Dazzling. Pulsing. Mind Boggling. Those are some of the phrases used this week to describe the brilliant images NASA has shared with us from the James Webb telescope. Traveling in an orbit a million miles from home, the telescope has awed us with its brilliance and clarity – showing entire galaxies we never saw before, never even knew they existed.
To me they had the feel of the immersive experience of the Van Gogh exhibit, with its three-dimensional atmosphere. Twinkling orange galaxies. Dying stars shedding gas and light. Black holes. (And I thought of this even before my friend Ann Millin posted a Facebook Meme in which someone actually had combined the two).
Up until now, the biggest and best view we had of space was from the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990 – more than 30 years before the Webb Telescope went up. Looking at images of the same star clusters side by side, it’s like comparing a 1990s analog television or gaming console with the striking life-like, ultra-high-definition of today.
While we were essentially seeing these breathtaking images in real-time, we were really looking at the past, because the further in the distance you look, the older the image is. What we see now existed long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – by one account 4.6 billion years ago.
Science writer Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times this week of the overwhelming awesomeness of this gift from afar. “Viewing images like these,” she wrote, “can provide a profound sense of insignificance – they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.”
In that same issue of the Times, graphics columnist Sergio Pecanha reflected: “If nothing else, the humongousness of the universe ought to put our problems into perspective. A little insignificance isn’t such a bad thing.”
A little perspective. A dollop of humility. These were thoughts reflected in much of what was written this week. Whether or not you believe that all of this was the materialization of what was in God’s mind, it’s worth considering it, in light of the stories we’re reading this summer in the Torah.
Take the story we began last week: the uber-zealotry of the Israelite priest Pinchas, who is so incensed when he sees Israelite men cavorting with Moabite women, and worshiping their gods, that he hauls off and chucks a spear clean through one of the couples, killing both of them.
On the face of it, it looks like God approves of the actions of Pinchas. But some rabbis commenting on these verses give us another perspective.
This violent act by Pinchas, they note, is tagged onto last week’s portion. The apparent divine reward does not appear until this week. And when it does, it’s an eternal covenant of peace. A covenant of peace for a zealot who took the law into his own hands? Well: That’s where the one-week pause comes in.
Pinchas, they say, is not rewarded in the moment. God makes him – and the whole camp — step back and maybe take some time to reflect. Yes, “Pinchas was zealous for My sake” – God says in the text. But the pause makes us think that God also recognizes: Whoa, we can’t have a whole camp acting this way! True peace cannot come through violence.
God’s reward to Pinchas the B’rit Shalom – the covenant of peace – points to a desire, a need, for reflection and humility. For a different path going forward.
We are reminded of that message of humility when we see these remarkable pictures from across space and time – so magnificent and pure. Yes, we should be proud of the phenomenal ability of human beings to bring us this great gift – what columnist David Von Drehle called a “marvel of engineering and audacity.” And yet, he concludes:
“Perhaps by gazing outward, we will be inspired to examine anew our own existence. Earth is so small and humanity so transient . . . The more we can see the scale of the universe . . . the smaller our part in it feels. Smaller, yet more precious. For the farther we see, the humbler we become, and the fruit of humility is gratitude.”
I think maybe that’s exactly the message for us on this Shabbat. From our Torah, gratitude that God gives us precious time and space to re-orient ourselves on a path of peace, and with a spirit of generosity. From the Webb telescope, gratitude for the precious gifts of mind and body that God has implanted within us, that let us make the seemingly impossible happen every single day. These are gifts that are not to be taken for granted. They are gifts that can, and should, make life better on this small and seemingly insignificant little planet, even as we lift our eyes and try to take in the magnitude of what is around us.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own mission. As we say together: Amen.
©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin