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A Midrash in Memory of Ilan Ramon z”l

Eulogies and Words of Tribute
Responsa by David Golinkin

Insight Israel

Volume 4, Number 6

February 2004

By Hazzan Melanie Fine

(Copyright 2003 by Hazzan Melanie Fine)

On Shabbat, 29 Shvat, 5763, corresponding to February 1, 2003, Col. Ilan Ramon and his six fellow astronauts died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. One week later, I was scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, California. On Friday night, Hazzan Melanie Fine read aloud a midrash she had written in memory of Ilan Ramon and the other astronauts. I think that she intended the midrash for children, but by the time she finished reading, all of the adults were crying. On Shabbat morning, she read the midrash again and it had the same effect. I asked Hazzan Fine then if I could publish it and she graciously agreed. It is reproduced below with a few minor changes and some references to sources. We hope that this midrash will be read at schools and synagogues throughout the world l’iliu nishmot Col. Ilan Ramon and his fellow crewmates. Yehi zikhram barukh! May their memories be for a blessing!   – Prof. David Golinkin

The story I want to tell you tonight actually began a long, long time ago, in a galaxy not too far away… well, to be exact, in our galaxy.  It began around 3,000 years ago, when Moshe went up to Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) and wrote down the Torah as God instructed him to do. Our story actually begins long before that, but in the interest of time…

It took forty days and forty nights for God to dictate the Torah to Moshe, who diligently took down every word.  God told Moshe that this Torah, and this Torah only, would lead the Jewish people with its wisdom from generation to generation. Sometimes Moshe complained about the exhausting nature of his work.  “Why do I have to put little crowns on all these letters?” he asked God.  “Surely I would be finished much sooner if not for them.”  But God shushed him by telling him about Rabbi Akiva, who, though not yet born, would one day be so good at interpreting God’s Torah, that he would even be able to interpret the crowns on top of the letters.(1)  So Moshe wrote everything down.  And what he didn’t write down, he kept in his head and told to the people down below.  “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me.  I got it straight from God.”

And they taught their children.  And their children taught their children.  And their children taught their children’s children, and so many Jews were teaching so many other Jews that a new profession emerged… that of the bar mitzvah tutor.  And the bar mitzvah tutor taught, as Moshe had taught.  “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me.  I got it straight from my great, great grandfather, who got it straight from Moshe.  Who got it straight from God.”

This Torah traveled with the wandering Israelites from camp to camp, and it resided inside the Ark of the Covenant which was created for this one purpose, while its melodies and its teachings resided in the hearts of the Jews who kept watch over it.  Great power was attributed to the Ark of the Covenant, and woe to those who possessed it against God’s will!(2)  Well, all of you who have seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” know this.

The Torah scroll dictated to Moshe was written on parchment, made from the skin of a kosher animal.  He wrote with a feather from a kosher bird in deep, black ink.  From this Torah, every Torah thereafter was written.  And every Torah thereafter had to be written on parchment, taken from the skin of a kosher animal, written with a feather from a kosher bird, in deep, black ink.(3)  And if Moshe wasn’t available to do the writing himself, then a suitable substitute had to be found… so many laws were written as to the process and the quality of person who was allowed to write a Torah scroll.(4)  And this person, no matter how knowledgeable he was, was never allowed to write a Torah from memory, but he always had to write a Torah from another Torah.(5)  And with every Torah, there was always someone who carried the melodies and teachings in his or her heart as well.  “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me.  I got it straight from my great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather, who got it straight from Moshe.  Who got it straight from God.”

And in difficult times for the Jews, even in times when the Jews weren’t able to keep the Torah close to them, they kept the Torah in their hearts.  And when they were able, they made Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls) from parchment, taken from the skin of a kosher animal, written with a feather from a kosher bird, in deep, black ink.  And it was read to all who could understand.  And bar mitzvah tutors taught the Torah to their students.  “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me. I got it straight from my great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather.  Who got it straight from Moshe.  Who got it straight from God.”

And when they came for the Jews in the middle of the twentieth century, one such scroll was smuggled into Bergen-Belsen in Northwestern Germany, the same camp that housed Anne Frank.  A tree of life to them who hold fast to it, this Torah was.(6)  Not a very large Torah as Torahs go.  A large Torah probably would have been noticed.  But this Torah was smuggled into the camp by a rabbi from Amsterdam, who did not live to see it freed from Bergen-Belsen, but brought this gift of life to his fellow inmates anyway, and gave this gift of life to a 13-year-old boy whom he taught: “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me. I got it straight from my great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather.  Who got it straight from Moshe.  Who got it straight from God.”(7)

And, at the end of the war, when this 13-year-old was freed from Bergen-Belsen, he took this little Torah, this gift of life, and traveled far, far away to help found a new country… well, a very ancient, new country.  A country named for its people, Yisrael, a people who struggle with God.(8)  And this young boy had already struggled so much with God.  And he studied as much science as he could, and learned as much about God’s world as he could, to the extent that he even became a professor of planetary physics.  And he worked with a young Israeli, who was too young to have survived the Holocaust, but whose mother survived Auschwitz, and whose father fought for Israel’s independence.  And this young Israeli took this Torah, the same Torah which had been a gift of life to the inmates of Bergen-Belsen, which had traveled from Amsterdam, which was scribed by a sofer fully versed in the Torah and in the laws of making a Torah scroll, which was made from parchment taken from the skin of a kosher animal, written with a feather from a kosher bird, in deep, black ink, just as Moshe had done, and which had been taught to student after student ever since: “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me. I got it straight from my great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather, who got it straight from his great, great grandfather.  Who got it straight from his great, great grandfather.  Who got it straight from Moshe.  Who got it straight from God.”

He took this Torah up into space, for to him, “This scroll symbolizes, more than anything, the ability of the Jewish people to survive everything, including horrible periods, and go from darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”(9)

And though neither he, 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 (10) 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.”(11) And that somewhere, somehow, in a galaxy far, far away, some extra-terrestrial bar mitzvah tutor is teaching some extra-terrestrial being: “Mercha tipcha munach etnachta, mercha tipcha mercha sof pasuk.  That’s how it goes.  Trust me. I got it straight from this Torah scroll that came whizzing by me early one morning, much to my surprise.”

And that’s where Moshe interrupted God:  “You really expect me to believe this story?  That one day, human beings are going to ascend to your holy mountain, that they’ll actually fly into space, like the angels?”  And God shushed him: “Moshe, my dear boy.  After I freed you from Egypt, split the Red Sea, provided manna for you in the wilderness, when are you going to learn? With God, all things are possible!”

Notes

  1. See Menahot 29b.
  2. See I Samuel, Chapters 5-6.
  3. See Yoreh Deah 271: 1, 6, 7.
  4. Ibid. 281.
  5. Ibid. 274:2.
  6. See Proverbs 3:18.
  7. The Rabbi was Rabbi Dasberg of Amsterdam and the 13-year-old boy was Prof. Joachim Joseph of Tel Aviv University, one of the two lead scientists in charge of the Israeli experiment on the Columbia – see The Jerusalem Post Magazine, February 21, 2003, p. 7.
  8. See Genesis 32:28.
  9. Ilan Ramon quoted in The Jerusalem Post, January 22, 2003, p. 3.
  10. See the story of the death of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon in Avodah Zarah 18a.
  11. Psalms 24:1.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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