The mind reels in disbelief as reports come in about the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle.
We in Israel have become accustomed to announcements of terror attacks. We have even attuned ourselves to hearing the nuances of seriousness in the voice of the radio announcer as he or she introduces the hourly news so that we can steel ourselves against receiving the inevitable tragic information. Particularly on Saturday night, after spending an entire Shabbat disconnected from the outside world, the first moment of the post-Shabbat news is fraught with a special kind of tension.
But nothing prepared us for this.
It was just not possible.
After 16 days of almost constant news coverage about Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, we all felt we knew him. He was family. He represented us all -- our country, our people, our past and our future. He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.
He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.
The son of Holocaust survivors, he expressed all that was characteristic of the proud Israeli Jew. As a pilot in the Israeli air force, he was a war hero who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, as well as fighting in the Yom Kippur and Lebanon Wars.
Although not religious, Ilan felt compelled to keep some significant religious observances in space to fulfill his dream of uniting the Jewish people and representing our nation. He took a book of Psalms and a picture drawn by a 14-year-old Jewish boy who was killed in Auschwitz; he ate only kosher food and made Kiddush Friday night and recited Shema Yisrael as the shuttle flew over Jerusalem.
He said he wanted to "emphasize the unity of the people of Israel and the Jewish communities abroad."
Among my friends, we spoke about him creating a Kiddush Hashem -- sanctification of God's name.
How could he be gone?
How could all our hopes and dreams disintegrate into the thin layer of atmosphere that protects the earth?
We anxiously awaited his landing, to celebrate the triumph of our new national hero. The possibility of mishap was very far from our minds.
"It's much more dangerous to drive in a car than to travel in space," Gadi said of his brother's attitude. "Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine that there would be any problem."
Ilan's father said, as he eagerly anticipated the imminent arrival of his son, "The only problem might be in the weather, and that might only delay the landing by a day or two."
The tragedy brought home to us once again the fragility of human endeavor. We are shocked when the frontiers of science and technology, in which we place our unflagging trust, reveal themselves to be so shaky and limited.
Colonel Ramon took great delight in taking a "surprise" with him to space - a Torah scroll that survived the hell of the Holocaust. The scroll symbolized for him his dream of a unified people under God, with an indomitable spirit.
That Torah scroll exploded along with Ramon and his fellow astronauts at an altitude of 200,000 feet over a Texas town called Palestine (did I hear that correctly?). It was beyond comprehension.
Our hearts and prayers are with Ilan Ramon's parents and his wife, Rona, and their four children. Our nation mourns with you -- the man, the father, the hopes, the vision, and the legacy. Unfortunately, it is in grief that we have fulfilled Ilan's dream of unity.
Ilan commented this past Thursday on what the world looked like to him in space. "The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile."
Now we can turn that comment eerily around and say to Ilan, "You looked so marvelous from down here, so peaceful, so wonderful…and so fragile."
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