February 3, 2003

Usually, a person dies, and then their soul shines down on us from heaven. It is rare that a spirit shines down on us from heaven, and then dies.

Ilan Ramon was one such rare soul. As Israel's first astronaut, he succeeded in lifting an entire people into space along with him.

"I think that the people of Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole, are a wonderful people," Ramon said, in an interview from outer space. Viewing himself as a "representative of all the Jewish community," Ramon sent NASA hunting for certified kosher food to put in thermostabilized sealed pouches, as he insisted on eating only kosher during his 16-day space mission. "It is very, very important," he continued in the interview, "to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean historical and religious traditions."

Word that "Columbia is lost," along with its precious crew, troubled me on two accounts. It troubled me because it was the most devastating piece of news I have heard in a long time. And it troubled me that it was the most devastating piece of news I have heard in a long time.

Since the outbreak of the second Intifada in September of 2000, 742 innocent people have been murdered in Israel at the hands of ruthless terrorists. Each one of these victims was a star. Each one of these men, women and children reflected the image of G‑d, much as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

On October 21, 2002, Ilona Hanukayev, age 20, of Hadera, was one of 14 persons killed when a bus was blown up in a suicide attack by a terrorist driving an explosives-laden jeep near the Karkur junction. On November 21, 2002, Ilan Perlman, age 8, of Jerusalem, was one of 11 people killed in a suicide bombing on a No. 20 Egged bus in the Kiryat Menahem neighborhood of Jerusalem. So why was it only the loss of Ilan Ramon, along with the six crewmembers he considered family, that truly shook me up? Why are we so taken aback by the disintegration of a Space Shuttle at 200,000 feet, while the explosion of a city bus on a busy city street is somehow considered tolerable?

Sadly I reached the conclusion that as the terrorists rob their victims of life and limb, they have deprived many of us of our ability to truly grieve. The incessant senselessness has left us desensitized.

But with the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, something changed. When I heard the news of the shuttle’s disastrous end, I was suddenly paralyzed by pain; I felt all blood drain from my face as tears welled up in my eyes.

So Ilan, from the bottom of my heart, I say Todah! Thank you for a lifetime of sweet service to your people, for your boundless Jewish pride that makes me proud to be a Jew. And thank you for reminding me how much pain I ought to feel whenever I learn of the unfortunate destruction of human life.