"Do haredim appreciate the sacrifices made on their behalf by those who serve in the armed forces? Do they appreciate the support provided by the State, and indirectly by taxpayers, for Torah learning?" So asks a reader in response to a recent column.
I believe that the answer to those questions is yes. During the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, compared Israeli soldiers to the two martyrs of Ludkia described in the Talmud. The latter falsely confessed to murdering the daughter of a Roman governor to avoid a decree against the entire Jewish population. Of those martyrs, the Talmud says no one will be able to stand in their place in the World to Come. And the same is true, said Rabbi Shmuelevitz, of those soldiers who sacrifice themselves to save the Jewish people.
But my affirmative answer must be qualified. Do we express sufficient appreciation? No. That would be impossible.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the Mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva, taught his students that hakaras hatov (gratitude) does not just mean saying thank you when someone confers a benefit. Rather gratitude has to become a part of one’s person, permeating everything he does. To achieve that level, said Reb Yerucham, one must "keep talking like a fish wife" about everything that one receives.
Let us speak, then, of the debt owed to Ilan Ramon, may his memory be blessed. As we all know by now, he was one of the eight pilots who destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirik in 1981, and thereby set back Iraq’s nuclear program a decade or more. That mission required the eight pilots to fly their F-16s in a tightly bunched formation for nearly two hours to avoid radar detection.
As the only unmarried member of the team, Ilan volunteered to take the most dangerous sortie. He told his commander that as the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, he felt duty bound to do anything possible to avoid another Holocaust. But for the skill and courage of Ilan Ramon and his fellow pilots, not only Israel, but the whole world, would long ago have been held hostage by a nuclear-armed madman.
Ilan was one of those blessed by God with remarkable gifts: first in his high school class, first in pilot training, in the first group of ten selected to train in the F-16, first in his astronaut training cohort. He possessed the "right stuff" of Tom Wolfe’s fighter jocks. But he had none of the fighter jock’s swagger. Even at 48, the boyish charm was immediately evident in his photos, and he joked about being too short to become the basketball star he had wanted to be.
Like our greatest warrior, King David, who was also the sweet singer of Israel, Ilan was a uniquely Jewish warrior. Rather than being hardened by battle, his sensitivities only deepened. That sensitivity was evident in everything he did, great or small. Who else would have thought to take into space the T-shirt of a campaign for road safety, commenting, "Sometimes the seemingly small things get overlooked"?
He was fully alive to the complex ways in which Israeli and Jewish identity are intertwined, and knew that there can be no viable Israel identity without a Jewish identity. Speaking from space to Prime Minister Sharon, Ramon shared his feeling that "it is very, very important to preserve our historical tradition, and I mean our historical and religious traditions."
He could never have proclaimed, with Tommy Lapid, "the shopping centers are our synagogues," as if all Jewish history was only to produce a nation of consumers. And he would have been appalled by leaders who can offer youthful followers no higher goal that "to go on enjoying yourselves." Not because he did not know how to enjoy himself – his joie de vivre was obvious, but because he knew that there is much more to being a Jew than enjoying oneself.
He saw himself as member of a people with a long and glorious history. Though not personally observant, he insisted upon kosher food for the mission and asked to be relieved of executing missions on Shabbat. He felt that he was representing the entire Jewish people, and knew that Jews have always been defined by observance of Shabbat and kashrut.
"I want to bring on the mission as much as possible of the Jewish people, of the identity of the Jewish people," Ramon said. Among the personal effects he took with him into space were mezuzos, a Kiddush cup, and a tiny sefer Torah that the rabbi of Amsterdam had entrusted to the keeping of a 13-year-old boy in Bergen-Belsen. (That boy survived to become one of Israel’s top physicists and the supervisor of one of the experiments Ramon was carrying out on board.)
For Ilan Ramon that sefer Torah symbolized "the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest of days with hope and faith in the future." That vision of hope is desperately needed today when the only thing being offered our youth is hedonism in the face of despair.
THAT only a hairsbreadth separates joy from tragedy, life from death, is not a lesson in which any Jew living in Israel still needs instruction. Death, we know, lurks over the top of the hill, behind the next tree, on a bus, and in pizza parlors. In human terms, the tragedy of the Ramon family has, unfortunately, had many recent parallels. Too many families have been shattered, too many orphans mourn their parents, and too many parents unnaturally grieve for lost children. The last two years have claimed many others, who like Ilan Ramon, possessed exceptional abilities and led exemplary lives.
If we cry more for Ilan Ramon, it is not due to the human dimension of the tragedy. We cry because for 16 days he offered us the possibility of being transported above the daunting reality all around. And now that possibility too has been taken from us. We cry because we read enough about him before the final tragedy to feel that we knew him personally.
We cry because we owed him. Because of Osirik and because of the evident pride he took in being Jewish, which, in turn, made us prouder.
We cry because the Columbia tragedy carries with it the type of visual image that will forever sear it into our collective memory just as the image of men and women throwing themselves off the Twin Towers to certain death below forever seared the horror of September 11 into our brains. That is the image of the Ilan’s wife Rona and their four children staring at the screen charting their father’s return to earth, anticipating the jubilation of his return as a conquering hero, and then suddenly seeing the screen go blank as all contact is lost.
To understand why we cried more this week than for so many of the other human tragedies inflicted upon us, however, is not to suggest we should have cried less. Rather it is to remind us that we should cry more for all those lost. Ilan Ramon would have understood that.