Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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The rain…and flying cars

No joke. They are about to be real. If Alef Aeronautics in California manages to bring its Model A car to market, the era of flying cars will be upon us.

Make no mistake, I’m thrilled. It’s literally the thing I have been waiting all my life for the future to bring. I already put my wife on notice that we must have one even if it means pulling our kids out of college and changing our dog’s name to Astro.

At a $300,000 sticker price, being an early adopter is definitely a dream unless I win Powerball, but the company says if they can scale production there is no reason why a flying car should cost more than a Toyota Corolla. At that point, driving for Uber or Lyft will become one of the coolest jobs in the world and I will be ready for a career switch.

“There is nothing new under the sun.” During Sukkot, the Book of Ecclesiastes rains on our parade. Even a novelty like a flying car is somehow not really new. We are reminded that there have often been wonderous inventions, but they do not fundamentally alter the human condition. War, poverty, degradation, all persist, rendering our achievements, no matter how seemingly glorious, as nothing more than mist.

Notably, it is rain that falls on the parade. Rain, which is focal point of our prayer on Shemini Atzeret is the symbol of hope for the future. If the rain falls, next year the harvests will be bountiful, bringing food security and prosperity that allow us to believe in the possibility that there could be more for us in life than just surviving from one day to the next.

The transition from Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret illustrates a fundamental tension in life.

Ecclesiastes is replete with futility and despair that life is short and perhaps pointless. It muses, reasonably, that we might have been better off had we never come into being at all. Then, at least, we would not be conscious of all the evil that has happened in the world. Wouldn’t we be happier if we had never lived to know the horrors that befell our people and worse, that nothing has changed, nor will it ever? Tomorrow will be the same as yesterday, on and on for eternity. Knowing that, how can one do anything more but despair?

Then, the rain.

Rain cleanses. It washes away. It nourishes. There is a reason why rainwater is an essential component of a mikveh. It gives and restores life, both physically and spiritually.

When we say the prayer for rain, we are really praying for an antidote to the cynicism and hopelessness of Ecclesiastes and of history. Our rational mind knows that the travails of the past will persist into the future, but without the hope that there can be something more, life truly is pointless.

I am prepared to admit that no matter how cool they are, flying cars will not change the human condition and dispel the cynicism of Ecclesiastes. But it does give me hope. Hope that just as I have waited all my life for the Jetsons to move from fantasy to reality, so too might other things that seem impossible suddenly become possible. What if, with ingenuity and collective action, other innovations or discoveries create something that actually is new under the sun?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA announced that with the aid of the James Webb telescope, scientists discovered the apparent existence of a molecule known as dimethyl sulfide in the atmosphere of an exo-planet 120 light years from Earth. The discovery is monumental because on Earth, dimethyl sulfide is only produced by living organ- isms. Imagine if we could prove that we are not alone in the universe.

Cynical Ecclesiastes would say that there is nothing about such knowledge that cures human isolation and that is sadly true. At the same time, knowing that there is life elsewhere would compel us to re-evaluate the narratives of how we came to be and the divisions we create.

If we are not alone, then our earthly bigotries become cosmically ridiculous. We could become aware that denigrating other human beings for their differences is absurd without finding proof of life on other worlds, but history shows that we won’t, not until the discovery rains down upon us.

Over the course of the last few years, we have all become survivors of a global pandemic. A new era of vaccines rained hope that we could move beyond COVID and demonstrated what we can accomplish when we are willing to devote the resources and energy needed to overcome the most dreadful adversity.

As Ecclesiastes anticipated, instead of building a standard for empathy and caring that would be new under the sun, we devolved into political gamesmanship, infecting our world with a different kind of virus that we are unwilling rather than unable to cure. Yet, the possibility, the hope that we could do it differently is tantalizingly close, and frustratingly just beyond our grasp.

Those who know me have heard me say that the thing I found to be most disappointing about the future when it arrived was the absence of flying cars. Now, the future for which I yearned for so many years might finally be here. If that can happen and the future can finally fulfill some measure of its promise, isn’t it possible that it could fulfill other promises as well? There could be peace. There could be justice. There could be freedom from oppression and bigotry.

It could be possible if we were prepared to make it so and devote the fullness of our energy to bringing these things to reality.

Those who know me also know that I struggle to believe it will happen. I share too much of Ecclesiastes’ cynicism about people’s willingness to undertake the effort necessary to create something new under the sun.

And yet, tomorrow, it could rain.

3 thoughts on “The rain…and flying cars

  1. Anonymous

    I must confess my disagreement with your article in the IJN about Kohelet. King Solomon reviewed many life choices and found them all futile. Finally in the last chapter he reviews the process (in his incredibly poetic manner) of becoming elderly and infirm. 40 years ago I thought it was frightening. Now I’m 72.

    But he ends with a piece of incredibly valuable advice that took me far too long to heed, if indeed I am heeding it today:

    “The conclusion, everything having been heard: Be in awe of Ha Shem and guard His commandments, for that is the completed person.” I don’t find that cynical.
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