Q. Can Jews learn anything from the tragedy of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane?
A. The search for the missing aircraft raises countless problems including some halachic issues. The Hallel psalms tell us clearly, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord: the earth He has given to human beings” (Psalm 115:16), which seems to regard human movement through the skies as defying God and encroaching on His territory like the builders of Babel (Gen. 11). But even in Biblical times a different view prevailed; Psalm 139:8 speaks about ascending to the skies.
Today the motivation of air travel is not theological effrontery but using a quick way to get from point to point. Not only does this assist human beings in enriching their lives but it gives them more opportunities to perform mitzvot.
Air travel was far from practicable in ancient days; Maimonides already points out in the 12th century, “the theoretical sciences were deficient in those days” (Moreh N’vuchim 3:14). It was far from safe, and there were and are clear halachic rulings against placing oneself in a risky situation. Now, despite the Malaysian Airlines occurrence, air travel has become one of the safest means of transport, and sophisticated technology enhances its reliability and safety.
For Jews, travelling by air adds to one’s spirituality: it helps us to understand and appreciate the grandeur of the Divine Creation and to recognise the wisdom of the Psalmist, who said, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:2). It also reminds us to acknowledge the need for Divine protection: the Psalmist says of the skies, “Even there does Your hand guide me” (Psalm 139:8-10).