It seems impossible that so much time has passed. But this summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first time man walked on the moon. We remember it as one of the greatest achievements in human history. I remember it as the night I got to stay up late, snuggling with my dad on the floor with our backs against the sofa, watching that grainy black-and-white picture while Walter Cronkite marveled like a little kid. That one small step for man — Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the lunar surface – marked the first time a human being had set foot somewhere beyond our earth. And it was a marvelous and beautiful and astonishing moment.
It was also a fleeting one. The Apollo program, which ended in 1972, turned out to be the last time humankind would venture out of earth’s atmosphere. The government, and some private companies say they’ll take us back to the moon and even beyond. But nothing has yet come of it. We came, we walked – and we left. We left the great expanses of the universe as much of a mystery as when we started.
“What the Space Age has changed,” wrote Adam Kirsch this summer at the time of the Apollo 11 anniversary, “is not mainly our ability to venture into outer space, which remains strictly limited. Rather, its most important effect has been to transform the way we think about the universe and our place in it.
“Ever since the earliest recorded speculation about the heavens, in the Bible and ancient Greek philosophy,” he continued, “human beings have always looked to the stars to understand our place in Creation.
“What is new about the Space Age is that it brings home to us, in concrete ways, a possibility that would have shocked and dismayed our ancestors: that the heavens might be empty.”
Adam Kirsch divides human time into two distinct categories: before and after the onset of space exploration. Beforehand, he writes, we would look up to the sky and see what we call “the heavens” – the Biblical phrase for God’s glorious domain of power and majesty and wonder. Now, he says, we see only “space” – a vastness, cold and empty, void of life or even the means to sustain it.
But this morning, I’m going to disagree with Kirsch’s conclusion. I do not think that knowledge has displaced belief. I would argue that just the opposite is true: that knowledge – science, exploration, raw data – has only made our belief in God’s creative energy even stronger.
Kirsch writes that we humans live in what he calls “cosmic isolation” – and that our greatest hope when we began space exploration is that there would be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
To some extent, he’s right. Think of Galileo peering into the lens of his telescope four hundred years ago and wondering what he’d find. Modern science fiction – books, television, movies – is obsessed with finding something “up there.” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” brought us aliens that looked like child ghosts. “Doctor Who” posits the idea of a whole race of people from another planet who look completely human.
From H.G Wells’s “War of the Worlds” onwards, space creatures have often been described as evil, determined to destroy humanity or at least to conquer us. Or eat us. They are sometimes thwarted by an E.T. who loves us, or a Doctor who vows to protect us.
Our disappointment in the physical emptiness, Kirsch believes, has changed “the heavens, once the setting for the Earth and human beings,” merely to “space, a void in which we wander.”
“There is no essential difference between what happens ‘down here’ on earth and ‘up there’” in the sky he writes. But I think that’s where his argument falls short.
Judaism has always presumed a powerful cosmic connection between heaven and earth. Both came out of the same void and chaos that God harnessed and ordered so that we might exist. When describing the act of Creation, the Torah sometimes says “earth and heaven” and in other places says “heaven and earth.” And Rabbi Eleazer, a sage of 2nd-century Israel, says that’s to teach us that the two are of equal value.
That’s sounds like a pretty astonishing thing to say – if you think that the heavens are God’s domain exclusively, and that earth is reserved for mere mortals. But it makes perfect sense if you believe that, as the Psalmist wrote, when we ponder the universe, we see that, “You [God], have made [man] little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty.” And when we look around us on earth, we see God’s presence dwelling among us – embedded in each rock and every creature, and – especially – the people who make our lives rich.
When Kirsch says there’s no essential difference between “up here” and “down there,” again, he’s kind of right. But he’s missing the point. The two realms are all part of one whole. And not only that: the sages believed that what we do “down here” makes a difference in what happens “up there.” That we can actually effect change in the way God sees and organizes the universe based on what we say and what we do.
When you think about it, that’s the whole purpose of being here today – marking the birthday of the world and the hope of renewal; asking God for forgiveness based on our peoples’ ancient connection; begging for the chance to make the world better this year than last, by making ourselves better.
The rabbis fashioned a prayer service that presumes that, not only does God listen to us, but that God cares what we say. They codified the Torah’s diverse and dense list of mitzvot – the divinely commanded do’s and don’t’s of Jewish life – so that we could do God’s work on earth, guiding the world to the place of peace and healing that it was ordained to be.
