Sermon Parshat Balak 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson , AZ
There is a wonderful story about baseball pitcher Gaylord Perry. Perry was famous not only for being an excellent pitcher in the 1960s, 70s and 80s but also for using illegal substances to make the baseball do preposterous things when he threw it. He was widely accused of using spit, Vaseline, hair gel, KY-Jelly and other banned substances to throw what is loosely called a “spitball” or “greaseball,” a pitch that acted in unexpected ways and fooled batters. Gaylord Perry was often challenged for throwing greaseballs but rarely caught by umpires, and he went on to win the top pitching honor, the Cy Young Award in both leagues before eventually being elected to the Hall of Fame.
Now, in addition to being a great, if ethically challenged, pitcher Gaylord Perry was also a famously terrible hitter in the days when pitchers batted in both leagues. His lifetime batting average was .133, almost impossibly bad. But one day in the mid-1960s, early in his career, he was taking batting practice and atypically whacking the ball, and a baseball reporter turned to Perry’s manager, Alvin Dark, and said, “You know, that Perry has some power!”
His manager responded, “Let me tell you something: a man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.” And through the middle of the 1969 season Gaylord Perry had never hit a big-league home run in over 500 at bats.
And then on July 20, 1969, 50 years ago tomorrow, at 1:17pm Pacific Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. 30 minutes later, in a baseball game between Gaylord Perry’s San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitcher Claude Osteen threw a fastball down the middle, and Gaylord Perry hit it out of the park for his very first home run.
His manager, Alvin Dark had moved to another team by then, but he certainly could have said, "Hey, technically speaking, we did put a man on the moon before you hit a home run." By half an hour…
I tell that story because, my friends, tomorrow we mark the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the first time a human being set foot on another heavenly body. It was an amazing moment, so amazing that many people never believed it possible. And now it is history, half a century in the past.
To put things in a local historical context, in 1969 The Tucson Toros began play in Hi Corbett Field as a Triple-A team. The median income in Tucson was $8000, and there were about 350,000 people in Pima County, roughly 1/3 of what we have today. The Foothills were unbuilt, and the Northwest was desert; Oro Valley was five years away from being incorporated as a city. Woodstock was still three weeks away, the great rock festival was coming up in mid-August, 1969. Winds of change were blowing all through American society, in the aftermath of the summer of love and the Vietnam War and its protestors and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the election of Richard M. Nixon. And in the midst of it all we landed on the moon.
A question is often asked about dramatic historic events: do you remember where you were… when Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon?
I know I do. I was eight years old, and I was watching the moon landing in our across-the-street neighbor’s home in Los Angeles because they had the only color TV on the whole block. As I recall their names were the Gardners, and they were extraordinary not only for their color TV but also because they were one of the very few non-Jewish families on our block. The event was very exciting to me at the time: the space program, and NASA itself, was wildly popular and almost overwhelmingly inspirational. A man was going to land on the moon! The science and technology involved were stunning to us in those days—they still are, really—and the fact that we were actually watching this happen on a warm summer evening in Southern California was surreal.
The grainy, oddly-tinged video images from the moon were slow to come in, but we remained transfixed. Walter Cronkite, official voice of everything important, was talking about the historic event to come. And then it actually happened, a man walking on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s historic words were broadcast live, “This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It was amazing, the whole thing: human beings landing on the moon, and the additional miracle of watching it happen in what we did not then call real time. I remember being impressed at the time by the fact Neil Armstrong’s words did not sound like a spontaneous inspiration, even to an eight year old, but otherwise we watched the event with the full consciousness that something astonishing had happened. Think about it: in less than 10 years we went from having no space program to landing a man on the moon, watching him walk around there and plant the US flag, and bringing him home safely. Amazing indeed.
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Note the language: man and mankind. We did not make it more egalitarian in those days. I suppose today we’d say one small step for humans, one giant leap for humanity… it doesn’t scan as well, but the message remains powerful five decades after the moon landing. What an extraordinary step it truly was. Fifty years ago tomorrow.
I have had the privilege of interviewing Jewish astronauts as guests on my Too Jewish Radio Show, and I must admit that there is something amazing about slipping “the surly bonds of earth,” treading “The high untrespassed sanctity of space,” putting out hands and touching the face of God, as poet and World War II pilot John Magee wrote of flying. People who have been in space are changed by that experience of reaching a place our species has dreamed of forever. And when they describe the wonder they’ve lived it seems truly transcendent. Men have flown in space and walked on the moon.
And yet, fifty years later, most of the predictions about what would follow the pioneering moon landing have proven illusory. There are no cities on the moon, no colonies on Mars, no regular space travel for all citizens. We haven’t even speeded up our regular air travel with supersonic flights, let alone space shots. With all the airline delays, security problems and cancelled flights it probably takes longer to get from here to there now than it did back in 1969. The advent of private space flight, and the ever-increasing speed of information technology lead us to assume that we are much closer now to making space travel something that lots of people can access—perhaps. But we also thought that would happen many times over the past 50 years and, well, not so much.
