Late Monday night and Tuesday morning, the James Webb Telescope showed its first images after its launch six months ago. And while the images from the Hubble telescope were incredible, these blow away even astronomers. As these images inspire everyone from NASA astrophysicists to ordinary laypeople, they remind us that seeing the size and scope of the universe never gets old.
Stars have captured the human imagination for millennia, and we’ve often linked the workings of the heavens with the actions here on earth. In antiquity, the movement of the stars were often used for prophecy, which we also see in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. The prophet Balaam is hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but instead blesses them. His most famous blessing says, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (24:5), but several verses later, he tells Balak that his kingdom will soon be destroyed because “A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel.” (24:17)
Balaam’s prophecy, and his language of stars, were thought to predict — or, more accurately, justify — the legitimacy of kings, rulers, and upcoming battles. In the text here, it speaks about how the Israelites will conquer the neighboring nations, and about a thousand years later, Rabbi Akiva helped encourage Simon bar Kosiba to help lead a rebellion against Rome in the 130’s, and renamed him “bar Kochba,” or “son of the star,” using that same text.
But others saw a more universal perspective. Ibn Ezra, whose commentary tends to focus on the literal meaning of the text, takes the phrase to mean, “There are images of stars that step forth in the sky that never existed and were never known.”
What an apt commentary for this week, as we now have images of stars that truly “had never existed.” We can witness the birth of stars, stars that were never known before each new iteration of these space telescopes. During the reveal of photos of the Carina Nebula, a “nursery” for new stars that is seven light-years high, Knicole Colon of the Goddard Space Center shared what this image meant to her:
…[F]or me, when I see an image like this, I can’t help but think about scale. Every dot of light we see here is an individual star, not unlike our Sun, and many of these likely also have planets. And it just reminds me that our Sun and our planets and, ultimately, us, were formed out of the same kind of stuff that we see here. We humans really are connected to the universe. We’re made of the same stuff in this beautiful landscape.
The majesty of the universe reminds us, once again, of our common humanity. On an earthly level, Balaam’s prophecy focused on the Israelites and their upcoming battles with their neighbors, but on a heavenly level, these images remind us that while tribes and battles are real, when we look up, we can be reminded of what we can do when we come together.
Indeed, as Sharon Stirone wrote in the New York Times,
When we look up, we look for ourselves. Dr. Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that could not be more true. We long to understand why we’re here and to find meaning in a world where meaning is so often difficult to divine. Telescopes like this remind us that in spite of our specific challenges on Earth, the possibility of connection still exists.
The James Webb Telescope will continue to wow us with its images, but what it really can do is show us both how small we are, and how great we can be. While the stars may not tell us the future, our ability to look toward the past can unite us here and now in the present.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he’s written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife, Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter and son.