One small Step for Historical & Spiritual Clarity
By: Rabbi YY Jacobson
One small step for clarity: Researcher discovers that Neil Armstrong had not only the RIGHT IDEA, but the RIGHT WORDS.
High-tech detective work apparently has found the missing “a” in one of the most
famous phrases ever spoken.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first words from the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, now can be confidently recast, according to the research, as “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It is the more dramatic and grammatically correct phrasing that Armstrong, 76, has often said was the version he transmitted to NASA’s Mission Control for broadcast to worldwide television. With the technology of the 1960s, however, his global audience heard his comment without the “a,” making it “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The discrepancy has been widely debated for years by historians, academics and fans of space travel, with the “a” sometimes appearing in parentheses in government documents and Armstrong being listed on Web sites as being guilty of a momentous flub.
Based on the Jewish idea that every event in life, including every news item, contains spiritual significance and a lesson to mankind, let me suggest that the difference contains a profound message to each of us in our personal and collective journeys.
The Prelude Mission
Let us go back four decades to the events which preceded the landing on the moon.
On December 21, 1968, seven month before the landing on the moon, man finally – for the first time in history — broke the bounds of the earth, as three Apollo 8 astronauts, Frank Borman, James A. Lovell and William A. Anders, took the first trip around the moon.
The flight was initially planned as another earth orbiting checkout of the Apollo hardware. But rumors that the Soviets were plotting to beat us into orbit around the moon caused a last-minute change in plans. On December 25, as the world held its breath, the three NASA astronauts conducted ten orbits of the moon and made it back safely to earth, two days later, on December 27.
This space mission served as an important prelude to Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin’s actual landing on the Moon, seven months later, on July 20, 1969.
Stump The Rabbi
That very same week, on Thursday, December 26, another far less significant event took place, this one in a small studio in New York City. Barry Farber, a popular Jewish radio talk show host interviewed Rabbi Zalman Posner, a distinguished rabbi from Nashville. The discussion focused on the Halachik (legal) tradition of Judaism. The symmetry worked well, since Barry Farber is also a Southerner.
How does Judaism dare to interfere in the private lives of individual human beings, protested the talk show host. How dare the Torah instruct people, say, what to eat and what not to eat?
What really perturbed Mr. Farber, he said, were the punishments the Torah imposes upon would-be transgressors. According to Judaic law (1), if a Jewish adult willingly consumes food, the size of an olive, that has been prohibited in the Bible — pork, lobster, horse meat and the like — he (or she) is liable to receive thirty-nine lashes (2).
How, lamented the radio show host, can one justify such a violation of human rights: Is it anybody’s business if I eat a ham sandwich?
The Bureaucracy of Penalty
Rabbi Posner’s response on the radio show was that rarely — if ever — did a Jewish court have the Torah-right to impose upon a person the penalty of lashes (3).
First, according to Jewish law, lashes can only be administered by a court whose members were ordained by a judge who was, in turn, ordained by a previous judge, and he by a previous judge etc. — all the way back to Moses, who was “ordained” by G-d at Sinai (4). Since this form of ordination has ceased more around 1500 years ago (5), no Jewish court since is able to execute the penalty of lashes (6).
Second, even during the times of yore when the courts had this right, the penalty could only be carried out if two witnesses, not related to each other or to the violator, observed the act. A person’s own admission would not suffice to penalize him. The two witnesses were scrutinized mercilessly, each one independently, and if the slightest discrepancy was discovered in their testimony, they were invalidated and the victim exonerated.
Third, for a person to receive the lashes, the witnesses were required to warn him prior to his transgression. Not only did they need to warn him not to do the act, but they were also obligated to spell out the punishment he would receive should he proceed to perform the prohibited action. For example, if they observed a Jew about to consume pork, they were required to say to him, “You are prohibited to eat this piece of pork; if you do, you will receive lashes.”
Fourth, even after their warning, a person could not become liable to actually receive the lashes, unless he verbally accepted and reiterated the warning. If the violator nodded his head yes, or even stated clearly, “I know exactly what you are saying,” and then went ahead to eat the pork, he was exempt of any court penalty. Rather, he needed to respond to the witness warning and say: “I understand what you are saying; I am about to eat this pork knowing that I will receive lashes.” Only then can the court ascertain that the violator clearly understood the nature and the consequences of his act, and could thus be held responsible.
