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Parshas Terumah (5774)

What Ilan Ramon Taught Us All

This Thursday (29 Shevat) marked the 11th yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) of Israelís beloved astronaut Ilan Ramon, of blessed memory, who perished on board the space shuttle Columbia.

Ilan Ramon was a secular-oriented Jew, yet he sanctified the Divine Name through some of his public statements and deeds. During a period when a strident secular party in Israel was demanding that the Jewish state and its institutions no longer publicly honor the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish traditions, Ilan Ramon told the Israeli public that as a representative of the Jewish state, he would attempt to honor the Shabbos in a symbolic way while on the flight. He consulted with Orthodox and Chassidic rabbis about how most properly to do so.

He also asked for and received kosher food, with the full cooperation of NASA.

By doing so, he conveyed a message to the Jews of Israel that, regardless of their personal beliefs and practices, they should remember that the Jewish spiritual heritage unites us and is worthy of public respect.

In one interview, he said: "We have to find a way to bring our people closer together, to show more patience and understanding. I hope that my eating kosher will send a message of willingness to do so."

In his first live, on-camera comments to Israel, Ramon added: "I think it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean historical and religious traditions."

On his first Shabbos on board the Columbia - the Rabbis told him to observe it according to the calendar at the Cape Kennedy launching site - Ilan Ramon became the first Jew in history to recite kiddush in outer space. Since the lack of gravity made it impossible to pour the wine into a cup, the Rabbis told him it would be acceptable for him to leave the wine in the bottle and drink from a straw.

In a letter sent from space to (then) President Moshe Katsav, written on January 26, his 14th day on the shuttle, Ilan described some of his experiences: the training period, his joy at finally lifting off, and his feelings as he flew over Israel. He related that he saw Jerusalem clearly, and while gazing at the capital he recited the words of the Shema: "Hear O Israel, the L-rd, our G-d, the L-rd is One."

What was it that had such a profound impact on Ilan Ramon that although he grew up and lived quite the secular life, when up in space aboard the space shuttle he was so moved to eat only kosher, observe the Sabbath, and feel the importance of preserving the Jewish peopleís religious traditions? I believe the answer is that when a person is high up in the sky looking down at the earth below, one gains a whole different perspective on life and on whatís important and what isnít. Somehow, things which we thought were so essential and necessary in our lives Ė be it the new house, the Lexus, the corner office, vacation in the Bahamas, etc. Ė seem far less significant when looking down upon them from Outer Space.

Maybe itís because when weíre up in space we can get a glimpse of what itís like to view the world from G-dís vantage point. And from where G-d is sitting, He can see clearly how we human beings spend so much of our precious little time here on earth running after such small and unimportant things and getting involved in such petty pursuits.

With the proper perspective afforded to an astronaut up in space, Ilan Ramon was able to see with clarity that Shabbos, kosher and other religious and spiritual traditions have ultimate meaning and are indeed worth pursuing in life, even as we pursue our physical and material needs at the same time.

It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that the neshamah (soul) is eternal and that we live on in Olam Haba (the World to Come) long after our physical bodies are gone and returned to the earth from whence they came. This means that our beloved hero Ilan Ramonís neshamah is now sitting with G-d in a Higher World that is even higher than Outer Space.

One day - hopefully after 120 years in good health - we will all join Ilan up in Olam Haba, and there we too will be able to gain the proper perspective on life that Ilan merited to see during his relatively short time on the planet Ė but by then it might be too late.

May G-d help us to gain the clarity we need right now here on earth in order to live spiritually meaningful lives. Amen.


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