There’s No Place Like Home

The journal Science recently published an intriguing study of the health effects of long-term space flight. Astronaut Scott Kelley spent almost a year aboard the International Space Station between March 2, 2015 and March 27, 2016. His identical twin brother, Mark Kelley, remained here on earth. At the conclusion of the space flight, Scott and Mark’s health was evaluated and compared. Since they are identical twins and a near perfect physical and identical match, they were the ideal subjects to compare and contrast human responses to extended space travel.

Scientists discovered the telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes, were elongated in Scott Kelly, who went into space, compared to those of his brother, Mark, who remained on earth. A change in this genetic material is a biological sign of aging and potential health risks, such as cancer and heart disease. Scientists also found changes in Scotts chromosomes and some damage to his DNA. Beyond these genetic effects, Scott’s retina and carotid artery thickened. Researchers also noted a reduction in Scott’s cognitive skills. Scott noted that he did not return to normal for eight months.

The International Space Station is in what is called “low earth orbit” and is still protected by earth’s magnetic shield. When astronauts leave low earth orbit to travel to the moon or the planets, they will be exposed to much higher levels of radiation. This is a big concern for scientists.

Back here on earth we remain for the most part oblivious to these scientific findings. Instead, we are focused on the arrival of Spring  and the blossoming of trees and all kinds of plants.  Indeed, one name we give to Passover is “Chag Ha-Aviv” – “The Festival of Spring”.  There is a blessing we recite upon seeing trees budding in the springtime. It goes like this: “Blessed are You, sovereign of the Universe, whose world lacks nothing. You created beautiful creatures and lovely trees for human-kind to enjoy.”

The blessing is saying that G-d created our world and gave us everything that we need to live. We, in turn, are perfectly fitted to life on earth. G-d has withheld nothing from us. When we leave earth’s environment, however, all that changes. We must make all kinds of adjustments to survive and adapt to life when we leave the earth. Even in low earth orbit, 1200 miles altitude, we find that our bodies undergo changes.

The British philosopher Alan Watts, who was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, writes about the relationship between human beings and the earth where we live. He writes that we do not “come into” the world, as we say when we talk about someone’s birth. Rather, says Watts, we “grow out” of the world, like a leaf grows out of an oak or an apple grows out of an apple tree. To say that we “come into” the world posits a world that is something “other” than we are. It means that we are separate from the world and from nature. Thinking of our birth in that way leads to alienation. It makes us think of ourselves as strangers on our planet, temporary visitors, or, as Watts puts it so vividly, “a momentary flash of consciousness between two eternal blacknesses”.

Watts suggests that when we think of ourselves as “growing out of the world” instead of “coming into” it, we change our perspective toward our relationship to the earth. In speaking of “growing out” of the world, like a leaf grows out of a tree, we recognize our “oneness” with our world and all that dwells upon it. The problem is, according to Watts, that few people recognize this. Instead, we understand life as a competition and strive to subdue the world and master it. We are in constant contention with the world and with its creatures. Perhaps only on Shabbat, when we cease from our labors and stop for a day from wresting our livelihood from the earth, when we refrain from competition, do we catch a glimpse of the world as it truly could be. Only on Shabbat, our day of rest and contemplation, a day of peace and wholeness, could we see that there may be a better way to think about our relationship to the world.

Returning to the blessing upon seeing a leafing tree:  This blessing, which includes the words, “Your world lacks nothing”, implies that the world is perfect. Yet we know that nothing is further from the truth. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, former Chancellor of Yeshivah University once commented recently about this prayer, “ln a world of suicide bombers and rampant international anti-Semitism, of drug culture and AIDS, of racism and genocide…… [can the world be said to be “perfect]?” For Rabbi Lamm the idea of this being a “perfect world” is a “Sacred Fiction” – “a statement,” he writes, “that defies common sense but, ultimately leads to uncommon truths.”

What are those “uncommon truths?” Perhaps when we go outside in the spring and see the beauty and harmony of Nature, we can believe that in our own messy lives’ harmony is possible. We can believe that instead of exploitation and destruction of our environment we can find a way to live in peace, at one, with our home, the earth. When we see the miracles of G-d’s world unfolding before our eyes, we can believe in what may seem impossible. We can believe that G-d liberated a throng of slaves from Egypt in this spring month and tasked them with being a “Holy People” and a “Light Unto the Nations”. When we go out and see the perfection of G-d’s world, we can believe that we too, can make our world more perfect.     

Shabbat Shalom