Fifth, even after all of this, the violator was still not eligible for punishment unless he began to act within three seconds after the witnesses issued the warning. So, for example, if Harry Goldberg was sitting and enjoying Crab Sushi (the real one…), and two witnesses observing warned him that this was forbidden and that if he continued to do so he would be liable for lashes. Harry then reiterated the warning verbally, waited four seconds and continued to eat the crab — in such a case he would be exempt of any penalty, since he could claim that he forgot the warning.
The obvious implications of this are that it was extremely unlikely for anybody to ever receive lashes. You needed to be a real moron to get yourself lashed by a Jewish court, and if you were a genuine moron you would then be exonerated because of your lack of ability to discriminate between right and wrong.
Furthermore, even if you actually got yourself subjected to the penalty, and you were tied down in court ready to receive the lashes — if you broke free and ran from the room, Jewish law would not allow the court to return you to the bench. You were free (7)!
Where can one find in the history of mankind a judiciary system that functioned in such a fashion?
The Sabbath After
This occurred, as mentioned, on Thursday night, December 26, 1968.
On the following Sabbath afternoon, December 28 (in the Jewish calendar Teves 7 5729), one of the great spiritual personalities of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schnersohn, held an unexpected assembly with thousands of his disciples at his headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. One of the participants was Rabbi Zalman Posner.
The Rebbe began his address by stating that although initially he did not schedule to hold a gathering during this Sabbath, the events of the week inspired him to change his plans. Many questions and reflections were evoked in people’s minds as a result of the space mission to the moon and the Rebbe said he was compelled to elaborate on them during this Sabbath assembly.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe then turned his attention to the Thursday night radio interview and the exchange between the Rabbi and the radio show host. “Though the answer contained a certain amount of truth,” the Rebbe said, “it did not offer a completely satisfactory answer to the question.”
“Let us assume,” said the Rebbe, “that in ancient times the Jewish courts administered the penalty of lashes no more than once in a century, due to the tremendous difficulties imposed by the Torah on the execution of the penalty. Granted. But the question still applies to that once in century punishment. How dare the Torah instruct that a person be whipped 39 times just because seconds after a warning by witnesses, he consumed prohibited food? How dare we mix into the private eating habits of an otherwise good and decent human being?
How can we, raised and bred on the ideals of democracy and individual freedom, embrace a value system that would display such lack of tolerance, if even only once in a hundred years? To hurt an innocent human being once in a century doesn’t make it more right than doing it every day!
A Mission In Jeopardy
Yet, the Rebbe went on to explain, if we were to reflect on the major event of the week, NASA’s space mission around the moon, we would be far more enlightened.
Before the three astronauts boarded the Apollo, they were instructed how to conduct their daily schedule while on the spacecraft in the most exacting detail. They were told what to wear and how to put on their shoes; what to eat and when to eat; how to sit, how to move around, how to sleep, even how to tend to their bodily needs. Almost every part of their behavior, from the most external to the most intimate, needed to conform to the meticulous instructions outlined by the space experts.
Imagine if during mid flight one of the astronauts would decide to take things into his own hand and, say, light up a cigarette to enjoy a smoke? He would naturally be rebuked and penalized harshly. Is that fair? As an individual is he not entitled to make his own choices and light up a cigarette when he feels like it?
This is obviously a foolish observation. If you were igniting a cigarette, or eating the wrong food, in the privacy of your own home or on a street corner, that would be your business. But when you ignite a flame, or deviate in some other way from the prescribed rules of conduct, amid a mission in outer space, this cannot to be seen as an isolated act, affecting merely one individual’s life. Rather, we must view this act in its proper context. A seemingly insignificant aberration of a few rules is placing three lives in danger; it is sending a one billion-dollar investment to the garbage dump and is lying waste decades of sweat, toil and energy by numerous scientists and engineers in the preparation of the mission. Finally, this little deviation of the rules may destroy, in a single moment, the dreams and hopes of an entire country, perhaps an entire world!
For such chutzpah and selfishness you ought indeed to be penalized severely. If you are ready to destroy three human lives; a billion-dollar investment; the tremendous labor of thousands of men and women for decades long; if you are prepared to kill a mission eagerly anticipated by the entire world, and why? Just so that you can fulfill a selfish craving to smoke a cigarette — this is a demonstration of incredible inhumanness and horrific apathy and narcissism.
