The Second Day: A Pilot’s Perspective

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

The second day of Creation supplies the world with a new device never seen before: an “expanse” that separates two domains, the heavens and the waters, from one another. The original Hebrew rakia, “something that is beaten or stamped out,” is like a sheet of metal an artisan has flattened into a thin layer to divide one area from another. Portrayed here as decidedly solid, later in Genesis (7:11 and 8:2), we learn that rain can descend from the heavens through windows or sluices, offering the fascinating possibility of trans-expanse communication: water could come down, and in certain very rare instances, people could go up.

In the early days of postbiblical literature, the idea of human beings ascending to heaven to access hidden secrets was all the rage. Enoch, Elijah, Moses, and just a few other characters were granted such supernal experiences, succeeding in their desire to gain divine knowledge in a way that even the subsequent mythical Prometheus would have envied. As a rabbi and student of ancient texts, and a pilot, I admit to feeling a deep connection to these ancient ascent stories.  We moderns, who leap routinely heavenward in complex tubes of beaten metal with sophisticated machinery unimaginable to the premodern mind, are often pretty blasé about what it takes to leave the earth’s surface, climb a mile into thin air, and land a thousand miles distant.

Focus, for a moment, on the intense harmony that must be achieved by the unstintingly complex mechanism that is an aircraft; the balance between going above and returning to below. In the complexity of flight lies another expanse we must cross: the expanse of reaching for expertise. Bringing oneself squarely up against a challenging task one learns to perform is a vital part of being fully human. Flying is but one of these sorts of tasks. The truth is we become fully human when we commit our entire selves to something that is hard and worth doing, when we know our limits, and when we take pride in what we achieve.

One lesser known form of aviation is soaring, also known as gliding. In soaring, a powered aircraft tows you up from a grass runway to a few thousand feet over the airport, whereupon the engineless glider and pilot sail free to employ the air around them to remain aloft as long as possible. The harmony that results from diverse parts that function together suggests a oneness to the universe that is both human and beyond humanity, existing both below the expanse and above it at the same time. As a glider pilot, I have personally circled in rising columns of air with families of hawks, climbed over ten thousand feet in just a few minutes in strong thermal lift, and remained aloft for hours traveling miles and miles powered only by the air. To be able to understand clouds and wind, lift and sink, terrain and airflow well enough to do this makes me feel as if I have access to secret knowledge; as if I have, like an ancient, gone on an ascent to the heavens and returned with secrets that surpass regular humanity. Once one has soared, one can never quite look at clouds and the sky in the same way again. Each glance at sky above fills me with a deep and abiding sense of gratitude that God has created a world in which this is possible for mortal human beings.

For the remarkable ability to fly, with all its beautiful complexity, and for entrée to the secret knowledge of an aviator in the heavens above, I am profoundly thankful. The Creation story in Genesis reminds us, at its core, that God’s handiwork is a gift God shared with us, which implies a duty of care and an invitation to investigate. Safe inside beaten metal thousands of feet above our normal dwelling place, we effortlessly cross expanses unimaginable to our ancestors, learning and growing as we go. This gift of ascent within God’s Creation, whether literal or figurative, is one we can never fully repay.

Rabbi Aaron Panken is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.  Rabbi Panken is also President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute (HUC-JIR), North America’s first Jewish seminary, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York.