Speak, Universe

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06 Oct 2005

We couldn’t have found a more fitting symbol for the twentieth century’s close than the failure, in 1999’s last days, of NASA’s mission to the Red Planet.

“Mars Lander’s Apparent Loss Dashes Spirits and Raises Fears,” read the headline in The New York Times, when the expensive little robot designed to relay data from Mars vanished in space without a trace, while approaching its destination. How eloquent a message for the new millennium: the meek machine’s unexpected silence.

“Little hope remains,” wrote the reporter, “that flight controllers will establish contact.”

In those two lines can be detected the eternal desire to connect with the unknown; the impossibility of conquering it once and for all; and mankind’s never-extinguished hope, even amidst failure. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, a hundred fifty years ago,

…that perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all…


I’ve heard it in the chilliest land

And on the strangest sea,

Yet never in extremity

It asked a crumb of me.

Here we were once again, driven by the inexplicable passion for exploring undiscovered frontiers, our curiosity thrusting us towards unseen horizons…only to be thwarted, once again, by uncontrollable natural forces. And here we were, once again, left with an unarticulated sense of being rebuked by someone…or something…not only for our hubris, but for our innocence.

We human beings toss questions out into the universe as if they were prayers, but our love for answers goes unrequited by a Sphinx-like void that would rather not respond. The hopes and fears of all the years…Were they not met in thee that night, little robot (now forgotten by us on Earth) which never saw fit to send back messages to us from beyond?

Is there anyone who can’t identify with a man whose dream has been suddenly lost? Who among us has not known such failure? “We are all crestfallen,” said Wayne F. Zimmerman, head electronics engineer on the team that developed the 6.5-foot mechanical arm. “Man, it’s tough when you put in that much work for years into designing, building and testing, it’s hard to lose it all. Not to have an opportunity to do that science is pretty depressing.”

For Mr. Zimmerman, hope’s devastation consisted of a lost opportunity for scientific achievement. But the failures life has to offer come in all shapes and sizes: The book that’s never published, or the dream house never built. The parent who died before you got there. The one you loved, who marries somebody else…or the health you once took for granted. The child who talks back, or that you never had, or didn’t do right by…The dirty dishes in the sink.

Education errs, the author Kurt Vonnegut has written, in trying to teach us how to succeed; what it should do is teach us how to fail, because that’s usually what happens.

Three decades ago, the Times reported, the Mars Lander project’s chief planetary geologist, Dr. Bruce Murray, predicted that volumes of water were probably frozen in the Martian polar regions. “This was his first [and last] chance, at the age of sixty-eight, to learn more…[and] there is no follow-up mission.”

A scientist such as Dr. Murray — looking for signs that the conditions on earth which make life possible are not unique, and that the human species came about by a natural chain of fortuitous physical reactions — may not call his quest a religious one. But its undercurrents are intrinsically akin to those of any spiritual search, and its conclusions equally immune to definitive proof. For no matter what we discover and how much more we learn, we interpret it according to our predilections. What’s out there? People have always wondered. How did it begin? Is life the product of coincidence, and — by virtue of the mathematical inevitability inherent to an infinite cosmos — bound to be duplicated elsewhere? Or are we the only ones around in an otherwise neutral, unhearing cosmos? Are we here for some reason yet to be discerned, or that will never be spelled out? Is there anything out there that can give us a glimpse of our own future, our own origin, our true nature?

That we failed to get a call-back from our man on Mars, our diminutive alter ego with his long robotic arm, was just par for the course. That basic desire to get some response from “out there,” the desire to speak and be spoken to, is not unrelated to the modest joy we experience when our e-mail program says “You’ve got mail,” and the little flash of disappointment when it says, “No new messages.”

But there is a message in the robot’s silence: to co-exist with unyielding mysteries. G-d hides His face, neither more nor less today than thousands of years ago, when the Creator asked Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …when the morning stars sang together, and…shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors…as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof…Declare, if you have understanding.” And Job finally replied, “Truly, I have uttered things that I understood not; things too wonderful for me…”

Our own conversations with G-d seem to be monologues, not dialogues, yet Judaism teaches that G-d speaks with us through the events in our lives – totally loving messages which each of us is ultimately compelled to decipher by ourselves.

As the millennium began, what millions of people at New Year’s Eve parties around the world wanted was not to be alone at that moment…wanted – as on every other year, but especially this one — to be assured for the record that their lives were successful, that they’d found someone to love and be loved by. We look for mirrors to tell us who we are, and want the universe to talk back.

But aloneness is a basic premise of our existence, and each of us has to discover all over again what we’re here for. Sometimes, it turns into a mighty lonely mission. For us, and for the tiny robot lost somewhere in space, there’s no way out, as individuals and as a species. “People must understand how difficult these things are,” said Mr. Zimmerman. “Your playing field is the whole solar system and it’s full of hazards and unknowns.”

We need those hazards and unknowns. The soul by definition thrives on the intangible, the invisible, the inscrutable, and it’s our good fortune that the world has been designed in such a way that we’re in no apparent danger of comprehending very much at all. There will always be an infinite supply of emptiness into which to project our inquiries and dreams. There will always be our failures, large and small, to compel us to connect to something greater and more perfect than ourselves. And when it comes right down to it, there will always be your aloneness and mine, which prompts us to speak to an unseen G-d.

Ever since man walked on the moon, we might well imagine, when gazing up at that white shining entity, that we’ve been there, done that. But the moon and its reasons for being are still as foreign to us as Mars, and as unknowable as our own minds. The whole thing – earth, universe, our own consciousness – is one wall-to-wall carpet of miracles.

Our humanity is not to be discovered in our success at getting answers, but rather in the persistence of our quest in the face of overwhelming disappointments. We can’t refrain, just because we fail to pick up any reply, from turning our hearts once again up to the starry night, and asking again, and asking again, and asking again.

This piece, excerpted from “A Gift Passed Along”, was reprinted with the author’s permission.

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “A Gift Passed Along,” and “The Mother in Our Lives” She writes for a number of publications in Israel and the United States, and teaches writing in Jerusalem, where she lives with her family.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.