John Glenn was among the first group of seven astronauts trained in this country – a pioneer of space travel. At a time when rocket ships were featured in science fiction books and NOT news articles, he was willing to strap himself into such a vehicle. Although I was not around in 1959 when NASA was assembling its first cohort of astronauts, I’d be willing to bet that most Americans could never have imagined sending people to orbit the earth or land on the moon. And yet, that’s exactly what our country did – thanks to people like John Glenn.
Today, we take space travel for granted. My hunch is that most of us are not even aware that Japan is launching a cargo ship tomorrow bound for the International Space Station. You can watch the launch on your phone via Twitter. That’s a little different than the Apollo 11 launch in 1969 when virtually the entire nation sat transfixed in front of television sets.
John Glenn and the other heroes of the space program over the years have made the miraculous mundane. In so doing, they have taught us that we can accomplish amazing things previously believed to be impossible.
In this week’s Torah portion, the patriarch Jacob was on a journey into the unknown. He was headed east in the basic direction of his mother’s family, but he did not know how it was going to play out.
As he put his head down on a rock in the wilderness after a long day of travel, he had an amazing dream in which angels or messengers were traveling up and down a gigantic ladder which stretched from the ground to the heavens. It is a vision not unlike those first grainy, black-and-white images of astronauts in bizarre costumes traveling into space. Jacob could not immediately interpret the vision, but he knew there was power in it.
Upon waking up in the morning, he said: “Surely, God is in this place and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven (Gen. 28:16-17).” Somehow, that experience made him more confident that his journey would be successful and he would one day return to his father’s home. He made a vow that he would find a way to thank God.
Watching our fellow human beings go off into space as John Glenn did inspired many of us to do more than we thought we could do. Looking back on his career in 1997, he said: “If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.”
As we go off on our journeys – perhaps less exciting ones than those enjoyed by John Glenn and his fellow astronauts – his words and his example challenge us. Let us all seek to do something that we did not think possible and something bigger than our own self-interest. And in so doing, we may discover, like the patriarch Jacob, that we are in an awesome place – the abode of God, and our journey is destined to be successful. Godspeed, John Glenn, on your final journey.