Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Parable of the Spaceship

I just had another conversation with a person who tried to convince me that Orthodox Judaism is "outdated" and we should get rid of those "antiquated" rules and traditions.  So I decided this would be a good time to post my "Parable of the Spaceship" that I began telling several years ago: 

A spaceship filled with colonists takes off from Earth to settle on a planet circling a distant star.  The people on board do not yet have “warp drive” like on Star Trek, so this journey is going to take several centuries.  Generations will be born, live, and die aboard the ship, knowing nothing else but its interior as their entire world.

On board the spaceship are all the things the colonists will need to survive when they get to their destination; seeds for planting; frozen embryos of animals to grow upon arrival, and the laboratory equipment to do it; shelters to erect; machines for mining and manufacturing; instructions stored in the computer for how to farm, how to build, etc.  In short, all that is necessary to make a home on their new world is right there on board their ship.  And along with these things are very strict rules about how to care for everything during the long journey.

But as the generations go by, the practical knowledge about what these things are for begins to get lost.  The people have the videos, the photos, the diagrams and instructions – but now it all seems like a fairy tale.  And it also seems like a big bother to go through all those time-consuming, detailed protocols necessary to keep these things in good condition.  The new generations begin to wonder why they are wasting time and valuable space.  Insects?  Birds?  Trees?  What are they?  And why would we need them anyway, they argue.  We have everything we need already, including replicators to manufacture food and other goods.   So let’s just throw this useless junk out the airlock, delete unused files from the computer, and free up more room for us in the here and now.

Upon arriving at their destination, the colonists soon discover that they are missing vital instructions and materials for building their community – the very stuff they had jettisoned along the way.  How then can they survive outside the ship?  Some people don’t even want to leave the ship for the planet below.  All their lives they have lived inside familiar steel walls.  Now the wide-open sky, fresh air, and endless horizons are just too big and frightening.   So they remain inside.

Like the space colonists, we Jews are also on a centuries long, intergenerational journey.  Our operation manual is the Torah.  Every mitzvah has a purpose in the end – if we are far-sighted enough not to throw it overboard because it does not seem to have any value in the here and now.

And that, my dear fellow Jews, is exactly what many of us have done with the Torah’s teachings.   Living for generations within the confines of urban ghettos – the “ships” of our centuries-long history – we have sometimes thrown away things that are now very important for our well-being.  

Consider, for example, the fact that -- get this! -- psychologists and others are now recommending that we should "unplug" one day a week, to re-connect with each other as face-to-face families and friends.  That's something that religious Jews do every Sabbath!  (In fact, When Dr. Richard Besser on Good Morning America suggested this as a New Year's resolution in 2015, here's what I tweeted:  "Congratulations!  you just rediscovered the Jewish Sabbath!"  And he thanked me back.)

 The Sages of Pirkei Avot spoke wisely: We should be careful of every mitzvah, major or minor, even those that we do not understand or see as relevant to our own lives.