On the first of February 2003, the Space Craft Columbia was at the end of its two-week shuttle into outer space. At 8.59 am, as it entered the earth’s atmosphere, it burst into flames killing all its seven crew members. Among the seven was the first Israeli astronaut, 48-year-old Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force.
Ilan’s death left a deep mark on Israeli society as did the premature death of his oldest son Asaf some six years later in 2009 in a tragic accident. He lost consciousness and his F-16A Fighter Jet crashed into the South Hebron hills while he was on a training mission.
Rona Ramon, widow of Ilan, chose to bury Asaf alongside his father’s remains at the Moshav Nahalal Cemetery in 2009 in a grave plot set aside for her. At his funeral her heartbreaking words were: “My Asaf, that’s my grave. That’s my spot. You were supposed to bury me there when I was an old and loved woman with myriads of grandkids.”
Sadly Rona Ramon never lived to be old and surrounded by grandchildren. She died at the end of last year in December 2018, just 54 years old, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, survived by her own parents and three children.
Netanyahu called Rona Ramon’s life a tragedy of biblical proportion. And it’s the biblical proportions of this tragic but inspiring tale of the Ramon family, but especially that of Ilan, that speaks to me at this Yizkor time on this most sacred of our days.
The Israel Museum explored some of these Biblical connections this year with an the exhibition titled “Through Time and Space.’’
Ilan Ramon took a few significant objects with him on his journey into space – a copy of the Declaration Of the Independence of Israel, a Kiddush cup and a small Torah scroll. This secular Jew distilled in his capsule the devastation and dream of modern Jewish History. He also intuitively grasped that these are the things אלה הדברים the very essence of Jewish identity, the secret of Jewish continuity…the focus of today, Yom Kippur.
It was no ordinary scroll that Ilan took with him; The Torah came from Yoya (Joachim) a professor of astrophysics whom he met while training. At age 13 Yoya was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where amidst the unbearable reality of the camp, he had a Bar Mitzvah ceremony conducted for him by Rabbi Shimon Dasberg. He read his portion from a miniature Torah scroll Rabbi Dasberg had managed to smuggle into the camp. At the end the rabbi –sensing that he would not survive the war – gave the scroll to Yoya, asking only that he share the story after the war.
One of the entries in Ramon’s diary (more about this later) had only three Hebrew words: בני ישראל ‘Bnei Yisrael’ and הים ‘Hayam’. Ilan had looked up the parasha, Torah portion, that would be read the Shabbat that he would be in space. It was Beshalach, the Exodus parasha, the dramatic flight from slavery to freedom culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea with that immemorial line: “The Children of Israel went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:22).
This spoke directly to Ilan: He would represent those who had lived and crossed over from Death’s other kingdom “planet Auschwitz.” He would cross the sea of space into that unchartered galactic wilderness. He would carry with him a survivor, the tiny Torah, and he would be the witness for those who didn’t make it across the sea, their remains lost but their memories preserved. And the Torah would bear testimony to the ability of the Jewish people to rise from the ashes and reach for the stars. Paradoxically this Torah never returned to earth but found its place among the scattered galaxies of an endless universe.
This Torah of Ramon with its haunted holocaust history reminds us just how painfully perilous our past has been but also that we are still here! And what a proud privilege it is to be a Jew today where despite out minute numbers and the vicious resurgence of antisemitism (that terrible image of a Jewish child in Melbourne being forced to kiss the feet of his tormentor) we continue to brighten up this dark world. “Faith sees best in the dark” said Kierkegaard. And the modern State of Israel continues in its way to light up the world with its fiery scroll of independence, initiative, innovation and boldness. We’re here – meer zinen dor – and we’re here to stay.
At Rona’s funeral President Rivlin lamented: “We will never forget how you built out of the ruins, how you endowed your infinite pain with meaning,”– Rona had become a grief counsellor and established a foundation to inspire students about space, science and technology. She once said: “Only by directly facing it could I cope.” And this has always been the Jewish answer to loss and tragedy – to face it and to fight it and to assert -I’m still here I’m still standing!
It’s an especially important message in an age of depression, anxiety and loneliness when many men especially, but not exclusively, are driven into mental illness and suicide; good men like Danny Frawley. We need to ensure that men can find the words and the courage to express their sadness and sorrow, their pain and their bewilderment, to endow their pain with meaning.
It’s well known that the best antidote to general depression is connection, getting out there and doing something for others, escaping the prison of self through the liberation of others. That’s what Rona did when despair was the easiest option.
