There was a petite news blip I heard some time over the past week, nestled into the din about the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, that caught my attention. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN orbiter, a NASA project, is supposed to take off on November 18. But as NASA has been mothballed, along with a whole bunch of other “non-essential” government agencies as part of the shutdown, it seemed the the program would miss its window of proper alignment between Earth and Mars. The next window will not arrive until 2016.
Congress, however, managed to create an exception for the program, which is generally referred to by its acronym, “MAVEN.” And so, the MAVEN will indeed be blasting off on-schedule.
To anybody who is familiar with common Eastern European-American Jewish culture, the word “maven” (or, according to its official YIVO Institute transliteration, meyvn) lands on our ears with a knowing wink. It comes from Hebrew, meivin (accent on the second syllable), via Yiddish. There is a sarcastic sense about this word: a “maven” is somebody who thinks he knows a lot.
In modern Hebrew, the common phrase, “hameivin yavin,” literally means, “the one who understands will understand.” It’s a way of saying, “I’m not saying something explicitly, but those who can read between the lines will get what I’m saying.” In other words, something said with a wink for those who are in the know. Those who are in the know are having a good chuckle over the name of this particular NASA program.
But in a greater sense, the idea of this maven headed off toward Mars offers an ounce or two of inspiration. As a reminder of why we pay taxes that fund such government programs, MAVEN will be blasting off to continue the ongoing human project of understanding Creation and our role within it. But also, the mission and its Yiddish/Hebrew nickname offer a reminder that it is our obligation to seek understanding throughout our lives: understanding of ourselves, understanding of others, so that we may continue to build relationships and repair the world.