click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Join 400,000 Aish subscribers
Get Email Updates




Message in the Sky

Message in the Sky

When the unthinkable happens.

by

I don't remember much of the blurred watercolor of my childhood, but that day is indelibly marked in my memory.

"You know kids, there's a shuttle lift-off at Cape Canaveral today," my father said. We groaned. We were on a rather hyped up trip to Disneyworld, one that my family had waited years to take. Disney, Epcot, MGM -- the world of fairy tale entertainment held no boundaries for us that week. For us three sisters, with me, then 12, the eldest, the space center wasn't much of a contender. But Daddy was always a fabulous educator, even on vacation.

"Okay kids!" my parents said excitedly. "Let's go to the Kennedy Space Center!" We drove down a long highway lined with yellow fields. It was January 28, 1986.

"Are you ready for take-off?" a voice asked into a microphone.

"We sure are," one of the astronauts answered on the broadcast system set up near the spectators.

 

I wondered which voice belonged to Christa McAuliffe.

 

I listened to the voices of the astronauts as I stood by the water's edge, peering into the infinite sky, imagining myself hurling through space on a rocket-ship. I had goose bumps.

"Rocket launchers ready?"

"Over."

I wondered which voice belonged to Christa McAuliffe. I had read all about her in my weekly reader at school. She was to be the first teacher in space. We had seen pictures of her training, floating in a weightless chamber. I craned my neck to see if I could find her family, but even my tiptoes didn't help. I could only see the spacecraft, mammoth and lonesome on a small island in the middle of the water.

"10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1" The water was blue and the sky even bluer as the shuttle lifted off, leaving behind smoke like clouds of wadded cotton. The crowd cheered. My father smiled and clapped as he listened to the radio through his headphones. I saw a burst of orange on the right side of the craft.

"What was that?" I asked my father nervously.

"Just the rocket launcher separating," my father replied calmly.

Then there was another burst of orange, and two plumes of smoke arching through the air like flower petals. Then nothing.

"What happened?" I asked. My father fiddled nervously with his radio and everyone around began speaking in hushed tones, pointing, wondering.

"There seems to be a problem," my father said. He looked at my mother and squeezed my hand.

"This can't be." I heard one woman say. "No, impossible. There must be some sort of a mistake." But the unthinkable had happened. The Challenger had exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board.

I looked up, shielding my eyes, waiting to see some sign of life, but I could only see straggly lines of smoke falling like a newly hatched firecracker. I imagined Christa McAuliffe floating in the weightless sky as my mouth clenched with fear.

"Do you think the debris might fall on us?" I asked. I wondered where the astronauts were now.

The crowd dispersed amidst somber tones, some crying or leaning on each other for support.

"What happened?" my sisters asked.

"A very unfortunate thing happened sweetie," my father answered. We peppered our parents with questions, but what could they say? Eventually, we got back into our rental car.

"Come on kids," my father said with forced cheer. "Let's go to Disneyworld."

My sisters, ages six and seven, were able to move on rather quickly. I sat in the back seat, holding my stomach as it clenched and unclenched. I just heard their voices, I thought. How could this have happened?

I can still taste the feeling of walking around Disneyworld in a trance, watching the throngs picking off snatches of the pink cotton candy of life, while I had just returned from a bleak pit in history just miles away. How, I wondered, could people move on so quickly? How could they smile and laugh in the face of such gruesomeness?

I rationalized to myself that these people did not have relatives aboard the craft. And they had not been there to see its disintegration. They were not haunted as I was by the cheerful sounds of the astronaut's voices moments before their collective demise. And so perhaps they were justified in their oblivion.

But there was something deeper at stake here.

When the children of Israel were taken out of Egypt and the Egyptians were drowning in the sea behind them, the Angels lifted up their voices and sang a song to God. The Medrash says that God rebuked them for their behavior. "My creatures are suffering and you sing songs?"

 

Some small part of us should be wondering, "What does this mean to me?"

 

Catastrophes don't happen in a vacuum. We are all affected by them. If we bear witness to the suffering of God's creatures, some small part of us should take issue with blithely prancing through Disney a few miles away. Some small part of us should be wondering, "What does this mean to me?"

And as the 12-year-old me rode through Peter Pan's fantasy, I wondered, Why was I such an intimate witness to this tragedy? What am I meant to take out of this experience? Since I was there, I must be obligated to give more than just a moment of silence. It was a deeply disturbing thought, as I had no idea what to do.

Life in this world is a multileveled experience, every physical experience reflecting a spiritually proportionate message. There are spiritual messages dangling all around us; all we have to do is reach our hands up and pluck them off the tree.

But we are sometimes too busy in Disneyworld to pay attention to the cues. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller teaches, we are all often afflicted with the "Pass the Salt" syndrome. Imagine a dinner table:

"Can you believe it about the bomb in the school down the block?"

"Yeah. I heard the explosion all the way here. Crazy that there was nobody in the school at that moment. Five minutes later and it would have been a disaster."

"Whew. Yeah. Could you please pass the salt?"

'Pass the Salt' is how we pass the buck on spiritual change.

But what if we decided to take it one step further?