The Kiddush cup Ramon took, is of course, all about Shabbat and family. When I think of my Dad and hold his or my grandfather’s kiddush becher I am reminded of my place in this remarkable line of Shabbos lovers, how the more they kept Shabbat, the more it kept them safe, proud and positive. I am transported back and tightly bound to my remarkable matriarchs and patriarchs. Our Friday nights hold my family close as I am sure it nestles yours. Even if you don’t observe Shabbat fully you can still adopt other elements of it into your life. It’s not all or nothing but something.
At the heart of the exhibition in Jerusalem is a remarkable feature – the diary of Ilan Ramon. Eight pages of this diary miraculously survived the explosion of the space shuttle, a 38 mile fall to the earth and two months of exposure on a field in Texas. Some had the writing washed out, some pieces were crumpled, some partially shredded with tiny irregular notes, others were stuck together. Through an intensive process of decryption, experts were able to reconstruct them. And magically, the voice of the first Israeli astronaut speaks to us through the fragmented letters and words of his personal diary.
From these damaged pages you sense the wonderment of Ilan Ramon when witnessing the rising sun and moon; from these pages spring hugely dramatic lightning storms, the marvel of the thin delicate atmosphere surrounding the earth. As he wrote: “It is amazing to be in space, to float in the air, and to view the earth from the edge of the world.” Ilan’s words remind me of the poem of the Second World War pilot:
“I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter – silvered wings; …I’ve trod
The high trespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.‘’
On Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol entered his own time capsule called Holy of Holies and there in that liminal place he too reached out and brushed up against eternity, the awesome face of God Himself. On Yom Kippur each of us is a Kohen Gadol capable of rising to our best selves, leaving behind the dashed, broken promises of the past year, reshaping ourselves, ascending higher and higher, Leyla Uleyla…
The Museum exhibition combined Ramon’s writings together with the Dead Sea, Enoch Scroll, one of Judaism’s oldest spiritual treasures. Chanoch or Enoch is a mysterious figure listed as the seventh generation in Genesis (Chapter 5) and the only one “who walked with God” and did not die like the other people:
ויתהלך חנוך את אלוהים
ואיננו כי לקח אותו אלהים
“And he was no more for God took him”
That’s all the Bible tells us about him.
Jewish writings, however, expand upon the figure of Enoch, describing him as a wise man, scribe, priest and knower of mysteries.
They describe his ascent to the heavens, where secrets and incredible sights were revealed to him: the heavenly temple, luminaries, angels and hidden worlds and it is these experiences that award Enoch the title of humanity’s first “astronaut.”
Both Ramon and Chanoch describe their journeys through the cosmos, one at the dawn of history and one in the modern era. ”So I, Enoch, saw the vision of the end of everything alone; and none among human beings will see as I have seen” (1 Enoch 19:3). These words were echoed by Ramon: “It is like something…that only a few got to experience.”
The remnants of the Enoch scroll were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, hidden in the desert 2000 years until their discovery a few decades ago. They like the space diary survived the harsh physical conditions against all odds. Something like the Jewish story itself…
Both Chanoch and Ramon remind us of the tragedy of transience, just how evanescent are the days of our life, that passing shadow of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, but both also are an indication and intimation of the need to preserve and enhance our “radical amazement” (Heschel) with the sheer wonder of life and living; the need to be fully present, traverse today to its furthest boundaries; enjoy the challenge and yes the strife of everyday life. We may not all be space travellers but we can all travel the moment, we may not all conquer outer space but we can all capture inner space…
There’s been an email circulating claiming to be Steve Job’s final words. This has been discounted but the words themselves are a powerful reminder of using time wisely:
At this moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realise that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death. You can employ someone to drive the car for you, but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you. Material things lost can be found or replaced. But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost – life. Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends. Treat yourself well and cherish others… your inner happiness does not come from the material things. Whether you fly first class or economy if the plane goes down – you go down with it. Educate your children to be happy so when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price of them …You are loved when you are born. You will hopefully be loved when you die. In between you have to manage!
Today at this Yizkor time when we recall our loved ones, those who have stepped on the road ahead of us, those who have gone through the door of mystery and wonder into infinite space, Dads and Mums and Zeidas and Bubba, uncles and aunts, sons and daughters and dear departed friends members of this Shule whose souls are painfully absent. Like Chanoch we can say איננו כי לקח אתכם אלוהים ‘You are no more, but like him, we know God may have taken you, but you are in the stars and in our hearts’. As long as we are alive and live our Judaism to its fullest, remembering our connection to the Torah and Shabbat and Israel and our past, you will continue to live כי הצבור לא מת And the people of Israel will not die. We are here, we are alive and we are going to embrace this new year with energy, integrity conviction and pride….