With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Perseverance towards the Transcendent

20 February 2021

What a phenomenal achievement. Rivi (Bat Mitzvah) of course and also the small matter of the landing on the planet Mars of the one tonne, six wheeled Nasa rover, Perseverance. Was this similar to the vision of the divine chariot described by the ancient Israelite prophet Ezekiel? Words really fail us to remark on such an incredulous achievement.

After nearly 7 months of travel – and that was taking the short route as Mars is presently particularly close to Earth – at 2055 GMT on Thursday 18th February 2021, a pinpoint landing in the Jezero Crater, a 28-mile wide depression close to the Martian equator. The thinking is that billions of years ago, when Mars was wetter, this crater contained a lake that could have enabled the existence of primitive microbial organisms. The equipment Perseverance carries is designed to detect evidence of ‘life on Mars.’

Whether one is a scientist in any field, or like me, a complete ignoramous, the probability of a sense of awe is extreme at such moments. It is truly historical, in a good way. It takes us out of our everyday reality.

Others will speak far more of the enormity and magnitude of the project and I wish it every success. Yet I do find myself asking ‘why?’ Surely the billions of dollars spent on a trip to Mars, would have bought COVID vaccinations to those living in the poorest countries of Earth, indeed provided them with the resources not to live in perpetual poverty.

Perhaps it is not an ‘either or,’ but an ‘and.’

Humanity has the ingenuity to do both, especially if we would work together. I note that China and the UAE have also sent missions to Mars this past year. One hopes all three missions complement each other rather than causing an unfortunate traffic jam; that science on Mars is not as complicated or politicised as life on Earth.

What a mission to Mars offers us, is a view beyond what we currently know. Looking beyond what we currently know offers hope. Some look for what we do not know through science such as Perseverance represents, others through an artistic, romantic lens, and some, like us this morning, through religion. Not the stuff of dogma but of wonder, of allowing ourselves a moment to rove as Perseverance is doing on Mars, in a search. Our search is not for signs of life but for a sense of the transcendent, we call in Hebrew by many names but in English is reduced to God.

If you go back to my Thought for the Week, you will notice that I focussed on one Rabbi’s view on the minutiae regarding the Pesach offering (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 85a). The view reflected concern for boundaries that govern human interaction, the creation of sacred space for us to connect with each other; and we have achieved that yet again this Shabbat morning. Through this Sanctuary and in all our mikdshei ma’at – the small sanctuaries we have created in our homes – we connect with each other.

But what of the other rabbi’s response mentioned in the Talmud (bPesachim 85a)?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Even a barrier of iron does not separate between the Jewish people and their God in Heaven. Barriers are irrelevant with regard to prayer.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi seems to suggest that as well as creating a Sanctuary and mikdshei ma’at – to connect with each other, we also connect to God. It sounds like such an immanent belief. Perhaps it is and yet there contains within it that which is transcendent. There is no barrier preventing prayer from humanity to God. There is no hinderance for the desire to receive insight, to strive to know what cannot be known. That pursuit is limitless, there is no boundary, the possibility is always there. In our reaching beyond ourselves, beyond what is now, what we may find is hope.

Let us celebrate the human achievement of Rivi this morning. Let us celebrate the human achievement of all who make it to Mars, the planet or their own moment of realising their potential. May those moments be blessed by God, moments in which our human sensation is taken beyond where we thought possible. And may they, like our experience this morning, see us set aside more time and create more sacred space for a journey of discovery of what is beyond us, for in that sense there are no barriers between us and God. Perseverance towards the Transcendent!