The time read 09:00:46 on September 23rd, 1999, and after almost 10 months of blazing through space, the Mars Climate Orbiter finally began its descent into the Martian atmosphere. Just the second probe in NASA’s Mars Surveyor Program, it was designed to study Mars from orbit and to serve as a communications relay for the Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space probes. A room full of scientists waited in awe for the spacecraft to reestablish contact after passing behind Mars. But the signal never came.
An investigation into the failure of the robotic space probe found that the spacecraft had missed its intended orbit by around 90 miles and crashed into the Martian atmosphere, where it disintegrated into oblivion. This massive navigational error was due to commands being sent from Earth in English units without being converted into the Metric standard. One small oversight caused a 327 million-dollar mission to fail. Because when you’re all the way at the top, minute errors can have devastating consequences.
A few thousand years ago, on the 16th of this month, the Jews stood at the gates to eternal paradise. With immortality at their fingertips and just hours away from receiving the Torah in its entirety, they awaited their leader’s descent from Mount Sinai. But instead, just hours before this ultimate crescendo, they fell from their lofty spiritual heights and worshipped the golden calf. And then it all came crashing down.
And this month of Tamuz only continues to deliver bad news. To this day, we fast on the 17th of the month for the hole that was breached in the walls of Jerusalem – a precursor to the destruction of the temple. And these are just two of the many things that went so very wrong in this month of mourning.
To understand a little more about this seemingly doomed month, we can take a look at its zodiac symbol - Cancer. The iconic crab is a creature of sharp contrasts. Soft as can be inside, yet encased in a rock-solid outer shell. Tied to the ocean, yet never far from land. Even its sideways scuttle is the effect of an imbalance caused by these opposing forces.
And this, in a nutshell, is Tammuz. With its potential for tremendous spirituality, it wavers between the forces, always one step away from the greatest heights, yet because of this also just one step away from chaos and destruction. When the stakes are high, actions have an immense effect, for good or for bad.
Throughout the millennia of history, we have yet to take that last final leap at the apex, where we ensure that our actions are as perfect as they need to be at those soaring heights. Instead, time and time again, we have come crashing down. The calf was served, the tablets smashed. The walls were breached and the daily offerings were ceased. A Torah was burnt and an idol placed in the holy Temple.
And here we are today, with our broken tablets, our ruined Temples, and the fractured shards of our hearts. But the famed Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk tells us a beautiful concept: ‘There is nothing more complete than a broken heart.’ Because it is these very broken hearts, mourning the devastation of our spiritual downfall, which will lead us to raise our heads from the shattered pieces of our dreams and rebuild better, stronger, and more perfect than before.