The magnificent images from the James Webb Space telescope, released this week, have been breathtaking to behold. We can now see, in crisp detail, stars and galaxies that are billions of light years away. These images were a mere blur in the previous best system, the Hubble Telescope. Now a spectacular amount of detail has been thrown into focus. A dawn of a new era of astronomy has begun.
For thousands of years, man has been gazing up at the stars. In the bible, G-d tells Abraham to look at the stars and says to him: “This is what your descendants will be like.” (Bereishit 15:5)
How are the descendants of Abraham like stars?
Way back in the 18th century, the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem (1700-1760), was already aware that stars in the sky were more than specks of light. He commented “we know that in reality, these pinpricks are gigantic. They may appear to us of us as specks of light but were we to come closer, they would be enormous. So too, with Abraham’s descendants. People may seem small, but in reality, they have greatness.” (Mayana Shel Torah.)
The James Webb Space telescope images allow us to deepen this metaphor. We should never underestimate the infinite depth there is to every human being. As our explorations of outer space have shown us, the further we are able to look, the more there is to see. So too with inner space. The closer we get to one another, the more we come to appreciate the richness and complexity there is to every individual. Recognise each person as an entire world. When you do so, you will treat them with greater respect.
Interestingly, the English language expresses a related idea with its dual meaning of the word ‘star’, both as an astronomical body and a lead performer.
This gives us a meaning to the verse in Bilaam’s prophecy in this week’s parasha: “A star will rise from Jacob” (Bemidbar 24:17) which refers to the coming of the Messiah. As the James Webb telescope has provided us with such dazzling clarity in the physical world, may we be privileged to the spiritual clarity of the ultimate star performer, the Mashiach, speedily in our days.