The Jew and the Martian: Bring Him Home!

The MartianBy Rivy Poupko Kletenik

When the option to watch the Oscar-nominated film, “The Martian,” slid across the seatback screen during a recent flight, my first thought was it would make a decent dent in the 330-minute, middle-seat flight to Seattle.

What I got was way more than simple distraction. I was transfixed by the science, the story and the gripping humanity of it all. I love this film. And when I love something it usually comes with a Jewish angle. So here it is:

Five Lessons for the Jewish Community from Ridley Scott’s “The Martian”

1. No need for a spoiler alert; by now we all know that the basic plot from the 2011 book by Andy Weir involves getting the Matt Damon character, astronaut Mark Watney, back from being stranded on Mars. The solution involves oodles of intense brainy strategies, audacious calculating and uncompromising grit. These people are rocket scientists. Here’s the dialogue that hit me in the gut:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

Let’s take this as our Jewish mandate – we must “get to come home.” We must get our community engaged, more children in all of our schools, more families in our houses of worship, and more resources to support them. We deeply believe that Judaism matters – matters enough for us to devote our lives to its continuity – it is our meaning, our identity and our destiny. We are smart. We can do this.

2. What will it take? If we really believe that every life lived Jewishly is of inestimable worth, we would, “leave no one on Mars.” In real life it would have cost about $200 billion to get Watney home – that’s a lot even by movie standards.

Passion and intensity driving this expense could have been scripted by the sages of the Talmud. “Save a life – save a world” – such is the deeply engrained immeasurable value of life in our tradition.

How about if we claim some of that determination and perspicacity for ourselves? What would it look like if we put our best and our brightest in a room to tackle our communal challenges in a setup that embraces the immediacy of our needs?

You see, we’ve got folks stuck on Mars and if we do not summon all of our resources and our smarts – they will vaporize. There have been summits and conferences. There have been think tanks and fellowships. But I fear that there has been not enough heat. Or desperation. There has been coolheaded measured initiatives, with some naysayers and a few undermining elements hovering about. In this endeavor there is no space for cynicism and no room for disunity.

3. The fretting head of NASA, Theodore Sanders is the only unheroic character in the film. A cynical leader, hemming and hawing, weighing constraints of budget, risks, public relations, spin, pulling back, then going forward when it ultimately suits the organization’s needs. He engages in hand wringing rather than supporting the focus on the human life hanging by a thread. He finally comes around once the majority successfully holds sway. It never feels like he is quite convinced. But his team is terrific. Here’s to generative leadership – oh, and to leaders with skin in the game.

4. As in Melissa Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, the geologist and mission commander who mistakenly assumes that Watney is dead and gives the command to depart from Mars. Upon learning that he is alive, she selflessly leads the crew to agree to slingshot themselves towards Mars for the ultimate daring rescue. It involves a dramatic and lengthy extension of their mission and a threat to safety.

Cue to Talmudic Sage Resh Lakish, who asserts that Torah will only be firmly established when the dedication to it comes with life’s sacrifice. It is not without hesitation that I, in this day and age of “life balance” proselytization, advocate for sacrifice. It would be delusional to expect to see Jewish hopes and dreams realized without some degree of sacrifice. Acts of selflessness come in many flavors. Being prepared to go beyond must be the baseline.

5. Did you notice there are no gossipy side scenes in the storyline? No whispering in the coffee-room. The single-minded supportive teamwork is dreamy. The pulling together, the camaraderie, the mutual coaching and encouragement – is this kind of workplace ethic achievable in the Jewish world? And did you notice that none of the brainiacs were trying to promote themselves over others? They were truly working together.

It is sad; my only go-to Jewish reference for this level of chimeric activity would be the building of the Mishkan in the desert. The Israelites all pitched in together, pairing skilled know-how with abundant generosity. That Tabernacle got built and sure enough the Clouds of Glory were drawn down to earth. This is what it takes to build a sacred space for the Divine and to bring back that precious soul from the Red Planet – unity of spirit.

What would it look like if we were all on the same team, with the same mission? Are we at such a place that we cannot even imagine such a unifying sense of purpose and immediacy? I hope not.

Rivy Poupko Kletenik is Head of School at Seattle Hebrew Academy.