The Voyage of Human History
Though far less obvious, this is true concerning each of our lives as well.
The history of mankind is a single, harmonious voyage, extending from the beginning of creation till the end of time. All of us have been chosen and placed together on a little planet suspended, just like the space shuttle, in mid air, and have been charged with the task of generating a kiss between heaven and earth. Together, the human race travels a long, tedious and difficult journey through space and time, assigned with a mission to sanctify the world and turn it into a beautiful and harmonious abode for love and holiness.
Each and every individual who ever lived — and will ever live — is indispensable to the journey of our planet toward redemption. History is a grand play and you must contribute your verse; the human story is a grand composition in which each of us contributes our stanza. If your stanza is lacking, all of history remains flawed; if you deviate from your mission and calling, if you defy the instructions gives to you during your journey, the “shuttle” – planet earth – cannot reach its destination. Your contribution is absolutely necessary. You are indispensable to G-d’s vision of the world, chosen to fulfill a mission in this world that you and only you can accomplish through your thoughts, words and actions, on a daily basis.
Our sages put it thus (7): “The first human being (Adam) was created alone” (without any other men) in order to teach us, that “Each and every one is obligated to say, ‘For my sake was the world created.’” This is not about arrogance. It means that you must assess your value to the fate of the universe as though you were the only human being in existence. This is not drama, it is actually true, because there is something at stake in your life, in your daily moral choices, which affects the entire universe — past, present and future.
Just as in the space shuttle, one wrong move by a single astronaut can derail the entire mission and destroy the whole journey, so it is with the “space mission” granted to humanity the day our earth came into being, that each and every individual plays an indispensible role in bringing our mission to its completion.
How Selfish Can One Be?
The Torah is the manual given to the “astronauts” for their grand mission; it is the Divine blueprint that guides the human being on how to achieve his or her mission of transforming the world.
Thus, when the Torah tells the Jew not to eat certain foods, should he go ahead and eat them, it is not to be seen as an isolated act, affecting merely his own abdomen. If we view this person and his act in its proper context, we will come to recognize that this very act generates vibrations throughout the entire cosmos, as it diverts all of history from its course toward redemption! The world that existed prior to this individual act will never be the same.
When I choose to eat something non-kosher, or to commit another act that is antithetical to the G-dly vision for the Jew articulated in the Torah manual, I am not only abusing my own spiritual and physical self; I am, in a very real sense, hurting and abusing thousands of years of blood and tears of millions of women and men who sacrificed their lives to lead the world on its journey toward peace and redemption. For the mission of creation to be fulfilled, my participation is critical. When I choose to reject the Divine rules for our mission in “space,” I am in effect endangering the entire mission, derailing the “space shuttle” from its course, and threatening to plunge the entire mission into the abyss.
Now, if within seconds after hearing and accepting a clear-cut warning by witnesses as to the nature of your forbidden act, you still go ahead to eat your bacon or shrimp, knowing that by committing this act you are laying waste to thousands of years of human love and blood; knowing that you are hurting the dream and the hope of all of history, so that you should be able to fulfill a selfish craving to eat non-kosher steak instead of kosher steak, such a display of inhumanity warrants indeed 39 whips. In fact, one may even ask: Only 39 whips (8)?
The Little A
The journey to the moon, then, was not only about ”One small step for man” and “one giant leap for mankind.” It taught us something far more critical: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Indeed, each step of every person at every moment is a giant leap for mankind. The question is in which direction.
Only you and I can provide the answer.
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1) Rambam Hilchos Maacholos Asuros chapter 2.
2) For the sake of accuracy I should note that Mr. Farber kept on referring to the number of 38 lashes. This was, obviously, an error. The correct number is 39, see Talmud Makos p. 22; Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 17:1.
3) The five points outlined below are all discussed in Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 16:1-4; 12:1-3; Hilchos Eidus chapters 1-2; 3:2 and Talmudic references noted in the commentaries.
The Talmud goes so far as to compare the punishment of whipping a human being to killing him! (Sanhedrin 10a; Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 16:1). Thus, all of the extraordinary procedures required to impose the death penalty, were required prior to the lashes penalty as well (Rambam ibid. 16:1; 4; 11:4).
