S P E C I A L S

February 2, 2003 30 Shevat 5763

Reaching for the Stars
The Israeli Dimension of the Columbia Tragedy

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
The Color of HeavenArtscroll
One of the great tragedies of life is that it takes a tragedy to bring people’s hearts together.

The hearts of all Israelis, Americans and people of good will everywhere, go out to the families of the seven astronauts who lost their lives in the tragedy of the “Columbia” crash shortly before it was to return to earth. When the grief is so fresh it is not yet the time to renew the great debate on the wisdom of a grandiose scientific project that has claimed so many lives over the past half century and consumed so many billions of dollars. It is, however, a time for serious reflection on the limitations of human technology that should move a person closer to an awesome appreciation of his Creator.

For Israelis and for Jews everywhere there is a special dimension to this tragedy because one of its victims was Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to participate in such a space flight. Ramon was an Israel Air Force hero, one of those who led the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor two decades ago. But he will best be remembered for the pride he showed in his religion on this, his last flight.

Although not an observant Jew, Ramon felt a responsibility, as the representative of the Jewish People and the Jewish State, to demonstrate his Jewishness. He arranged with NASA to be relieved on Shabbat from the special experimental duties assigned to him, and arranged to be supplied with kosher food. In a conversation from the shuttle with Israeli President Katsav he mentioned that when the “Columbia” passed over Jerusalem he declared his faith in his Creator by proclaiming “Shma Yisrael”.

There is a touching footnote to the story. One of the items that Ramon took along with him as an expression of his Jewishness was a tiny Sefer Torah given to him by Prof. Yosef Yehoyachin, an Israeli scientist who initiated an experiment Ramon carried out in outer space. This was the Sefer Torah that served Holocaust survivor Yehoyachin in preparing for his Bar Mitzvah in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. He had received it from a fellow prisoner, the chief rabbi of Holland, who charged him with the mission of surviving and telling the story.

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