I witnessed something inspiring, difficult, cataclysmic -- and there is a message in this for me. Maybe I should be more grateful for my own life? Maybe I need to appreciate the people in my life more? Maybe there is a change in me that is begging to be made?

The way that we react to the awesome things that happen in the world around us, speaks volumes about who we really are.

Witnessing the Challenger disaster was a first step for me in grasping the ephemeral nature of life. It was a difficult and distressing topic to assimilate, but it was the beginning of a quest which led me to more intense religious commitment. I couldn't shut it out of my mind and I'm glad that I didn't.

When the world around us seems chaotic, let's open up our eyes really wide. We may just see the writing on the wall that was meant just for us. After all, life can provide a whole lot of flavor even without the salt.

 

Published: February 2, 2008


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 16

(16) naomi, February 10, 2008 6:53 AM

Challenger

So much hope gone in seconds.So much pain lasting so long. Life is precious. Savour and appreciate every minute. Great article.

(15) Gary Katz, February 9, 2008 5:34 PM

Could've been avoided

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the Challenger disaster. I also remember that it came out later that an engineer at Morton Thiokol had warned his superiors that the O-rings could fail below certain outside temperatures (because they become brittle). He was ignored, the Challenger lifted off in cold temperature, and an O-ring failed, causing the explosion. A tragedy is terrible. A tragedy that could have been avoided is...something worse than terrible.

(14) Anonymous, February 7, 2008 4:11 AM

i was so moved by your article, i just had to write and let you know how much it affected me. I didn't see the rocketship go up in smoke but when i was a teenager i had the misfortune of living several years in the dominican republic during the Trujillo dictatorship. people were constantly disappearing and we lived in literal terror.then my uncle disappeared too. and we left the country forever. but that experience never left me. two summers ago we were in israel and the war started just a few days after we arrived and all the terror of my youth came to my mind and heart when we arrived in tiberias and the town was empty and we could hear the bombing in the distance. But this time, i was in ERETS ISRAEL and i was an older woman and I had begun a return journey to find spiritual roots, do teshuvah.

what i find as i walk away from those sad memories of tragedy and massacre is that unless you have a personal experience that wakes your spirit, you just continue living in disneyland, Maybe one day i'll hopefully find an article about the most serious of tragedies going on in the world. far worse than all te bombs and all the massacres. i'm talking about how cruelly we treat one another. i mean women against women, how aggressive we are all the time. all the power trips and all the ego trips and all the meaness. each day you have to take a stand for yourself and in defense of others and it isn't defending people a foreign hate machine, it is defending people from our own people. how rude and cruel can we continue to be? where is kindness gone? is it all talk?
many braxot and may kindness come your way,

(13) Anonymous, February 7, 2008 4:09 AM

DEAR YAEL,

YOUR ARTICLE HAS BROUGHT FRESH TEARS TO MY EYES FOR TWO REASONS.THE FIRST REASON IS THAT I RECALL THE TRAGEDY AS I HAVE BEEN WATCHING IT ON T.V. DURING A BUSINESS TRIP, AND MY THOUGHTS WENT DIRECTLY TO THE FAMILY OF THE ASTRONAUTS AND TO MY OWN FAMILY (FAR-AWAY FROM ME AT THIS MOMENT.)...BUT I HAD THE SAME DEEP FEELING THAT YOU HAVE RESSENTED AT THIS VERY MOMENT.HOW THE WORLD CAN CARRY ON ?
THE SECOND REASON IS VERY INTIMATE AND STILL BURNING,WHEN I LOST MY SON DAVID AT THE AGE OF 19 YEARS.AND THE SAME QUESTION WAS COMING BACK TO ME "HOW THE WORLD CAN KEEP CONTINUING ? WHY THE END OF THE WORLD IS NOT HAPPENING RIGHT NOW ? "
AFTER ALMOST EIGHT YEARS OF MOURNING AFTER DAVID (AND STILL REMENBERING HIM AT EVERY MOMENT OF MY LIFE,EVEN DURING MY SLEEP WHEN HE WILL COME TO VISIT ME) I COME TO THE SAME CONSIDERATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS AS YOU DO:
SOMETIMES, MAYBE ALWAYS, "GOD "WANTS US TO WITNESS AND TO LIVE VERY HARD EXPERIENCES IN ORDER FOR US TO PURIFY OUR SOULS....ALLOW ME TO REMEMBER TOGETHER THE EXPERIENCE OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE IN THE DESERT AND MORE RECENTLY THE SHOAH.
I HOPE THAT I DID NOT BOTHER YOU,
I WILL BE EAGER TO READ MORE AND MORE OF YOUR ARTICLES,


(12) Chana Zelasko, February 5, 2008 1:50 PM

I remember

This article brought back similar memories of something that happened probably before you were born. November 22, 1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was 14 years old and in 9th grade. I remember the sadness that enveloped our junior high school when the principal told us what had happened that Thursday afternoon. But the whole irony was that Kennedy and his family were such Jew haters. Most of my junior high school was Jewish, albeit not religious. When I think how many tears we (and other Jews) shed over Kennedy it is unbelievable.
Also, I believe one of the astronauts in this tragedy was a Jewish girl.
May we only know "Besoros Tovos".

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub
Sign up today!