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The Opposable Sore Thumb; or Why We Explore Space

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Just about everybody wants to be good. Criminals claim their innocence. Dictatorships call themselves republics. We all try to justify our actions in one way or another so that we appear to be good. When we are caught in some theft or hypocrisy, however small, guilt and indignation come rushing to the surface like a zillion nanobots. As a politician once advised, when accused, deny everything and demand proof. We are all politicians.

So why is it so hard to be good?

The answer should be obvious: Because being good usually requires giving up something. The criminal must give up his easy money and try to find an honest job. The dictator must give up power, along with his foreign bank accounts. And each of us has to give up on some personal interest or desire in order to be more just and compassionate to others. If I am to treat others with respect it means I must give up that angry rant every time supper is cold, or my new socks have disappeared in the laundry never to be seen again.

What is rather less obvious is that the difficulty we have in making improvement is not natural. While the intractability of personality is and always has been part of the human condition, if we look around us it does not seem to be the case in nature. For us it may be an ethical issue whether or not to eat meat or to drive a sports utility vehicle; but the wolf has no qualm whatsoever about sinking his teeth and claws into that innocent lamb. (As White Fang said: “The purpose of life is meat.”) And all that walks or crawls on the planet gets around pretty well without an SUV, nor does it gaze up at the Airbus overhead longingly, wishing to be among the passengers, envying the humans their airborne delight. Most times it doesn’t even bother looking up; it doesn’t care.

Human beings, when you think about it, are conspicuous for being the only denizens of the biosphere with moral issues. Why? Why do we stick out so in creation, like a sore thumb, with our opposable thumb dangling significantly at our sides? Why can’t we get along with ourselves and others, when nobody else, from the Blue Whale in the ocean to the mitochondria in our cells has these problems?

The answer is the question: Why don’t we seem to belong in this otherwise anxiety-free world scene? Because we don’t, in fact, belong here.

No doubt, this is why the subject of aliens is so popular in science fiction. For deep down, we sense that we ourselves are aliens. We have somehow landed on this plant, with our opposable thumb and too-smart-for-our-own-good brain, don’t know how we got here and we can’t get off. Yet, instead of being confined to some laboratory or ghetto to be carefully watched over by the fauna and flora who naturally do belong here, we are the ones running the place. With our superior intelligence we are able to keep the rest of creation under that opposable thumb, at least when we aren’t throwing a monkey-wrench into the works with a world war or ecological disaster.

Indeed, there are some who hypothesize that we actually are an alien race who came to this planet and took over. We belong somewhere else, though we know not where, our origins lost forever in the archives of some far-out swirl of stars.* It could well be that the impulse to explore other worlds reflects a collective subconscious desire to return to our roots. We aim at the stars because that’s where home is.

This idea is actually not so far removed from Judaism. It’s on the right track, at least. Judaism also teaches that we don’t belong here, because unlike the other inhabitants of the planet, we are more than our physical body, more than a bundle of flesh and blood and neurons in search of meat. Judaism insists that we have a neshama (soul). That is the essential part of the human being, that celestial ingredient that no CAT scan can find. It is the spirit that moves us.

The neshama, the Sages say, doesn’t belong here. It belongs to higher spheres of existence, where there is no meat, and no desire for meat. From the moment the neshama is placed in the fetus, it seeks its natural place. lt wants to go home, to be close to its Creator once again, where all is goodness. In other words, others aim at the stars; we aim at the heavens.

But until the body dies, the neshama is stuck here, wanting goodness in a world of meat. The body says that the purpose of life is meat—or success or pleasure—but the neshama wants only truth and beauty, justice and peace. While it’s here on earth, however, it must do the best it can, struggle to be good against the pull of nature.

For that is why the neshama is here. Until the time comes for it to go home again.

* Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University, for example, has cited recent research that “overwhelmingly” supports the view that human life started from outside our Earth. See

See also:

Reprinted with permission from E-geress Online Torah Magazine



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