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The Democratic Astronaut

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The Democratic Astronaut

From the Rebbe’s remarks at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on Shabbat, Tevet 10, 5729 (December 28, 1968):

Yesterday, an event took place that had no known precedent in human history: a manned spacecraft approached the moon, orbited it several times, photographed both its “light side” and its “dark side,” and returned safely to earth at the exact time and place that were programmed.

The Baal Shem Tov[1] taught us that:

“from everything a person sees or hears, he must derive a lesson in the service of his Creator.”

Indeed, this event, and its every aspect and detail, is replete with instructive insights into our mission in life.[2]

Some twenty-four hours before the conclusion of the space mission, another event took place: a question was posed at an “Encounter” session[3]—a question that the said space mission can help address.

A participant in the “Encounter” challenged one of the speakers: “I understand that under Torah law, if a person eats a bite of non-kosher food, the penalty is thirty-nine lashes. I think that what a person eats is his own business. Laws should forbid and penalize actions that are harmful to others and to society, but should stay out of a person’s private life.”

The rabbi conducting the session was quite flustered by the question. How to explain to a roomful of young people, raised in free and democratic America, the fact that for an act as “harmless” and “personal” as eating a bite of food, the Torah instructs that a person be bound, stretched out, and thirty-nine lashes be administered to his bare back with a whip? After much hemming and hawing, he came out with the standard apologetic reply: that in order for a transgression to be punishable by lashes, it must be committed in the presence of two witnesses; that these two witnesses must first warn the transgressor of the criminality of his deed and of the penalty it carries; that the transgressor must commit the deed within seconds of the above warning; thus, due to these and a host of other stipulations, this penalty was rarely, if ever, actually carried out. It might therefore be said that the Torah-mandated punishment of lashes is more an indicator of the severity of the transgression than an operative penal procedure.

All this is of course true, but it doesn’t really answer the question. Even if the penalty of lashes was administered but once in hundred years, does the deed warrant such punishment? And why does the Torah legislate such a gross intrusion into a person’s private life?

But our sages tell us that “A person is obligated to say: ‘The entire world was created for my sake.’ ”[4] In the words of Maimonides, “A person should always see himself as half meritorious and half guilty, and the entire would as half meritorious and half guilty, so that when he transgresses one transgression, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of guilt, and causes it destruction, and when he does a single mitzvah, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of merit, and causes salvation for himself and for the entire world.”[5]

Ingesting a spiritually toxic bite of food is not a harmless act, nor it is a personal one: all of creation is deeply affected by our every thought, word and deed, for the better or, G-d forbid, for the worse. What greater crime can there be than for a person to knowingly jeopardize his own well-being, and that of his family, community and the entire world, because his taste buds prefer a non-kosher cut of meat over a kosher one?

This is what is written in the books. The nature of man, however, is that things are more readily understood and accepted when he sees a tangible example of it. By Divine Providence, we have such an example in the space mission concluded yesterday.

Three adult men were told to put aside all personal preferences and follow a set of guidelines that dictated their every behavior, including their most intimate habits. They were told exactly what, how much and when to eat, when and in what position to sleep, and what shoes to wear. Should any one of them have challenged this “dictatorial” regimen, he would have been reminded that one billion dollars have been invested in their endeavor. Now, one billion dollars commands a lot of respect. Never mind that it’s not his billion–it’s only Uncle Sam’s billion–still, when a person is told that one billion dollars are at stake, he’ll conform to all guidelines and instructions. Of course, he has no idea how most of these instructions relate to the success of his mission—that has been determined by white-haired scientists after many years of research; but he’ll take their word for it, and readily accept the extensive intrusion into his private affairs.

And what if at stake is not a billion-dollar scientific project, but the divine purpose in creation?

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[1] Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement

[2] What follows is but one of several lessons the Rebbe derived in his talk from the said space flight. For another of these, see The Rocket Age.

[3] The Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights holds periodic “Encounter With Chabad” weekends, in which Jews of all backgrounds stay with Chassidic families and attend lectures and workshops on Jewish thought and practice.

[4] Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

[5] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentence, 3:4.

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