We never really know the end results of our great efforts, of the major transformative experiences we live through.
To reinforce the problems we’ve had following up on that exceptional accomplishment, in studies conducted throughout the decade following the moon landing fully one third of people in America believed the moon landing was a hoax. Wow. 33% of the people in the modern, industrialized, educated country that actually landed on the moon didn’t believe we really did it. As one astronomer said back then, “If ignorance is bliss, those people must be very happy.” In a world absolutely abounding in conspiracy theories this one went straight to the moon… (sorry). We can take solace in the fact that in a survey taken 20 years ago, in 1999, only 6% of Americans believed the moon landing was a hoax. But the most recent surveys are back up to 10% who don’t believe it ever happened, and close to 20% of millennials and GenZers think it was faked.
To tell you the truth, this shouldn’t surprise us, because it’s not the first time a magnificent accomplishment has fizzled in the next 50 years, to the point where it begins to seem like an illusion. I am not talking about that movie back in the 1970’s, called “Capricorn One,” that starred James Brolin, Elliot Gould and OJ Simpson, of all people, when he was trying to become a movie star in his pre-murder days. The premise was that the space agency’s mission to Mars was in trouble and its’ funding in doubt, so they faked a Mars landing. It was one of the many conspiracy films that came out in the cynical 1970’s. I think the most preposterous part of that movie was that when the government bad guys tried to kill the astronauts to cover up the hoax, the first astronaut to run out of steam physically was not any of the professional actors but athlete OJ Simpson.
In any case, that’s not the precedent I’m thinking of. Instead it’s a much older one, the 40-year period from a remarkable, amazing event: this week’s Torah portion, which takes place as the Israelites approach the borders of Canaan and prepare to take over the land. Moses has led the people for fully 40 years, from the amazing events at the crossing of the Red Sea—certainly no less remarkable and miraculous in its day than the moon landing was in ours—to the borders of the Promised Land.
Just like in the half-century since Apollo 11, reality hasn’t lived up to expectations. Moses’ career is coming to a close, and instead of taking the triumphant Israelites from the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai to the conquest of Israel he has instead spent most of his 40 years in the Wilderness. What should have been a great sequence of amazing accomplishments instead took a long side trip to nowhere. Only after Moses is Promised Land even reached.
Which should be of great comfort to us, now looking back on 50 years since that moon shot. For although we can’t point to the successful conquest of space that was supposed to follow the rapid race to the moon, we should realize history sometimes move in fits and starts, that it is very likely we just weren’t ready to move forward and embrace the heavens back in 1969. The truth is that Moses and the Israelites weren’t ready for their Promised Land 40 years earlier—it took time, and change, and growth.
But the idea of having goals that go beyond ourselves, that cause us to reach for the heavens—that is something that, forgive the pun, truly elevates us. It is particularly Jewish, too, in its own way: to seek to achieve or create something wonderful, something more than ordinary life might otherwise provide. It is reaching, always, for the higher goal that defines us as special, sacred.
If, as Judaism teaches, we are indeed created in the image of God then we have the capacity to reach towards the heavens, to seek to touch the “face of God,” to have dreams that surpass the ordinary.
When things seem impossible to achieve Judaism teaches that this is only a temporary condition. The Jewish nation of Israel, founded after 1800 years of statelessness, helps prove that even the apparently unachievable can ultimately be accomplished, and spectacularly so.
When Israel launched its SpaceIL unmanned craft this year it was a kind of full circle on this subject, the impossible nation sending out a lunar landing craft. It did reach the surface of the moon—OK, unfortunately it crash-landed on the moon—but that was still, something amazing in and of itself. It was, in the most important way, the effort that mattered, the reach that exceeds the grasp that helps us understand how human beings, working together, can be truly great.
There is a teaching in Judaism, in Pirkei Avot, b’makom shein anashim hishtadeil lihiyot ish, which means, “In a place where no one is a mensch, strive to be a mensch”—that is, where no one else is acting well, do the right thing anyway. At least that is how it is usually understood. But I would extend that here: when no one else believes you can achieve the desirable impossible goal, work hard to make it happen. And when you, as a community, are told you can’t accomplish something, or that what you have done is an illusion—work harder to make it happen. That process, of cooperating with others to make something you imagine into reality, to make real the dream—that process is the Promised Land.
Fifty years ago Americans landed on the moon. Perhaps some day we will land on Mars, too.
But that was never the real point. Today, and every day, we can reach for the stars. We can seek to touch the heavens. It is the very process of dreaming of truly great things, of working together that is, in its own way, the real Promised Land. And we can seek that each and every day.