At 6pm Indian time on Wednesday 23 August, the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft’s Vikram lander landed near the moon’s south pole. According to the Indian government, this success will usher in a new era of investment in India as a country now proven capable of providing private space launches and encouraging satellite-based businesses. At watch parties throughout India, a good proportion of its population of 1.5 billion (20 percent of the people on Earth) celebrated.
Just a week before, while Charayaan-3 was orbiting the earth, Bindeshwar Pathak died, aged 80. Pathak represented the other side of India. Throughout his life, he campaigned for hygienic toilets to be installed throughout the country to replace using the open fields and gutters. By 2020, just over 110 million toilets in his water-efficient design had been installed across India. Through his efforts, close to 200,000 women have been liberated from the drudgery and social shunning resulting from dealing with other people’s waste.
Should a country that is dealing with such basic inequalities and where grinding poverty is endemic be involved with high-tech grandstanding such as sending rockets into space? Our Torah is very sanguine about the problem. The Book of Deuteronomy sets out a vision of a decent society which is to be in the Promised Land. It talks about building cities, houses, and farms. It sets out the promise of prosperity. But it also recognises something that it sees as inevitable: “There will never cease to be poor people in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) Immediately we are given the remedy: “Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”
A Jewish society plans for and encourages prosperity. When Isaiah prophesies the return of the Israelites to their land after the exile in Babylonia he says: “I will bring you lasting prosperity; the wealth of the nations will flow to you like a river that never goes dry.” (Isaiah 66:12) However, he also prophesied that what God needs of us is to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.” (Isaiah 58:7)
There are many problems in Indian society, not least the discrimination and violence that many Muslims have been experiencing. But aiming for prosperity and a technologically-driven future is a perfectly valid thing to do, as long as the same energy is put into justice for the poor and needy.
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