An eye-opening astronomy video—one of many in recent years—has been making the rounds of Facebook. It brings to mind a piece of Hasidic wisdom uttered when the observable universe was far smaller than now. Both pose fascinating questions regarding how we can make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
This particular animated video beautifully demonstrates the nearly unfathomable size of creation. The camera starts on the massive Himalaya Mountains and pulls back to reveal the Himalayas as a small blip on our Earth, itself a fraction of the size of the sun, which is but one among billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, itself one of billions of galaxies. We may know this intellectually, but the video offers a startling perspective. At its end we can’t help wondering how far creation extends and how we can ever truly understand it. We also marvel at our own diminutiveness.
On the religious level, Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) presented the paradox of human existence quite in tune with science. He exclaimed that everyone should have two pockets. One should hold a note declaiming, The world was made for me. The other should hold a note stating, I am but dust and ashes.
We can easily take the vastness of creation as a negation of our human worth. But Rabbi Bunim warns against that. In the Torah, God puts human beings at the center of creation. Don’t take that lightly. After all, we can comprehend to a significant degree that same vast universe. We’ve made great headway investigating such incredible forces as gravity and black holes. So while within the known universe, human beings are barely specs, our self-awareness and comprehension encompass the creation that dwarfs us.
Of course, we each have a natural perspective through which the world revolves around our hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures. This, even as astronomers discover new planets capable of supporting life. Are we really alone? If so, our insignificance and uniqueness become even more pronounced. Still, we live our lives as if the universe were merely an extension of ourselves. This leaves us walking an intellectual tightrope. Not surprisingly, we often lose our balance.
My short story “Beautiful!” (REED Magazine issue 69), which I mentioned last week, deals with this subject. A retired astronaut marks his eightieth birthday. He has seen the earth from a weightless vantage point provided to only a few human beings. Like many astronauts in orbit before him, he exclaimed “Beautiful!”
But as with other astronauts, his elevated view of earth not only stimulated but troubled him. How, he wonders, can we fail to treat our fellow human beings—all of us so small and fragile—with compassion? Why do ego and lust make our brief lives so difficult for ourselves and others? On the other hand, given the size and age of the universe, what difference does it make what we do?
Will “Beautiful!” clear everything up for you? It will disturb as much as enlighten you. Living simultaneously on the macro and micro levels is no easy task. The sum of human misery testifies to that. Giving the matter some thought, however, just might make a difference in the way we struggle through our brief appearance here on tiny Earth.
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