According to Rabbi Ishmael, a court of 23 members was required to impose lashes, the same amount required to issue a death sentence (Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 1:2; Cf. Tosefos Sanhedrin 10a.) However, the established verdict is that a court of three suffices (Sanhedrin ibid. Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:4; 16:2.)
4) The nature of this unique ordination is discussed in Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin chapter 4.
5) It is interesting to note that in the 1500’s, one of the well known sages in the Holy Land, Mahari Bei Rav, attempted to renew this type of ordination in Jewish life. He wished to establish Jewish courts whose members would enjoy the status of “Musmachim,” fully ordained rabbis (this attempt was based on an innovative ruling by the Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 4: 11.) His plan was counterattacked by many a leading sage of the time and never came to full fruition. (For a full discussion of the event, see Kuntres Hasmicah at the end of Shaalos Utshuvos Maharlbach.)
6) In a similar vein, the possibility of Jewish courts imposing death penalties ceased around 1995 years ago. For a Jewish court to impose the death penalty there must be a Temple (Beis Hamikdash) existing in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Supreme Court numbering 71 members must be established near the Temple. Since this condition did not exist forty years before the destruction of the second temple, the death penalty was abolished from the Judaic Judicial system (Rambam Hilchos Sanhedrin 14:11-13).
7) Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a.
I thought that this may be the deeper reason for the fact that all of these penalties have ceased from Jewish life. Since as the generations progressed, it became increasingly difficult to feel how our individual acts may affect the entire universe, our violations of Torah laws do not bespeak beastliness as much as they express ignorance. Thus, the punishments of old have become inappropriate.
9) For the sake of this essay, I interviewed Rabbi Posner, who shared with me the details of the story. The dialogue between Barry Farber and Rabbi Posner was not quoted verbatim in the essay.
Fast begins Wednesday, July 29 8:10pm
Reading of Eicha, Book of Lamentations 8:30 pm
Cong. Kol Israel of Prospect Heights 603 St Johns Pl
Fast ends Thursday, July 30 8:52 pm
May we see the transformation of these days in to days of celebration.
An architect, a surgeon, and economist are arguing who of them holds the most prominent position.
The surgeon said, ‘Look, we’re the most important. The very first thing G-d did was surgery: to extract Eve from Adam’s rib.’
The architect said, ‘No, wait a minute, G-d is an architect first and foremost. G-d made the world in six days out of chaos.’
The economist smiled, ‘And who made the chaos?’
The Dual Canopy
“On the day the Tabernacle was erected, the cloud covered the Tabernacle,” the Bible records in the Torah portion of Behaalosecha (1). “Then, in the evening, there would be upon the Tabernacle like a fiery glow till morning.”
“From then on it remained that way,” the Torah continues. “The cloud would cover it [by day] and a glow of fire by night (2).”
Two points require clarification. First: What was the significance and purpose of this dual miraculous canopy that hovered over the Tabernacle in the desert — a cloud during the day and a glowing flame during the night (3)?
Second: Like every episode recorded in the Bible, this one, too, contains a spiritual interpretation that continuously plays itself out in journeys of the human spirit. How can we apply the story of this Tabernacle canopy to our lives today?
Smugness Vs. Despair
The Tabernacle was the edifice erected by the people of Israel in the Sinai desert to serve as a home for the Divine presence. In Jewish writings, the Tabernacle represents the place in the human heart where the light of G-d resides (4). The Tabernacle, then, exists timelessly within the human soul.
This sacred and noble place within us, declares the Bible, must include both a cloud by day and a fire by night. Let us apply this practically:
Each person experiences in his or her life “days” and “nights” — moments of light and moments of darkness, times of happiness and contentment as well as times of agony and turmoil. For some, the days are longer than the nights; for others the nights sadly exceed the days. Yet most humans possess a share of both realities.
Now, when things are going well for us — when we’re paying the bills nicely, the kids are healthy, our spouses are there for us and we’re satisfied with our lot — we often forget how vulnerable we really are in this world. We tend to become smug, complacent and desensitized. We often become apathetic to other people’s pain. We don’t feel the need for genuine friendships, and certainly not for a relationship with G-d. We don’t feel the urgent need to be real. At moments of bliss people often feel that they are on top of the world and they do not need anybody. They forget their humaneness and simplicity.
