Yayikra     — An offering to God

March 11, 2011

The other day I was driving up route A1A from Cocoa Beach Florida to the Orlando airport, on the way home from the RRA convention. I was driving with two dear friends, colleagues, who kept me company and navigated. It so happened that our ride coincided with the scheduled landing of the space shuttle Discovery at Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center. We had wanted to find a way to see the landing, but our convention and travel schedule meant that we couldn’t plan for it…. And so we listened to the radio as they tracked the shuttle on its way to earth, right up the moment when the sonic boom, signaling re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, would be heard. We realized at that moment that we were just about due west of the Cape and maybe we would see it after all. At that insight we suddenly saw dozens of cars lining the side of the road, many parked hastily on the grass alongside the road, as the passengers scampered eastward toward the land’s edge, facing the water and the Cape.  Everyone was pulling off the road to stand at the shore and watch for the shuttle.  Folks from all walks of life, by appearances, mostly locals, sprinkled with tourists like us, with kids and dogs, a man with bags of groceries in hand — all rushed to stand shoulder to shoulder, squinting skyward to catch a glimpse of history. This was the final journey of the shuttle, after 39 missions the spacecraft was to be retired.  NASA, we learned, had decided to retire it while it was still in excellent working order.


We saw white stripes across the skies, the marks of final circles of the final slow and steady approach to landing. But we didn’t hear the sonic boom. And we didn’t even see the shuttle at all.  After about five minutes, the crowd closest to land’s edge began to turn around and head back to their cars. We asked, “Did you see it?”  “No,” they told us. But we all knew from the radio report that the landing had already been completed.  So the crowd shifted position and headed back to their cars.


I have to say that while we didn’t get to experience the thrill of seeing the landing, we had a happy, warm feeling as we headed back.  In a way it was perhaps even better that our hopes had been dashed – there was a communal, collective sense of sympathy and support as we shared the momentary disappointment with the nameless crowd.  There was something very spiritual about that feeling – the spontaneous community wasn’t focused on the “thing”— the shuttle itself, but on the people who had assembled to experience it.


I have to say that the experience at first felt a little like being in a “b” science fiction movie, as the crowd is pulled by some gravitational string, all eyes heavenward, while the space ship lands.  In the next scene the aliens disembark – you get the picture. But this had a different ending — with the sunny Florida sky and the return to the car, we quickly returned to reality.  Our hearts were engaged, not in the fear of a “sci-fi” flick, but in the faith of a collective spiritual community.


What is it about the shuttle that captivates our hearts? Surely the technological feat, the excitement of outer space, the thrill of adventure elevates our hearts to awe.  Just a few days before our drive northward that day, my friend and I had visited the Kennedy Space Center and we were awed by the exhibits. We saw a breathtaking Imax movie of the experience on the International Space Station.  The scenes of space and of earth from space in glorious 3-D were very moving. One astronaut observed that when you look at earth from that vantage point and see oceans and land masses without borders, you can imagine that all of humanity is one whole. We are all one people.


In fact, the movie emphasized the incredible success of the collaborations that have made the Space Station come to life. It is truly a borderless, international enterprise, bringing together the best talents of several countries to create the technology of the station and its scientific experiments. With international crews, the space station is a soaring example of what is possible when we reach beyond boundaries, far up into the heavens, acting as ONE human community.


Some people might wonder: why explore space?  The exhibits at the KSC drove home the message – the scientific knowledge developed and collected by the space program have helped us in the fields of medicine, education, food production, energy, and more. We explore space in order to help humanity live on this humble planet. We explore space because, in the future, we may need more options for human life beyond our planet.


There was a slogan on one of the posters in the space shuttle exhibit that read, something like: “It’s a destiny, not a destination.”  Adventure, exploration, and scientific inquiry– all are the destiny touted by this space exploration. But even more so are the human characteristics of courage, intelligence, striving, collaboration, trust, and, yes, even FAITH.


“Space – the final frontier” – so proclaimed Gene Roddenberry in the introduction to Star Trek.  Sadly, my friend and I had to leave the Space Center before we had time to see the Star Trek exhibit, but the message of it was clear still.  Space is the wilderness, the midbar, that remains to be traversed. It’s pull, its gravity, is that it is a place to venture heavenward, to be with the source of all life, our Creator. This is just what our ancestors did when they left Egypt to travel to the Promised Land.  Liberated from the confines of borders, from the mundane stuff of life that distracts and distorts our spiritual selves from our core, we recover our hearts and our faith.


The opening parashah of Leviticus, Vayikra tells us that Moses felt “called — vayikra.”  Our people felt God’s call in the wilderness. Moses, like the courageous astronauts, heard it most clearly.  Building the Mishkan, a dwelling place for God’s presence, it allowed him to draw close to the Divine presence.  The space shuttle may not look like the Mishkan, but the detail that went into its constructions was commensurate in its day.


Filled with awe, Moses approached God, but still, he was frightened, intimidated by its holiness. The sage Ramban taught that God had to call Moses to reassure him that, although the Tent and the tabernacle were holy and had to be treated with due reverence, they existed to benefit Israel, not the threaten them.

Another commentary (quoted in the Etz Hayyim Humash) teaches that Moses, following the “start-up” phase with the covenant secured, thought that his mission had been completed. He soon learned that his task has just begun. Going forward, he learned to lead by guiding the Israelites to sanctify their daily lives.


So too the technology of space travel exists to help humanity, not to threaten us.  We know that we can use scientific knowledge for destruction. This past century has been a frightening series of examples of this.  But the collaboration of the space station, the peaceful enjoyment of borderless, warm, close and shared relationships, is like the journeying of the Jewish people to stand as one at Sinai – with holy purpose, we can receive God.


Moses’ mission and the journey of the Jewish people were just beginning in the wilderness.  The space shuttle Discovery may be a mission completed, but the exploration of space is just beginning. Our ancestors sought to bring God close, so that God would dwell within us: v’asu li mishkan, v’shachanti b’tocham – “build me a sanctuary that I might dwell among you.”  From this place we can better ourselves, elevate our lives and bring holiness out to the world. We found this holiness with the faith, courage and collaboration we honed in the wilderness. We have held onto it for the generations since, so that we could realize the dream.


The offerings, korbanot, described in Vayikra, were a spiritual tool. The word korban comes from the Hebrew root:  krv, meaning “to bring close” or, “to come close.”

The Tabernacle, Mishkan, brought our hearts beyond the reaches of the self.  It reminded us of what is possible, opening the passageways in our hearts for God to be felt.  The gifts our ancestors brought kept these passageways alive.  The korbanot, the offerings, gave us a chance to move beyond the confines of the “things” that entrap our hearts, creating borders between us.  It was an opening of a space within us for our humanity to be realized.


In the offerings at the holy place of God’s dwelling, we are in awe.  The spirit of the Divine spark within each of us comes to light.


So too, those streaks of white across the skies left by the space shuttle were a reminder of what is possible.   May the journey be one of a whole and holy human family.