A Devar Torah Up, Up, and Oy Vey!
By Rabbi Rafi Rank
I've met a few space cadets in Hebrew School before, but Colonel Ilan Ramon is the real thing. Not a space cadet per se, but a real, live, astronaut, a Jew, and an Israeli. And since blasting off into space yesterday on the Shuttle Columbia, he is officially the first Israeli in space. The rumor that he is going to build a second space station because he is unhappy with the first, is not true!
What is true is that Colonel Ramon is an Israeli air force pilot, has clocked over 3,000 hours on the A-4, Mirage III-C, and F-4 fighter jets, and over 1,000 hours on the F-16. He has been decorated with honor for the roles he played in both the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. He is among the pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor back in 1981.
More importantly, he is married and has four children. Ramon's scientific mission will include a study of how desert dust and other contaminants in Earth's atmosphere impact on rainfall and temperature. This information is, of course, of great importance to Israel. But there is a second mission that Colonel Ramon will fulfill.
His mother is a survivor of Auschwitz. Colonel Ramon has carried with him into space a small pencil drawing entitled "Moon Landscape," the work of Peter Ginz, who imagined what the earth might look like if one were on the moon. What makes the drawing unique is that Ginz drew it at the age of 14 while incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. He also carries with him some mezuzot and a credit card size bible on microfiche, given to him by President Moshe Katsav.
Colonel Ramon describes himself as a secular Jew, but for the mission, he has requested only kosher food and intends to observe Shabbat to the extent that it does not compromise any of the experiments he is monitoring. Although it is true that a Shuttle Shabbat could come on rather frequently-the astronauts do see 17 sundowns every 24 hour period-the rabbis he consulted with felt that in space, one observes Shabbat as it unfolds on earth, specifically as it would occur at mission control or more specifically, Houston.
Colonel Ramon did not have to go to any lengths to promote his Jewishness on this trip. He is secular and therefore did not have to request kosher food, or consider Shabbat, or carry any mezuzot into space or connect himself with his family's past history. But he chose to do so willingly and in that choice, he empowers us to do the same. As Conservative Jews, we live in two worlds, one very ancient and one very modern. The two worlds challenge each other, but they need not contradict each other. When we reject the contemporary world for the ancient one, we can easily become isolated, right-wing, ultra-Orthodox Jews. But when we reject the ancient world for the contemporary one, we lose our Jewishness, and that is a sin.
On this trip, Colonel Ramon has embraced both worlds. That's a challenge to us and model for us. Thank you Colonel Ramon. Go in peace, return in peace, and by you may Houston have no problems.
Rafi Rank is Rabbi of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, NY as well as Vice President of the International Rabbinical Assembly
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