February 24, 2023
Parashat Terumah: In Memory of Colonel Ilan Ramon
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
Parashat Terumah: In Memory of Ilan Ramon
Rabbi Dan Ross
This past Monday, we observed the 20th yahrzeit of Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who along with his six fellow crew members, tragically perished when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003.
Col. Ramon represented the best of Israel, the son of Holocaust survivors who went on to become a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, taking part in the 1981 mission that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
In 1998, he moved to Houston with his family to train as a payload specialist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
And five years later, on January 16, he captured the collective imagination of his home country and the world as he ascended toward the heavens on shuttle mission STS-107.
Fifteen days, 22 hours, 20 minutes, and 32 seconds later, the world watched in horror as live footage of Columbia falling from the sky made manifest that Ramon and his fellow astronauts would not return.
This week’s Torah portion Terumah begins as God tells Moses:
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה
“Speak to the Children of Israel, that they take Me terumah–gifts… ...from every person whose heart is so moved you will take my gifts.”
And as I thought about this verse this week, I found my heart moved by a connection I felt between it words and Col. Ramon’s yahrzeit.
There are many biblical terms for “gift.” But the word used in this verse–terumah–is special among them in that it is derived from the Hebrew root resh-vav-mem, which means “to elevate.”
Terumah were elevated gifts, specifically consecrated for use in service to God.
And in this week’s Torah portion, God’s request for terumah was for the purposes of building the Mishkan, the tabernacle, the sacred structure in which God would dwell among our ancestors as they journeyed through the wilderness.
Rabbi Carole Meyers writes that the Mishkan below was meant to mirror its “heavenly prototype” above.
And for this reason, celestial imagery abounds in the details of its construction.
It is said that from the inside, the golden clasps that held the Mishkan’s cloth coverings together looked like the stars above. And that the seven lamps of the menorah corresponded to the seven planets in the sky.
Considering that this was well before the time of telescopes, our ancestors weren’t that far off.
This week, as I picture the Mishkan in my mind in all its heavenly glory I can’t help but see a space shuttle.
The Mishkan was always supposed to be a bridge between heaven and earth. But for most of our history, travel along this bridge was only possible in one direction.
And then, 20 years ago, Ilan Ramon took terumah with him into space. Space travel is an enterprise in which every kilogram counts. And among the precious few kilograms designated to Ramon for personal items, he elevated with him into orbit:
- A dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe
- A sketch called “Moon Landscape” drawn by a 16-year-old boy who died in Auschwitz
- A microfiche of the Torah presented to him by the president of Israel
- A miniature Torah scroll that survived Bergen-Belsen, given to him by an Israeli physics professor
It’s this last one that really gets me.
Because of course, at the center of our ancestors’ Mishkan at the heart of its Holy of Holies, was the Ark of the Covenant. Our Torah’s first home.
And then Ilan Ramon, in his modern-day Mishkan brought our Torah farther than it had ever gone before, on a journey into the ultimate wilderness. This Torah, which had witnessed the most horrible sights humanity had ever seen.
And about this terumah, Ramon said: “This scroll symbolizes, more than anything, the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”
Cantor Melanie Fine composed a midrash in memory of Ramon and this little Torah. Her midrash traces the scroll’s path from Moses and Mt. Sinai, step by step through the generations. And how she concludes it: “…Though neither [Ramon], nor this Torah, nor his six crewmates, returned to Earth, we can be assured that all seven souls returned to God, who created them, and that the letters of the Torah, written in deep black ink, soared among the stars and cast a heavenly light among all of God’s creations, chanting, ‘The Earth is Adonai’s, and its fullness, the world and those who inhabit it.’ And that somewhere, somehow, in a galaxy far, far away, some extra-terrestrial [b’nei] mitzvah tutor is teaching some extra-terrestrial being [how to chant Torah trope]. [And she teaches her student]: ‘Mercha tipcha munach etnachta…’
That’s how it goes, she says. Trust me. I got it straight from this Torah scroll that came whizzing by me early one morning, much to my surprise.”
Two months after the Columbia disaster, in a story miraculous enough to soften the hearts of even the most hardened cynics, a wet, rumpled pile of papers, emblazoned with the NASA logo, was discovered in a field outside of Palestine, Texas. Ilan Ramon’s diary.
All together, forensic scientists were able to recover and decipher exactly 18 pages of handwritten Hebrew. One of these pages contained the handwritten text of the Shabbat evening Kiddush, fully vocalized, because when he became the first Jew to recite Kiddush in space, Ilan Ramon wanted to be sure to get it right.
Talk about terumah.
Talk about a man who gave from his heart.
Talk about a man whose gifts elevated us all.
Talk about a man whose memory will ever be for a blessing.
 Exodus 25:2
 Carole Meyers, Eskenazi, Dr. Tamara Cohn. The Torah: A Women's Commentary (p. 1171). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.
 Pesikta de Rav Kahana Mandelbaum, 1:3
 Tanhuma, Behaalotecha, 5
 Ilan Ramon quoted in The Jerusalem Post, January 22, 2003, p. 3.