February 13, 2003
Our Eternal Light
Parshat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10)
In every generation, there is one special individual whose life and deeds are a living, shining reflection of the Torah's commandment to "bring clear illuminating olive oil to keep the lamp constantly burning." This generation's ner tamid (eternal light) is Col. Ilan Ramon, z"l. My personal story will tell you why I characterize him as an eternal light.
It was Jan. 16, and all day long, my 6-year-old daughter, Shira, went around school telling her friends that her "brother," Ilan, had gone up into space that morning. Shira came to school late that day, because our family sat around the television watching Jewish history being made. What was most exciting to Shira was the fact that the astronaut with the Israeli patch on his shoulder had the same name as her own little brother, Ilan. For the next two weeks, I would ask Shira, "Where's Ilan?" and her answer was, "Daddy, you know he's up in space right now."
Three years earlier, Shira met Ilan Ramon. Our family sat together with him and his wife, Rona, at a brunch honoring Machal veterans from Israel's War of Independence. His wife sat with my wife, Peni. At the time, Peni was pregnant with our son -- whom we would eventually name Ilan. After I introduced Col. Ramon to the gathering as a new hero of Israel, and as a much-needed positive, inspirational role model for today's youth, his opening remarks were, "Rabbi Bouskila, the true heroes of Israel are those seated in this room today, who came from all over the Diaspora to fight for Israel in 1948. They are the heroes that I only heard about growing up in Israel, and today they serve as my inspirational role models. I consider my standing in their presence, as an Israeli pilot and Israel's first astronaut, to be a greater miracle than space travel itself."
Words of humility spoken by a true ambassador of the Jewish people. He then approached my wheelchair-bound father, also a veteran of the 1948 war, grasped his hand and said, "Thank you very much for helping to provide a homeland for me. I will be proud to represent you in space."
Words of respect spoken by a true mensch. His kindness brought tears to my father's eyes. On Feb 1, Ramon's tragic death did the same.
Today, I struggle with my grief for Ramon as the "international hero" and for Ramon as the man who my family and I were privileged to meet, break bread with and get to know personally.
But beyond the grief, I see light. I look up into the vast heavens, and in a world that so often hovers with darkness and evil, I see the eternal flame of Ramon's positive message of goodwill, for Israel and for all of humanity, shining brightly as an inspiration for all of us. I look at Ramon's photograph, and I see a living ner tamid.
Why is olive oil the oil of choice to kindle the ner tamid? Because of its clarity and purity. That is why Ramon was Israel's pilot of choice to represent us in space. Every pilot has 20/20 vision, but Ramon's clarity and vision went far beyond that which the naked eye can see. He had a "spiritual 20/20 vision," which is what made him so different and so unique. Purity? The personal humility and respect for elders that he demonstrated the morning I met him are the ultimate expressions of purity -- purity of character and purity of the heart.
Rashi explains that a true ner tamid is created by "kindling a flame, until the flame rises by itself." Ramon kindled a flame in every Jewish heart that will continue to rise by itself every day, year after year, within the hearts, minds and consciousness of the Jewish people everywhere. A ner tamid is an eternal symbol of light and inspiration. That is Ilan Ramon.
For my daughter, Shira, the name Ilan had special meaning because it is the name of her brother. For all of us, the name Ilan -- Ilan Ramon -- will always have special meaning, because he is our collective brother.
On Jan. 16, our brother, Ilan, went up into space. Two weeks later -- and forever -- his spirit will remain there, as a true ner tamid shining brightly for all of us to see.
God bless you, Ilan, our brother in space.