Many of us who have been in Israel in the spring are familiar with the peculiar transition Israeli society undergoes from Yom HaZikaron, a somber day to remember Israel’s fallen soldiers, to Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day that is always an exuberant celebration. There is nothing like this transition that encapsulates the story of the Jewish people. This week I was reminded of a sequence of events thirty years that was the exact opposite. Exultant joy turned into intense national mourning.
Thirty years ago, I was a high school student in Chicago. The victory of the Chicago Bears in Superbowl XX for their first (and still only) Superbowl championship was a momentous and joyous occasion for everyone in the city. That was January 26, 1986. The next day, a typically frigid January day, a boisterous rally celebrated the Bears as players hoisted the Superbowl trophy in Daley Plaza in front of the giant Picasso sculpture. Then, tragedy struck, and joy turned to sorrow.
The next day, January 28, was the 25th Space Shuttle mission. Seven astronauts were on board the Challenger orbiter. They included Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who had answered President Reagan’s call to be the first school teacher space who is now memorialized by the middle school in our neighborhood bearing her name. The crew also included Judith Resnick, the first Jew in space. She had a traditional Conservative upbringing in Akron, OH. Since I served eight years as a rabbi in nearby Cleveland, I can attest that her loss on the Challenger is still felt profoundly by the Jewish community in Northeast Ohio. This week, we also recall the other crew members: Gregory Jarvis; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka.
This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, contains an interstellar, “other worldly” experience: the Israelites encounter God at Mt. Sinai and receive Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The text tells us that their senses were so overloaded they did not want to encounter God directly. They wanted Moses to be their emissary and communicate with God on their behalf. It’s like with the astronauts only a select few who pass the numerous physical and psychological tests are deemed fit to leave the confines of the earth. And then, as we learned from Challenger and later Columbia, sometimes even these extraordinary people don’t make it.
Amidst all the thunder and lightning at Sinai, the rabbis wonder what the Israelites actually heard at Sinai before their senses shut down. Some say they heard God proclaim all ten utterances. Others say that God spoke only the first two, declared in the divine ”Anochi,” “I,” and that Moses added the remaining eight in which God is referred to in the third person. One Hasidic master taught that the Israelites heard only the first letter of the first word (the alef in anokhi). Alef is a silent letter, yet from this letter, the Israelites intuitively understood the rest (Menachem Mendel of Rymanov).
In recalling the seven Challenger astronauts we recall seven lives whom most of us knew only from a distance. And yet, we all intuitively discern the profound level of loss of these outstanding individuals.
In returning to Judy Resnick, rabbinic colleagues of mine were reminiscing online about her Jewish legacy. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former President of the Rabbinical Assembly who served for several years as rabbi of Beth El in Akron, Ohio, remembers Judy who came to shul regularly as a youngster. Though her career brought her away from active religious involvement as an adult, she held her roots and heritage close to her heart. It was recalled that shortly before her first launch in 1984 she was in Akron and paid a visit to Rabbi Abe Feffer , then serving as rabbi of Beth El. She asked him to recite tefillot with her in the chapel as part of her preparations for the launch. In his eulogy after her death, Rabbi Feffer addressed the feeling he had heard voiced by some people that Resnick was “somewhat distant from our people.” He said, “Frankly, when a young American astronaut still calls her father ‘Abba’ and her grandmother ‘Bubbie,’ that astronaut is not too far from our people.
Most of us probably didn’t know Judy Resnick, and yet we did. It was like the Israelites hearing an aleph at Mount Sinai. We got it.
In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, another Conservative rabbi, Kenneth Berger of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa, mused on what the astronauts themselves might have been thinking in their final moments. How did they contemplate the aleph? He gave a prescient sermon the following Yom Kippur that became a viral sensation long before the Internet entered our lives. In the sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts on Challenger who perished earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”
Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.
Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.
In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.
The aleph in Hebrew makes no sound, and yet when we listen intently to it, it contains all the wisdom we need to live as a decent human being. It is a silent sound that says it all. The aleph introduces the Ten Commandments and stands for the values of our tradition that are so precious. The aleph challenges us to live our lives as if we had five minutes to live. As we remember the astronauts who died 30 years ago, let us honor their legacy by living our lives as if we had only five minutes to live and fill each moment with goodness and kindness. May the memory of the astronauts be for a blessing.