By Rabbi Joel Mosbacher
As we approach the New Year, I was reflecting on how many anniversaries we have been celebrating since last Rosh Hashanah.
The Jewish year 5779 has seen the 25th anniversary of the TV show “Friends,” the 30th anniversary of the release of the film “When Harry Met Sally,” and the 40th anniversary of the first “Star Trek” movie. And, of course, this summer was the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as well as the Stonewall riots here in New York. And, some local baseball team had a miracle summer 50 years ago—Cantor—which team was that?
Yes, it’s been a big year for celebrations.
As The New York Times asked a few weeks ago, just what is the point of marking these kinds of anniversaries? Is doing so essential somehow for society’s psychological well-being? Is it an attempt to collectivize experience increasingly diffused by the distractions of the internet? Is it because these events were among the first to have vibrant, cohesive coverage in color? Is it because more people are living longer who want to revisit these moments, perhaps with a clearer head? For those who weren’t born yet, is it just a fascination with events that happened before their time? Does our fascination with anniversaries simply offer a chance to escape the current troubling reality of ecological emergency and mass shootings? Or is it just more chances for corporations to sell us stuff?
Whatever it is that motivated more than half of New York City’s entire population—5 million people—to attend Stonewall 50 celebrations, there’s something about these events that brings us together as human beings, even for a moment. And this month of Elul, the lead-up to the New Year, seems like a great time to think about what such moments mean to us as individuals who are but pinpricks of light in the tapestry of human history.
I’d like to focus today on a different anniversary, though. It’s the one that motivated nineteen percent more people to visit Space Center Houston in the third week of July 2019 than the same week last year. I’m speaking, of course, about the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.
Something you might not know about me is that I am a huge fan of the space program. Some of you were around to hear me geek out in a sermon back in July on the anniversary of the moon landing itself. I am a total nerd about this stuff; I look forward to volunteering to be the first rabbi in space, although I know that I’ll have to wait to tell my mother until I get back!
Elyssa and I were in awe this summer as we realized that it was only eight years between when John F. Kennedy issued his challenge to land people on the moon and return them safely to earth, and when we actually succeeded in doing so. Eight years! That reflection gave me so much hope; if we could go from having never gone to space at all, to Apollo 11 in eight years, what else is humanity capable of?
As you probably know, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, together with command module pilot Michael Collins, brought back about 48 pounds of lunar material, including 50 rocks, samples of the lunar soil, and 2 core samples that drilled down about 5 inches into the moon’s surface.
You also probably know that they left some things behind. They raised an American flag on the surface, and the part of their lunar lander which remains on the moon has a plaque on it that says, “We came in peace for all humankind.”
What you likely don’t know, unless you are a total geek like me (in which case, let’s have coffee right away!), is that Neil and Buzz also left a small metal disc on the surface.
The disc carried statements by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, along with messages of goodwill from the leaders of 73 countries around the world.
The disc, about the size of a 50 cent piece, was made of silicone. Through a process used to make micro-circuits, the messages were etched on the grey-colored disc. Each message from world leaders was reduced 200 times, to a size much smaller than the head of a pin, and appears on the disc as a barely visible dot.
Nearly every message contained congratulations to the United States, best wishes to the astronauts, admiration for their courage, prayers for their safe return, and hopes that, as the President of Iceland wrote, “the great achievements of space research inaugurate an era of peace and happiness for all [humankind].”
“It is clear that we are all brothers here on Earth and that it is our obligation to cooperate together in all endeavors,” President Kenyatta of Kenya wrote. And endearingly, President Tubman of Liberia wrote, “I ask [the astronauts] to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there.”
For a moment, it seemed, humankind was one. It is estimated that 500 million people– one seventh of the world population at the time– watched the moon landing on television. And the hopes and prayers of many of the 3.5 billion people in the world were represented on a coin the size of a silver half-dollar. I invite to read the words shared by the 73 nations online after Shabbat. Here is but a sample of some of the more unusual ones.
Of course, I know you want to know what words our brothers and sisters in Israel contributed to the coin. Zalman Shazar, then President of Israel, like a good Jew, quoted the book of Psalms when he wrote, “with hope for ‘abundance of peace, so long as the Moon endureth.”
The President of Italy made sure that the universe would know that it was native son Galileo “whose genius paved the way for modern science,” and the leader of Greece wrote, “It is a happy coincidence that the amazing program of man’s flight to space, which has been so magnificently fulfilled today, bears the name of the Greek God Apollo. This symbolic name demonstrates the never ending effort of man to achieve knowledge, beyond time and place.“
For the purpose of this sermon, though, I’d like to share the even more unusual messages of 3 other nations that might inspire us as we approach the birthday of the world.
