So for 24-hours last week it looked like Chicken Little was right. For 24-hours it seemed a real possibility that the sky might be falling after all.
The object that caused such concern: an obscure white blick on an astronomical photoplate, a mile-long asteroid dubbed 1997 XF11 and listed, now, in cosmological terms as a PHO. A "Potentially Hazardous Object." Even the date of our remotely possible encounter with fate was fixed for all to see: on October 26, 2028, a Thursday, object 1997 XF11 was, for some time last week, thought to perhaps show the hint of a theoretical potential of passing within 30,000 miles of the Earth.
I loved the way the New York Times reported the story. Journalist Malcolm Browne wrote that there was a "very slight possibility" that the asteroid might hit the Earth. In such a scenario, he went on to inform us, such an impact "would not necessarily be enough to wipe out the human race."
Nothing like such measured words to go with breakfast. Hey, I generally don't drink coffee, so this made me wake up. Pour milk, stir in instant perspective! Like the words of an old bumper sticker: "One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day!"
By the next day, the scare had died down. New calculations put the hurtling rock 600,000 miles away, a "close but no cigar kind of near miss" that will provide a voyeuristic opportunity for an adrenaline rush without any real danger. Probably. We think. Unless, of course, the astronomers were paid off. By secret agents. To calm us down. To let Ken Starr finish his work. All part of some vast right wing conspiracy. (THIS COLUMN HAS BEEN IMPOUNDED BY THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT. THERE IS NO ACTUAL CAUSE FOR ALARM. WE REPEAT...)
My friends, for years now, in anticipation of the coming turn of the century, staring at the fact of all those zeroes on a calendar, our Christian colleagues and neighbors worldwide have been in the first throes of a speculative frenzy. Computers may crash, and mass confusion ensue, but many people are trying to look at an even bigger picture. With a change in digits, everyone is analyzing what the old era was about, and what the new time will bring. What it means for humanity. If Elvis -- or others -- will return.
We Jews have been in a bit of a bind about this Year 2000 business. After all, we are part of the general culture. We use the common calendar. We'll have to stop writing 1999 on our checks, just like everyone else. And yet the commotion commemorates a date at best indifferent to us, and at worst one whose theological presuppositions we simply do not share. Any calendar is an artifice, a human creation, but it would still be nice to join in with the crowd, and share this sense of speculation and reflection.
But hey, thanks to an alarmist astronomer, now we can feel fully free to participate. And its not just the turning of a year. It's the end of the world. Even Hindu nationalists will have to reevealuate their plans. It affects everyone. It unites us all. Ok, so the date causing us to look inward is 2028, not 2000. But what's a quarter century between friends?
And so, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, we turn inward, and ask the big questions. What is the meaning of life? What have we accomplished in human history? If we had only a few years left, what would we do with the time? If it all went away in a big boom tomorrow, would the roaches outlast us all?
And the inevitable question: can we make it go away? As a brief discussion flared up about nuclear tipped missles to drive the asteroid off course, I was reminded of the old joke in which God decided to tell Richard Nixon that the world would be flooded in three days. The president told the American people that they had three days to do whatever they wanted, to loot, to plunder, to watch I Love Lucy reruns. Then, because of detente, Nixon decided to pick up the hotline and call Brezhnev. Brezhnev told the Russians that they had three days to perfect Communism. And, because of our special relationship with Israel, Nixon also phoned Golda. She went before the Israeli public and said: look, folks. "You've got three days to learn how to swim." We are experts on survival, we Jews. Maybe we have something to say... even about asteroids.
But to dwell for the moment on the inner search, and not the quick fix. The approach of an asteroid for a population, or a reminder of mortality for an individual, does the same thing. It makes us look at our lives, and our labors. It makes us wonder about the worth of our work. It makes us, perhaps, sort out our priorities, and concentrate on what is truly important in our lives. The friends that we make. The families we build. The projects that count. The people we help. The things we do to make the world a better place in the time on Earth we have.
As we complete the reading of the book of Exodus, we read of another type of completion. It is the story of the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem, focal point of the sacred enterprise which engaged our people in the aftermath of Sinai. We read: "And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks -- as the Eternal had commanded, so they had done -- Moses blessed them."
In the early part of this century, the philosopher Martin Buber discovered the many ways in which the story of the completion of the Tabernacle in the wilderness echoes the story of the creation of the world. The same words are used, the same verbal roots. God -- and later the people -- are said to have '"made" or "fashioned" their handiwork, to "see" and "behold" it, to "finish" and "complete" it, and, finally, to "bless" it. The same roots, the same words, the same order. Somehow, there is a connection being made, between the construction of the Tabernacle and the creation of the world.
Somehow, indeed, there is a connection between the work of the world, and the way of the world. Between what we do, and something beyond ourselves. For when we are doing God's work, when we are doing what God wants us to do, we are, indeed, completing God's world. However long it takes. And however long we have.
When I was young, I remember reading a book, and then seeing the movie, about what would happen if another planet smashed into ours. It was called When Worlds Collide. In the opening scene, an airplane pilot who had brought one scientist to meet another, who had accidentily overheard the newly discovered discussion of impending doom, is seen in a restaurant lighting $100 bills on fire and using them to light a cigar.
We are all given a finite time on this earth. But rather than burning bills, we must burn with the flame of faith, with the fire of conviction, with the energy of sacred tasks and holy work.
We read in Pirkei Avot: "lo alecha hamelacha ligmor; it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work. V'lo atta ben horin l'hivatel mimenu. But neither are you free to desist from it." However long it takes. And however long we have.