February 3, 2003

This past Shabbat another profound tragedy struck the United States and Israel simultaneously. The Columbia, the first built and oldest space shuttle, disintegrated upon reentry at the tail-end of its mission, only minutes before the planned conclusion of its flight.

When the news spread in our community it left many feeling as though a personal tragedy had occurred. The services were somber and downcast. How could such a thing happen? Had NASA not made the progress necessary to preclude another shuttle catastrophe since the destruction of the Challenger almost 17 years ago to the day? Adding to the tragedy is the terrible admission that many of us immediately thought that this, too, was some sort of terrorist attack. The mere fact that this possibility was considered shows us how sickly today's reality has become.

This time, the feelings of sadness were compounded by the fact that the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was amongst the dead. If such a thing were possible, our grief became even deeper. Ilan Ramon was not just a Jewish Israeli who happened to be an astronaut. He was a proud Jew. His father fought in Israel's War of Independence. His mother was a survivor of the Holocaust, as was the Torah he had taken along with him on this flight.

Ramon himself was a military hero for his beloved Israel. He had fought in the Yom Kippur War. He was one of the eight fighter pilots who had destroyed the French-built Iraqi nuclear facility in the early 80's. He was a husband and the father of four children. He was the first Israeli astronaut, and the first to mark Shabbat and request Kosher meals for his mission.

The sermon of the day had to be discarded. At such times people ask, "Why?" and a discussion of the events, and perhaps a life-lesson, had to be found. What can we learn from this tragedy?

The first question that formed in many people's minds was, "Why does this tragedy seem to strike a deeper chord within us than the nearly continuous catastrophes that seem to be happening with unnerving regularity in the world today (and specifically in the Jewish world)?"

There are several possible answers to this question. The Challenger accident not withstanding, we have come to take space shuttle missions for granted. In the same way that we have come to take life itself for granted. We forget the millions of details that go into a successful space flight. Nothing is too small or inconsequential when one deals with an endeavor of this complexity. There is no room for error, mechanical or human; there are no second chances. We have come to expect that everything will go smoothly. We forget the risks.

Of course, there are those whose entire job is to seek out weaknesses in the system and to envision every possible scenario as to avoid this type of occurrence. But at the end of the day we are only human. Even the incredible machines we build have flaws in them. They must, for they are conceived and built by human beings who are by definition flawed. This realization is invaluable. Grasping our own fallible nature is the first and most important step to humility. Humility is a key component of a wholesome human being.

What else can we learn from this event? That a human's grasp on life is tenuous. None of us know when our time is up. We can take every conceivable precaution, but even such an approach does not negate the possibility of a sudden death at any time. This reinforces the fact that we must make optimal use of every moment of every day. We must approach every day as though it is our last.

This is not a new concept. In the Ethics of the Fathers we are taught that a person should "repent one day before your death." The obvious question is asked: but how does one know which day he or she is to die? And the answer is: that is why we must repent every day, because indeed we do not know the day we are destined to die.

President Bush put it succinctly and beautifully when he quoted the Prophet Isaiah: "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." President Bush continued in his own words, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home. May G‑d bless the grieving families, and may G‑d continue to bless America."