“When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have established,/What is man that You are mindful of him? The son of man that You pay attention to him?” (Psalm 8.4-5)
Few verses in our entire Hebrew Bible better capture our sense of awe and wonder and humility when we turn our eyes to the grandeur of our natural world – the star-filled night sky, the shining orange face of the full moon.
True, the ancient author of Psalm 8 could not know what modern science has taught us about the unfathomable vastness of our universe. He – possibly she? – could not have imagined that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second or that it takes approximately eight minutes and 20 seconds for the light of our sun to traverse the 93 million miles to planet Earth.
Nor could the psalmist, who lived at least 2,500 years ago, have conceived of the unit of measurement that today’s astronomers use to calculate interstellar and intergalactic distances: the light-year, the distance light travels in a single year, almost 6 trillion miles!
A trillion is equal to a million millions; the number 1 followed by 12 zeros. 1,000,000,000,000! Just looking at this number transforms me into a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert.
Though the psalmist knew none of this, he nevertheless does manage to inspire in us that queasy quality of soul, that feeling of our infinitesimal littleness in the ocean of the cosmos in which we are less than a hiccup – regardless of how much we might sometimes try to repress our sense of our cosmic insignificance.
A front-page story in the April 6 New York Times ignited in me that same feeling of infinitesimal littleness evoked by the psalmist. For the first time in my life, I looked at a color photograph of a black hole, that enigmatic astronomical phenomenon first predicted by Einstein’s equations in the early 1900s, and decades later explained far more deeply by Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned British theoretical physicist and cosmologist.
According to Wikipedia, our go-to fountain of contemporary knowledge, “A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravity is so heavy that nothing – no particles or even electromagnetic radiation such as light – can escape from it.”
The picture of the black hole in the New York Times was made possible by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, an international team of about 300 radio astronomers from 13 institutions. A technique using polarized light made it possible to see the black hole in color.
This particular black hole, 6.5 billion times as massive as our sun, is in the center of an elliptical galaxy known as Messier 87, which is 55 million light years from here; that is to say, today’s astronomers are now looking at what happened 55 million years ago! How staggering the scale in both time and space!
While devouring inconceivable amounts of “gas, dust, and shredded stars,” the black hole in Messier 87 does not consume everything in its celestial neighborhood; it spews forth a jet of debris that is 6,000 light-years long!
“When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars which You have established,/What is man that You are mindful of him? The son of man that You pay attention to him?”
And yet … and yet … the poet of Psalm 8, who reminds us that we are but a wrinkle in time, goes on in the very next verse to trumpet the overwhelming power of our humanity: “Yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, crowning him with honor and dignity.”
And what is the nature of our honor and dignity? While the psalmist states that God has given us dominion over the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea, I would add: God has given us consciousness, the ability to ask such questions as “Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? Why?”
Although the black hole in the center of the Messier 87 galaxy is 6.5 billion times as massive as our sun, and although it spews forth a jet of celestial debris that is 6,000 light-years long, this black hole, along with all the other black holes in the universe, is incapable of asking a single question.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.