return our gaze back to earth.
We look up, and down, to look forward.