On the other hand, when things become (heaven forbid) difficult and painful – your company “is in der erd” (Yiddish for “is in the ground”), a loss in the family, illness of a loved one, a marriage goes sour, the bank is after us, our children are not doing well or we are overcome by inner mental or physical challenges — we often fall prey to feelings of despair and loneliness. We sink into the morass of life’s hardships, as we say to ourselves, “it’s dark and it’s getting darker.”
Thus, the Torah this week teaches us a movingly profound lesson.
If you are to become a human Tabernacle, if you wish to discover the grace of G-d within your heart, you must recall the darker cloud hovering above you even during times of brightness and splendor. A person must always remember that ultimately he cannot claim ownership over anything in his life: Life is a gift, love is gift, parents are gifts and children are gifts. Financial success, too, is not a natural symptom of your brilliant investments; it is a gift. One ought never to become blind to the truth that everything can change in a single instance (5) and that there is so much pain in the world. When you remember the clouds, you will never become arrogant, detached and false.
On the other hand, when night falls upon us, when life exposes its painful and darker side to us, we need to recall the glowing light hovering above us. We must remember that every experience we endure is part of our life’s mission to serve G-d under these circumstances and to transform the world into a home for goodness and G-dliness. Every challenge contains an opportunity for deeper growth and for a deeper relationship with our soul and our G-d. Each cloud contains a flame within.
Judaism’s Mission Statement
This is the powerful significance behind the mitzvah, the Jewish tradition, to recite twice each day the Shema Yisroel, the most reverent Jewish prayer, once in the morning and once in the evening.
When dawn breaks and the sun emerges to embrace us with its warmth, we state: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” Each of us is essentially a reflection of G-d, a recipient of His grace.
When night falls and darkness makes its way into our lives, we once again declare: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” G-d is one means that the same G-d Who was present during the “day,” is also present during the “night.” Darkness is painful and bitter, but it, too, must become part of a dynamic relationship with life and with G-d (6).
The Breaking of the Glass
This is also the mystical reason for the enigmatic Jewish custom to break a glass under the wedding canopy (the Chupah) at the moment when the groom and the bride are about to enter into a private room and celebrate their union, and the guests are about to begin feasting and dancing.
Granted, we break a glass during a marriage ceremony to remember the destruction of Jerusalem and all of the broken hearts in the world. But couldn’t we do the breaking a little earlier, during the more solemn moments of the ceremony? Must we, at the happiest moment of a bride and a groom, introduce sadness and melancholy?
The answer: Those who at the peak of their personal joy remember the pain that is still present in the outside world, will, at the moment of their pain, remember the joy out there in the world. On the other hand, those who at a moment of a personal high, become totally submerged in their own mood and are indifferent to the broken hearts around them, then, when struck by pain and hardship, they will remain stuck in their own quagmire, unable to reach out and glean hope and inspiration from the laughter and joy still present in the world (7).
Thus, the Torah states: “From then on it remained that way, the cloud would cover it [by day] and a glow of fire by night.” This is an eternal directive. During your days, look up to the clouds; during your nights, gaze up to the fire.
And if during your days, you will remember the clouds, then during your nights you will remember the flame (8).
1) Numbers 9:15.
2) Ibid. 9:16.
3) It is clear that the cloud did not serve as a shield from the hot son burning in the desert. First, the entire dwelling place of the Jews was constantly surrounded by “clouds of glory” (see, for example, Leviticus
23:43 and Rashi ibid; Talmud Sukah 11b.). It is also clear from the commentary of Ramban on this verse that the cloud did not serve the purpose.
The Or HaChaim ibid. presents a twofold explanation for the existence of the hovering cloud during daytime from the literal point a view. What follows is the spiritual explanation of a metaphysical and timeless tale.
4) See Alshich to Terumah 25:8. Reishis Chachmah Portal of Love chapter 6. Shalah 69a; 201a; 325b; 326b. Likkutei Torah Naso 20b.
5) See the commentary of Even Ezra to Ecclesiastes 7:14.
6) See Sichas 24 Teves 5704 (Published in Toras Yemei Bereshis).
7) Heard from my brother Simon Jacobson, in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
This essay is based on the writings of the Chassidic masters. Cf. L’torah U’lmoadim (by Rabbi S.Y. Zevin) Parshas Behaaloscah.
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