Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Ilan Ramon: Gone, but Not Forgotten...

On the blog "Sweet Rose", I was reminded that today NASA launched it's first manned shuttle, Discovery, since the Columbia shuttle disaster two and a half years ago.

While it's nice to see NASA and the US Space Program moving forward, I am still saddened by the loss of Ilan Ramon Z"L, Israel's 1st astronaut. In these trying times, we are sorely in need of role models of his caliber who can inspire the Jewish People today. Most likely, there will be many more space missions in the years to come, but I doubt if any shuttle, or any astronaut will be able to reach the heights of Ilan Ramon.

One of the last thoughts that Ilan shared with us was the following:
“The Jewish People have an ability to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”

Ilan, from your mouth to G-d's ears. We could really use your prayers right now.

In that spirit, I am reposting here an essay I wrote immediately following the Columbia shuttle tragedy.

The Zionist Question - Answered

From the moment the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia occurred until Ilan Ramon’s funeral yesterday, it has been a time of reflection here in Israel. Everyone, each in their own way, has experienced a wide range of emotions – from pride to sadness, all at the same time - and has tried to understand the significance of what occurred, and how it impacted them as individuals.

In my eyes, Ilan Ramon is a hero. Not simply an Israeli hero, but a Jewish hero. He is a hero, not because he was Israel’s 1st astronaut (although it’s nice to see that the Zionistic spirit of the chalutzim – pioneers – still exists today) but because he showed Israel, the Jewish people and the world what the State of Israel and the Jewish people are truly all about.

Since the founding of the State of Israel, and in the decades preceding it, leaders of the Zionist movement have long debated what the purpose / goal of having a Jewish State is. Is it to merely serve as a place of refuge for Jews in distress? A place where Jews can live “normal” lives, like citizens of other countries? Or, was the Jewish State to represent and (serve to implement) the collective dreams, traditions and beliefs of the Jewish People that have survived through thousands of years of persecution and exile?

Ilan Ramon provided the answer

Ilan’s mother was a Holocaust survivor and his father fought in Israel’s War of Independence. From the very start Ilan was imbued with both a sense of the great tragedies that had befallen the Jewish People, as well as the key to ensuring not just the survival of the Jewish People but its flourishing. Ilan, over the course of his life would demonstrate that he internalized both messages.

In 1981, Ilan helped to avert a tragedy of a great magnitude against the Jewish People, as he was one of the eight Israeli Air Force pilots who blew up Iraq’s Osiraq (near-finished) nuclear reactor. That mission was one that safeguarded lives of each and every one of the millions of Jews living in Israel. The mission that Ilan recently undertook was to help save the Jewish people again, but this time the threat was not of a physical nature. Officially, the mission was to be a scientific one – one where experiments were conducted not just for the benefit of Israel or the Jewish people but for mankind as a whole. Yet, for Ilan, this mission represented something more.

As a representative of Israel and the Jewish People Ilan requested to be provided with kosher meals while in space, as well as having asked how he could keep Shabbat in space. Keep in mind, that on Earth, Ilan was not an observant Jew, and kept neither Kashrut nor Shabbat. Ilan wasn’t finished there. Onto the shuttle he brought with him a mezuzah which he affixed to one of the doorposts in the shuttle, a Kiddush cup which he used on Shabbat, a small Torah which survived the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a drawing of a boy murdered in Auschwitz, of how Earth might look from the moon, and the national flag of Israel. While orbiting over Jerusalem, in a moment of great pride, Ilan recited “Shema Yisrael”.

In a video conference with Prime Minister Sharon, Ilan remarked that, “I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition and I mean historical and religious tradition... From space Israel looks like it does on a map: small but charming. I think we have a great people in Israel, and we have to maintain our Jewish heritage.” To which Sharon responded, “I would like to congratulate you for standing up as a Jew.”

Therein lies the answer. What made Ilan Ramon so remarkable was that everything he did was done as a Zionist, as an Israeli and, most importantly, as a Jew. Ilan Ramon was the embodiment of Jewish pride. We in Israel and Jews the world over are facing difficult challenges, whether it be the resurgence of anti-Semitism, or the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, it is not an easy thing to step back and look for the good in Israel, and what we, the Jewish People have accomplished in such a short time here in the Jewish State. Ilan also showed the world that there is more to Israel than “occupation” or suicide bombings. Indeed, Israel has something to contribute to the world, and she will do so with pride and her head held high.

There is a story told, in the Talmud Taanit, of a man who was traveling through the desert. He was weak, thirsty, hungry and tired. He miraculously came upon a tree (Ilan in Hebrew) of whose sweet fruits he partook, drank of the stream that ran beside it, and found comfort under the shade that the tree’s branches provided. When the traveler had regained his strength and was ready to continue his journey, he turned to the tree and in an effort to show his gratitude for all that the tree had done for him exclaimed, “Ilan, Ilan, bameh averechechah” (“Tree, tree, how can I bless you?”)? “I could bless you that you should have sweet fruits, but behold you already have sweet fruits. I could bless you that you should have water running beside you, but behold you already have water running beside you. I could bless you that you should have branches with which to provide shade, but behold you already have branches to provide shade. As such, I bless you that all of your offspring should be just like you”

Our Ilan has given us so much, yet how can we possibly show our appreciation. We could bless him that he should have a love of the Land of Israel, a love of the Jewish People or a love for the heritage of the Jewish People, but behold he already possessed each of these qualities. As such, what remains is for us to bless Ilan that his offspring – his family, as well as his fellow Israeli’s and all of the Jewish people – should be just like him.

While orbiting above us, Ilan offered his own observation and blessing to the Jewish People – one that should we follow his example we will all be blessed to see come to fruition. “The Jewish People have an ability to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”

Ilan has already helped us take the 1st step towards that better tomorrow.


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