But the medieval Jewish mystics, whose writings I’ve been studying for the past several months, took this core rabbinic belief even further. Reviving ancient practices that incorporated magic and theurgy, they believed that not only could we humans persuade God – but that we could change the very nature of God. They believed that not only could we bring tikkun – repair and healing – to the world, but that we have the power to bring tikkun to the very elements that make up God.
In other words: God may have created us with flaws – but also with the power to heal divinity itself. And when God is healed, so are we all.
Rabbi Arthur Green, a great student and scholar of Jewish mysticism, put it this way: Kabbalistic activity like intense and deep meditation is designed to have an impact, “on the inner state of the Godhead and its efficacy in bringing about divine unity and thus showering divine blessing upon the lower world.”
Kabbalistic writing, such as the Zohar of 12th century Spain, is esoteric, confusing, and deliberately dense. I’ll try and explain it simply:
Jewish mystics believe that the Godhead kind of looks like God’s back, from head to toe and side to side. The head, the arms the legs, the innards – all of this is designed around ten sefirot – ten divine powers, ten identities that interact with one another through a flow of energy that is intense and very sexual in nature. The Godhead has a high and a low point – starting with the Ein Sof, that part of God that is so high above us that it can never be known or sensed by humans, going down to what we call in Judaism the Shekhinah, the female, nurturing presence of God that dwells among us and that has been with Israel throughout all of our wanderings.
The Godhead also has left and right energies that balance each other out: kindness and grace against rigor and judgment; momentary splendor opposite endurance. The sefirot also represent sexual energy, male and female characteristics that have somehow been separated from each other – thus making them imperfect and incomplete. As Green writes, “the great drama of religious life, according to the Kabbalists, is that of protecting Shekhinah from the forces of evil and joining her to the holy Bridegroom who ever awaits her.”
And in this reunion of the cosmic bride and groom, the intense sexual energy, the cosmic flow that results, provides healing for our world as well.
Our prayers, our meditations, our faith, our virtues, our devotion to fulfilling God’s grand plan for us in the Torah’s mitzvot – all of this evokes a desire within us, a yearning for the divine. But it also initializes divine unity; it sparks the flow of divine life from the farthermost heights of the Godhead down to us and throughout our world.
Think of like a brilliant, sparkling waterfall, descending and dispersing in a pool filled with energy and life. When we live our lives the way God has asked us to, we actually make God come alive.
What’s “up here” is dependent on us “down here.” That astonishing idea gives us great power, great responsibility, and great opportunity.
The bottom line is that God needs us. And that is a notion that Adam Kirsch completely misses, when he looks up at the sky and sees empty space instead of God’s vast heavens.
Space is not empty. And just because we haven’t found humanoid life somewhere else doesn’t mean we should stop looking up. We are not discouraged. We are inspired.
From the beauty of a sunset to the familiar shape of a constellation of stars; from that dramatic first photo of “earth rise” taken from Apollo 8 to that one small step on the lunar surface just a few months later – the universe is still a breathtaking marvel. And the earth is still a world waiting to be redeemed by us. God’s partners. God’s healers.
And if we’re going to play that role, we need to take seriously the concept of unity. Unity of the Godhead, yes. But also the unity of humanity here on earth. We must recognize that, just as God is damaged by broken-ness and separation, we humans, too, are damaged by treating each other as “achier” – as the other, something that should be separate and apart and isolated. Something to be feared or despised.
We are all designed to be part of a cosmic unity. Either we can devote ourselves to driving wedges between people, or we can make it our job to heal the wounds caused by divisions. But on this cusp of the new year, we must recognize that when we choose unity “down here,” we actually create healing “up there.” The course – the direction that the flow of God’s cosmic energy will take – is ours to control. The wholeness of the entire universe is in our hands.
On this day of all days — when we seek to reunite with God and reacquaint God with us – let us pledge ourselves to unity within our world, as well as between worlds. Just the way God intended for it to be.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Adam Kirsch, “Our Quest For Meaning In the Heavens,” Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, June 29-30, 2019.
 Genesis Rabbah 1:15.
 Psalm 8:6.
 From Arthur Green’s introduction to volume one of The Zohar Pritzker Edition, with translation and commentary by Daniel C. Matt. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.