Editor’s note: What follows is based on an address delivered by the Rebbe on Shabbat, Tevet 7, 5729 (December 28, 1968), a week after three NASA astronauts made the first manned departure from the earth’s sphere of influence, conducting ten orbits of the moon. The concept articulated here is but one of several aspects of space flight that the Rebbe touched upon in his talk and applied to the voyage of daily life.
Challenge, we are told, is what stimulates growth and achievement. Yet every day we pray for a world in which there is nothing adverse to challenge us. We pray for a world free of evil and strife, free of jealousy, ignorance and pain. For a world suffused with the wisdom, harmony and perfection of its Creator.
What would it be like to live in such a world—a world without conflicts to resolve, without hungry to feed, with nary a pothole to fill? Is this what six millennia of human achievement is to culminate in—a cosmic Golden Acres Retirement Farm?
Reaching For The Heavens
For as long as he could dream, man yearned to fly. To tear free of the earth that claimed him as her own and soar to the heavenly heights.
When he learned that air, the element through which he waded and which extended miles above his head, had mass and weight, the realization opened the door for the invention of flying machines of two varieties. He could construct an apparatus whose overall weight was less than the air it displaced, and rise through the atmosphere as a log floats to the surface of the heavier water. Or, he could claw and slice his way through air, manipulating it this way and that, riding it with a great variety of aerodynamic forms and air-chewing machines.
And so man flew, higher, faster, devising ever more sophisticated ways of exploiting the air’s resisting mass as a carrier and propellor. But this ploy had its limitations. What happens when one climbs through the atmosphere until one has climbed above the atmosphere? When one reaches the point that there is no longer anything to defeat or transcend?
But man wanted more. Having risen to the atmosphere’s ceiling, he wished to rise higher yet, to the heavenly bodies beckoning across a sea of nothingness. But with nothing to overcome, how could he advance? If the void of space would not offer anything he could challenge, he would have to devise an implement that is its own challenge: the rocket.
The rocket is both challenger and challenged. With the rocket, man thrusts forward by thrusting against himself, riding the recoil from his self-agitation to heights yet to be charted and defined.
Best and Better
“From everything a Jew sees or hears,” said chassidism’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, “he should derive a lesson regarding his service of the Creator.”
The history of aviation and space exploration has much to instruct our quest to soar and explore the heavens of the human soul. Internally, too, man yearns to rise above his “earth” and reach for his limitless skies, to transcend the mundanities of material life and touch the infinite, the eternal, the divine.
Man’s internal quest for the heavens also has its “conventional” aircraft – engines of flight that scale the heights of achievement by overcoming and exploiting the challenges of life. These fall under two general categories: heavier-than-air aircraft, which directly engage with the resisting elements, and lighter-than-air aircraft, whose ethereal contents naturally and effortlessly raise it above the heavier elements of its environment. In other words, there are times when man struggles against the negativities of life on their own terms, and times when he rises above them by inculcating himself with a purer, finer vision and behavior. However, both of these “aviation” methods have in common the fact that ascent is possible only in an environment of resistance and adversity.
This is life as we know it – life in a world in which achievement is measured in terms of a wilderness tamed, a tyrant defeated, a disease cured. A world in which there is a Nobel Peace Prize only because there are wars, learning only because there is ignorance, philanthropy only because there is hunger and want.
But we want more. We want more than to defeat evil – we want to probe the infinite reaches of good. We want our lives to be a “rocket” that continues its climb long after we have met our last negative challenge. We want to ignite what is best in us to challenge itself to achieve yet a higher degree of perfection.