Wednesday morning, July 16, 1969, is a day many remember fondly.
At precisely 9:32am EDT, an enormous fiery cloud formed beneath Apollo 11, as NASA's Chief of Public Information Jack King proudly articulated the final countdown: "6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, all engines running, liftoff! We have a liftoff!"
The roaring sound of the liftoff overwhelmed the screams of a million spectators. Many cried and many prayed, all hoping for the success of the first ever manned mission to land on the moon.
Millions more worldwide watched in awe as the lunar module raced through space. People held their breath at what was seen as the almost impossible mission. Tensions were high, with the lunar landing viewed by many as a tight space-race between Communist Russia and the free world.
Could the heavens be reached so easily? Was it overextending human bounds? Could G‑d allow this?Many religious people felt disoriented. This latest scientific achievement befuddled them. Reaching the moon was in some way a breach in their security blanket. Could the heavens be reached so easily? Was it overextending human bounds? Could G‑d allow this? Was it possible?
Jewish leaders scrambled for explanations. Stunned by the unfolding events, some rabbis suggested that ideological changes were necessary to suit the current events; while others simply denied that reaching the moon was possible.
Shabbat afternoon, July 19th, while Apollo 11 was still making its historic voyage to the moon, the Rebbe convened a special gathering, due in part, he said, to discuss the ever popular events of the previous week.
The Rebbe's tone was almost surprised, "In this past week people are going around completely confused regarding the voyage to the moon," he said, but why would this cause Jews to lose balance? There was nothing to be apprehensive about, no reason to feel intimidated.
In fact, almost a decade earlier in 1962, shortly after President John F. Kennedy's speech given before a joint session of Congress expressing his goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, the Rebbe clearly agreed that landing on the moon was foreseeable.
In an article entitled "With which other Chasidic Rebbe could you possibly discuss landing on the moon?" the well known Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon penned a conversation he had with the Rebbe.
"Will man ever be able to reach the moon?" asked Nakdimon.
"It's surely possible" replied the Rebbe.
"What will they find?" asked Nakdimon.
"What they will find, is something we will find out when they reach the moon...."
"How does Torah view these types of experiments?" Nakdimon pressed on.
"The discovery of the atom, its particles and laws are more crucial in the Jewish view than the 'conquest' of space," said the Rebbe.
"The conquest of space is the advancement of science and technology, while the discovery of atoms corrodes the very foundations of science. Until now, science was perceived as a stable entity while Torah was no more than belief. Now, we see that all the assumptions of science and technology are not unequivocal truths. And this happened with the discovery of the atom.
"The discovery of the atom is more crucial in the Jewish view than the conquest of space...""Thus, all of science's questions on Torah are reduced, since science truly needs to be reevaluated.
"We shall see that with every advance in understanding the relation of atoms to each other, there will be greater need to reevaluate science as we know it today," the Rebbe predicted.
"And Torah doesn't withhold or prohibit exploring space?" Nakdimon persisted.
"Torah has no opposition to continued research," replied the Rebbe.
Almost a decade later, what had began as a dream had become a reality. Neil Armstrong, Michel Collins and Edwin Eugene Alderin traveled 380,000 kilometers to reach the moon's surface.
While the world was mesmerized, the Rebbe seemed complacent. Sure, there was what to learn from every event that occurs, and this event too was not different. "In fact," said the Rebbe in the Shabbat talk, "the only justification and possible logic for this bewilderment was to bring the attention of man to ponder and understand important messages this flight contained."
One rabbi had actually proposed a change in the wording of the "Blessing on the Moon" liturgy, which includes a Talmudic-era passage: "Just as I leap towards you [i.e. the moon] but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully." Now that man had made his footprint on the moon's pumice-like surface, wasn't this passage "outdated"? The Rebbe negated this view, explaining that the passage was simply saying that a person jumping up from the earth, from where he is reciting the blessing, cannot touch the moon—not that the moon was in essence unreachable.
Scientific findings would not and could not shake our Torah's foundations. Not because we need to deny the advancements of science, but because these are in truth no contradiction to the truth we hold from the days of Moses.
"Even questions as to whether there is life on other planets has been addressed two thousand years ago in the Talmud," said the Rebbe.
But lessons were certainly to be learned, so the Rebbe touched upon three areas of interest.
The first lesson was of the amazing team work needed for the spacecraft to achieve success. "Every individual is responsible for the other," gleaned the Rebbe. Indeed Neil Armstrong once commented on the pressures of getting the job done as best as possible given the fact that the flight to the moon "was a culmination of the work of 300,000 or 400,000 people over a decade."
The second point was how every detail counted. In the cockpit alone hitting the wrong switch of which there were almost 400, if you included plungers, ratchets, handle and knobs, could be disastrous.
The Rebbe preceded Armstrong by one day with his version of "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."The third and final point was how the finite man could invent something so much larger than himself: "A small finite man created the giant, almost infinite device." The Rebbe preceded Armstrong by just one day with his version of "one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."
But more important than making these instruments, said the Rebbe, was realizing that they were not to play-up the person's ego, rather they were made possible so that man could come to admire G‑d's fascinating creations. To their credit, the astronauts did exactly that. "On their way up they quoted verses from Psalms that discuss mesmerizing on the greatness of G‑d as seen through His awesome creations," said the Rebbe.
After 102 hours 45 minutes and 40 seconds of flight, on the evening of July 20 at 10:56pm EDT, Armstrong made his descent to the moon's surface. The iconic photo of Armstrong's silicone boot imprint serves as an everlasting testimony to the historic voyage.
So sometime in the future when astronauts reach Mars or maybe even other galaxies, we will surely have lessons to learn as well—with one caveat: "there is nothing new under the sun."
See also The Astronaut