“I hope that [the astronauts will] tell the Moon how beautiful it is when it illuminates the nights of the Ivory Coast,” wrote the President of that African nation.
And the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago wrote of his “earnest hope for mankind that while we gain the moon, we shall not lose the world.”
Finally, the Prime Minister of Guyana, leader of a nation that had only gained independence 3 years earlier, was unique with his contribution, in part because he took an extended opportunity to describe his country, how many people live there, how many square miles it contains, and a bit about the socio-economic challenges it was facing head on.
And then, Guyanese Prime Minister Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham finished his words to be left on the moon by writing, “We do not know what shall be the judgement of history, but we would be well pleased if, on some later day when this is read, it is said of us that we strove greatly to advance the dignity of all [humankind].”
Even as three men were going to the moon, and would bring a piece of the moon back to earth in their eyes, their hearts, and in their spacecraft, these three world leaders used the moment to think about what seeing the earth, and humanity, from the perspective of the moon, might say about us. They took it as a moment to think about their legacy, and how they might be thought of in the future. They thought about how we are reflected in the light of the other; and, in this moment of miraculous human achievement, they humbled themselves to remember the work still to do. As I read their words, it struck me how wonderful that was, and it struck me how few world leaders, given the unfettered opportunity to compose any words that might last forever, chose to take this approach.
It was a moment in time—July 1969. It was a fleeting moment, as all moments are. The world kept spinning and changing. The first email would be sent by ARPANET 3 months later. More than 250,000 people would march on Washington to protest the Vietnam war in November 1969, to be followed by the draft lottery in December.
Some of the allies that the United States invited to send messages on the Apollo 11 coin would become our enemies in the following years. There are nations, like Upper Volta and Dahomey, whose messages now live on the moon even though the nations themselves are no longer. And, some 63 countries now surround the world that didn’t even exist when Neil Armstrong took his one small step.
Nineteen sixty-nine was quite a year. We look back at it now with the benefit of hindsight and 50 years of perspective and color archival footage, but as Seals and Croft would sing a few years later, “we may never pass this way again.” Many of us in this room weren’t alive in 1969, and hundreds of people who heard Rabbi Bamberger of blessed memory deliver his sermon on Rosh Hashanah in 1969, have found their place, we pray, in the world to come.
Who shall live and who shall die in the year ahead? We cannot know. But what we do know is this: we have this moment.
Imagine that you have been invited to send a message to the moon with your rabbi, who, let’s imagine, has been selected to be the first rabbi in space. You get 50 words or less. I will stipulate that many in this room would offer prayers for the success of the mission, and that almost everyone would pray for my safe return, so you don’t need to include that in your words.
If you were given the chance to send a message out into the universe that would endure in silicone, what would you want people to know about who you are, what has been most important to you, and what you have already accomplished in your life? And what would you want those same people to know about what you still hope to accomplish in the life remaining to you? Fifty years from now, if someone were to open the book of your life, what would you want them to read there?
As we approach the New Year, I’d invite you to think about these questions to inform the words you might offer to the universe on a theoretical Yosef 1 spacecraft. The beauty of this season is that, even if such a spacecraft never materializes, we actually are offered a gift by our tradition– the opportunity to reflect on these questions, and then, to truthfully and wholeheartedly live into the answers we wish to write. I challenge each of us to accept this gift.
Whether you are 13, or whether you remember exactly where you were when Neil and Buzz reached down and put that coin on the moon, or whether you are somewhere in between, it’s never too early, or too late, to commit to being the best version of ourselves, to making choices that our descendants would be proud of, to etching deeds into the books of our lives that we’d be proud to have anyone– terrestrial or extraterrestrial– read about us. It’s always the right Jewish time to think about how our words and actions reflect us, just as the moon reflects the sun’s light.
Why do we look back on round number anniversaries with such great fanfare? I think we remember Woodstock and Stonewall and continue to watch “Friends” and “Star Trek” over and over again because of the impact and relevance those events and works of creativity had, not only in their time, but in our time as well.
In 5780, let’s not just remember what we’ve done, for worse and mostly for better in the past year. Let’s launch our own personal moon shot. Let us commit to striving greatly, and then, let us meet or even exceed our own expectations. We, pinpricks of light though we may be, are capable of great things, and of making an impact that will last for generations yet to be, of adding our threads to the ongoing tapestry of creation.